The date on the calender was December 4, 2003. Rowdy and I had spent the previous afternoon in Oklahoma City selling cattle and shopping for wedding bands. I know what you're thinking, well those two freakin' things go hand-and-hand. The cattle sold, but we found no luck in finding the ring that tickled my fancy. As we drove west, back toward the open prairies of our Western Oklahoma home, we made the impromptu decision to pull into Weatherford, a cozy town halfway between the big city and the vast openness that was ours. Lyndi lived there and her spare bedroom had hosted us more than one night. My in laws had bought their wedding set at a jewelry store there, so we wanted to give it a gander. I woke up early the following morning and did something I rarely did -- I called in sick. My boss, who doubles as my mother's big sister, didn't question the validity of my ailments. I think she knew I was trying to snap that ole' ball-and-chain on poor Rowdy's ankle. And since she'd be convinced for the better part of my life that I was a lesbian or would morph into some old spinster, I think she was honestly relieved that he was gonna make an honest woman of me at the ripe old age of 22.
We weren't in the jewelry store long before THE one jumped out at me, there from the corner. She was a three-stoned princess-cut beauty atop a platinum band. The never-ending quest had somehow ended. We returned to Lyndi's empty house while the Paige Jewelers sized the rings and celebrated in way only appropriate to do in your friend's house if you just officially became engaged.
As we picked up the treasure and pulled back onto the interstate, I knew in my heart this would be a day I would never forget. I just didn't know why. No more than three minutes into our drive, my cell phone rang. It was my mother and she was frantic. Just 2 short months prior to this, her father had suffered a stroke. His condition had improved and we had reasons to be optimistic, but he had yet to return to vibrant, order-obsessed, loving Mr.Fix-It he had been my entire life. With a blink of an eye, it seemed, he had grown old and frail.
When I answered my mother's call, her voice was soft, but her words were quick. Her father, my Grandpa Don, had died at a hospital in Clinton, a town we had happened to be driving towards, a town only 5 minutes from where we were. An aneurysm in his heart had taken his life in a brief and savage instant. He was gone.
As I walked into the room, a collection of my closest relatives, my mother and her siblings and a few of their children, were gathered around him and his wife, my widowed grandmother. I touched his warm body as my shivering tears landed, drop by drop, upon his lifeless chest. It was absolutely the most unreal thing I have ever lived through, as though I was living in some parallel universe and everything around me was merely a dream.
My Uncle Kent, the oldest of my mother's two brothers, lives an hour away, but somehow had beat us there. I suppose time can be cosmic in that way. On several occasions, I have tried to think of a time before that day that I saw him weep. And I don't mean eyes watering a bit, I mean struggling for air sobs. But, on that day, five years ago today, I did. Overcome with emotion, he sat in the adjoining bathroom while his mournful wails bounced off the hospital walls.
Sometimes it seems almost foreign to me that he's been gone five years, that in his absence I have become a wife and a mother. My cousins and my sister have as well. And then at other times, it feels like a dream, that he's been there all along. Sometimes I wonder if he was ever real at all. His life ended before either of my sons' lives started and that in itself constricts my heart.
But mostly, when I think of his passing, I mourn for my mother and my aunt and my uncles. While I don't see my mom's brothers too often, I do see her and her sister frequently. As time as passed, I've witnessed their pain evolve from a sharp hurt that seemed to almost stop many of their days into a dull and constant acceptances. And in many ways, I think the latter may even be worse. At least when his death still took their breath away, he seemed within their reach. Now he is just gone.
He was my mother's confidant, her greatest adviser. I can see that, when she faces a great obstacle, she longs for his opinion. As I've watched my mother struggle to accept his death, I have learned that she never will accept it, at least not in the way we typically view the word "accept." It is there, it is real and that is all it ever can be for her. Alas, she has stopped trying to make sense of it and I think she healthier for that. No matter how many years pass between her and the last time she touched his skin, she will never stop missing him. He is always there, in the low hum of radiators he worked on all his life or in the gentle breeze that blows over the wheat fields of his youth.