Mom said don’t come. He hadn’t woken up from the anesthesia, no. They were still waiting, but you don’t need to come. That night, standing in line at airport security, wired like a cat in a cold rain and praying not to cry to the TSA agent, I pulled my boarding pass from my jeans pocket. I could feel the woman with heat-rolled, pearly white hair, wearing a fake red polo and security badge, inch her way toward me as I waited. When she made it near enough to my place in line, she leaned over the ribbon of rope.
“Honey, you OK?”
I knew airport security was going to expose me for the mess I was, but I was surprised how fast the judgment came. Thinking I must appear troubled enough to set shoes on fire or spray the air with bullets, I shared more than I wanted to share with this woman who brought attention I didn’t ask for. I wanted to say something snarky, but I only stated the truth.
“I’m heading to Alabama to visit my dad in the hospital.”
As I spoke, I noticed the sensation that someone had cinched a thick hemp rope around my neck, shutting off part of my wind, strangling me but also helping me hold back the sobs rocking inside my chest.
“He went into heart surgery three days ago and has not woken up.”
Her face was frozen. Her eyes bulged, reminding me of a Baz Luhrmann Strictly Ballroom character. Her hair flashed a wave of light.
“Your dad had a stroke. Don’t worry, my dear. The angels are with him now. God will take care of him.”
She smiled an enormously inappropriate smile, gave me a knowing look, and squeezed my freezing, rigid hand like a giddy schoolgirl who had just spied her favorite crush. Then she walked away. It was weird. It was super-freaky weird, and the bizarreness of it gave me a buzz, perhaps because I stand in awe of the ecstatic faithful. I proceeded to show my driver’s license and boarding pass to the agent, eyes dry, before taking off my shoes and tossing them into a bin. Once on the other side of the conveyor belt, I felt a little more nuts and a little less sad as I settled in at a table near Vintage Washington for salad and a glass of wine. I opened The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I would read it from cover to cover before the tires of my plane met the tarmac in Atlanta. It felt ominous, this story of a man and his son on a journey through a burning, fallow, and broken landscape, death and hunger present in every scene. I flip back through its pages and remember the intense sense of being present in the narrative when I encountered this:
You have to carry the fire.
I don’t know how to.
Yes, you do.
Is the fire real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.
I was in a heightened state. Every word of every page felt like a message from another world. During that plane ride, I lost all sense of fear. I was not of my body.
I have no recollection of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, but I know it was my “half-unit,” Martha, who picked me up some time close to midnight and drove me the 100 miles home. As she pulled onto the highway, she said her father, a doctor, wasn’t worried about dad. I wanted to believe he knew something I didn’t know, but I suspected he was exercising the power of positive thinking. Dad was floating and not coming back. When we got to the house, Martha and I sipped on mint tea and caught up on mundane things until the light broke just barely blue and she drove back the 100 miles for work. I remember a long tight Martha hug. As soon as her headlights disappeared southward, I slinked quietly to the back of the house to find my mother sleeping. Translucent sheer curtains billowed into her room from the gentle breeze coming through door-size screens. I recalled the ghost I dreamed about as a child, the ghost living on the other side of the sliding glass. In my recurring dream I would poke it with a stick and watch as its center moved in eddies. Childhood was suddenly reduced to this vaporous instant of fear and fascination. I would not sleep while waiting for the phone call that came from the hospital that morning. I would lie in bed, suspended in what felt like an endless chamber of spider webs, hyper-conscious, feeling without thinking the soft beats of my racing heart.