Because we didn't get the call for his acceptance into the preschool until Sunday evening, I got to follow him into Rainbow Lane. Mrs. Fryman had asked me to come early, not just to fill out the necessary paper work, but also to help Ridge get a feel for the place. He has, after all, never been without me or his father.
The other students started filing into the building, some with eager smiles pulled from one side of their faces to the other, some crying anxious pleas for their parents. Ridge just sat on the bench, watching his new classmates stream by him. I snuck into the front and finished his paper work. With a concert of childhood noises in my ear, I walked out of the building, away from my son, the student.
I've spent the last week trying to muster up enough gumption to write about Shelby Ford, his life and his death and his family that the great bulk of Western Oklahoma, myself included, have grown to adore. For those of you reading this who aren't from this neck of the woods, Shelby was a 33-year-old family man whose life was cut tragically short in a violent crash in Major County. Another Elk City man, Denton Wood, 22, the son of two well-known educators, was also in the vehicle with Shelby and continues to fight his critical injuries in the hospital.
As I drove away from Rainbow Lane Tuesday morning, Shelby's parents, Gary and Lou Ford, consumed my thoughts. When you grow up in a small town, often the same small town your parents and your grandparents were also raised in, you form rich, intertwining relationships with those who live and work around you.
Our lives are always at an intersection, crossing each other over and over again. On this day, I was sending my oldest son to school for the very first time as Lou Ford was preparing to lay her oldest son to rest. I tried to push that thought out, but I couldn't.
Gary Ford and his business partner John Edwards have been my eye doctors my entire life. One time in the 6th grade, Charlie Atteberry wrote on my eyeball with a dry erase marker (I swear). Gary shook his head and told us both that this was, in fact, a first for him. Their office is right behind the Pizza Hut I slung pizzas at for about a decade. Although there were many customers I truly loved, Gary and Lou Ford were at the top of that list.
When they would walk through the door with their family, each waitress would storm the door, tripping each other for the chance to wait on them. I'm sure their dependable good tips helped that, but their friendly demeanor is really what made us love them so.
Of course, I was also motivated by my teenage crush on Shelby. He was a cute, older boy who always smiled when I asked for his drink order. I haven't told many people about that, so let's keep that between us.
The Ford's oldest child, Toye, is the mother of two of the most well-behaved children we ever had in the restaurant. I could see she mothered her children the same way Lou had mothered her. The family baby, Ty, was only a year younger than me in school. Given our shared flare for the ornery, Ty and I have always been a bit like birds of a feather. Although my sister can aggravate me more than perhaps any other person on the globe, she also understands me more than just about anyone else. She knows where I came from, for she comes from the same place. I cannot imagine losing her and, for that, my heart is broken for Toye and Ty.
When I moved to Cheyenne to be with Rowdy, Shelby was living somewhere else. When he returned home, I was out here. It's not that far from Elk City, but I can still go months or even years without running into someone I've known forever. So, I guess for that reason I've never met his wife Patty. But, I know that she picked Shelby and he picked her. That in itself tells me that she is great. They shared two very small children, Avery and Cooper. I cannot begin to put a name on the emotions Patty must be feeling right now. While she is managing her own grief, she will have to find a way to explain to her babies how much their father loves them, even though he's not physically there. Just the thought of those conversations makes my heart tremble.
I dropped off food at the Ford's last Saturday. At least a block before I got to their house, vehicles lined both sides of their road. Their yard was littered with other townsfolk, flocking together in grief. I didn't stay long. I didn't want to be in the way.
As I told Gary and Lou to call upon us if they needed anything, Gary wrapped a firm embrace around me for several minutes. Lou grabbed my hands and said, "Shonda, there isn't anywhere else I would rather go through this than in Elk City, Oklahoma."
Gary shook his head. So did I. Their pain is for the loss of their son, for the loss of the father to their grandchildren and my pain for them. When you grow up in a small community, you have this very acute sense that we are all in this together. When you read about a fatal car accident in the newspaper, you can't just put it down and walk away. Whether they are a close friend or the familiar face from a business you frequent, you know them or you know someone who knows them. We are all interconnected and our lives intersect.
Or, as my friend Derek wrote in his newspaper, the one I contribute to:
This is about our community. Any community, really. The people you live with and laugh with and argue with and cry with....
In a town this size, our communities may not all be the same. Whether because of different churches, different friends, different-aged kids, different jobs -- we all move in different circles within this big circle that is our town.
But those circles all touch and bump together and overlap. We are all connected. We all need someone to be happy with when we are happy and to be sad with when we are sad. We all need someone to fill our pain.
I decided not to attend Shelby's funeral. I was helping my aunt at her cafe, as I will be doing each Tuesday and Thursday. Her daughter Cookie also works for her. Cookie and Shelby graduated together, so it seemed more fitting that I stay at the restaurant while they attended. Plus, to be honest, I just couldn't bring myself to see Gary and Lou hurt like that. I still can't stand the thought of it.
I picked Ridge up a few hours after I dropped him off. He bounced in the pick-up, excited artifacts tumbling from his lips before I could even say hello. In his hands were papers he had created on his first day. To you, it might seem like random scribbles, but to me, his momma, they were nothing short of DiVinci masterpieces.
Then I dropped him off at Mollie's and went back to the Hog Trough for a few more hours. Throughout the day, the Ford family would pop back up in my mind, especially Lou. I know her pain is no more or no less than any other member of that family, but as a mother, I was overwhelmed by the reality she faces. I thought of Ridge's first day of school, the way he jumped in the pick-up invigorated by his new friends, and I know that those same memories from Shelby's childhood will periodically flash into her mind.
I think time is a funny thing. Huge, rolling blocks of it will pass with few changes and then, out of nowhere, in a split second, in the bat of an eye, your entire existence is changed. The conception of a child is that way, so is the loss of one.
As I put my boys to bed Tuesday night, I ran my fingers through their hair, realizing the blessing I have in being their mother. Not just a mother, their mother. They are the same and different all at once. I read to them a little longer than I normally do that night and I have each night since. I'm sure with the busy hustling of life that will soon fade. I hope it doesn't, but I'm sure it will. Even in this tragedy, the Fords have continued giving to our community. And, that's Shelby's and Lou's gift to me.