The nice thing about driving at dawn is that Mom is always up before I am, so I called and talked with her about the trip and a little about the wedding weekend. She told me she was driving down to bring my flowers to a preservation place, and could we get lunch? Perfect, I said. I have a meeting at 9:30 and another at 1, but if you can go late, then that's great! Mom said Dad might come, too, to which he replied that he wasn't feeling well and probably wouldn't make it. Fortuitous words, indeed.
I arrived at the office around 8:15, buzzing about speaking to everyone about the half of the ceremony that the priest forgot, the beauty of the beaches, and how nice it was to be back, if only for a day. Staff meeting came and went and, right before 1 pm, the second meeting was cancelled. I called Mom then dashed over to meet her at the flower place.
We hugged, dropped off the flowers, and grabbed lunch. She mentioned that Daddy wasn't feeling well, that his meds for the laryngitis he caught over the weekend had upset his stomach, but that he told her to go on and go. I'll be fine, he said. Mom called to check on him during lunch. Better, he said. Just resting.
Mom and I hugged again and I dashed back to work full of sweet tea, a black cocktail dress that she'd found for me on sale, and the cheer a lunch with Mom brings. I got reorganized, ready to rejoin the working world, and caught up with coworkers a little more.
Then the phone rang. 5:02. First Mom. Lloyd called. Dad's at the hospital. Something's wrong. I think this might be it. I cut her off. Mom, Dad's calling me right now. Let me get it. But I missed the call. I called back three times before I got an answer.
"Who is this?" the voice asked.
"This is A, and this is my Dad's phone. Who are you? Where is he?" I demanded, my voice rising in the office.
"An ambulance took your Dad to the hospital," he replied. "I'm with the sheriff's department and I need to know how to secure your home before I can leave it."
"Is he ok? What happened?" I asked as coworkers began to gather behind my desk.
"I wasn't here, ma'am." he replied. "I just need to lock the house."
I told him I'd call back and got off the phone to call Mom. It wasn't Dad. It was the sheriff.
I called him back and told him to lock up and close the door behind him. He offered to turn on lights, so people wouldn't know the house was empty, apparently a big problem with leaving in an ambulance: People know you're alone.
5:10 Mom, where are you? I'm coming over. Thankfully, she was visiting with her Mother, who lives only two miles from where I work.
En route, I called B, who was still at the office his first day of work. I couldn't get him and called his house, sobbing to his Mother that something was wrong with my Dad. B beeped in. Something's wrong with Daddy. I'm meeting Mom in a few minutes. Let me call you when I know something. No, don't start driving yet.
Got to Grandma's. Picked up Mom, plus two cokes. How can a mouth be this dry? she asked.
We got in the car and started driving, calling everyone we knew to crowd the silence out of the car. Lloyd called frequently with updates from the hospital. The speedometer inched upwards with each refrain; I could only hear Mom's side: What did they say? ... Can they keep him alive until we got there? ... Oh God, he's gone. ... Please don't let them move him until I can see him. ... I have to see him.
Is that it? I asked Mom, willing her to tell me that there was hope, a reason to keep inching toward 80 on the back roads of Alabama.
No, sweetie. He's gone. She said.
The phone calls changed from frantic to somber. I let the car inch back down to 65. The fact that there was no longer a reason to hurry, to rush, that there was nothing, no one, waiting for us on the other side of the road trip was devastating. Instead of driving home, it now felt more like driving into reality.
Mom and I arrived at the hospital, where we were greeted in the parking lot by two doctors, friends of Dad's, along with a few members from the church. We prayed and then walked in, turning into a room where Dad was waiting for us. Is he... tubes... was all I could say. No, one of the doctors replied. He looks just like he always did.
And he did. There was Dad, looking as if he was napping in his bed, only instead of wearing his trademark gray sweatshirt or red hoodie, he now sported a rough hospital gown. Mom reached for his hand. I couldn't. Everywhere I looked for signs. The clock was still ticking, not stopped at any particular minute or hour. The machines registered no heartbeats or breath, for they stood alone in the corner. A trash can filled with gloves and packaging, but nothing else. Too clean, too normal.
The doctor called us out. Did everything we could. The room was filled with the doctors and nurses with which he'd worked years before. His organs are gone, but his corneas are still good.
I didn't ask what time he died, but found out later that it was 5:45 pm. Mom had spoken with him at 2:13, meaning he'd had to call the ambulance at about 2:45. He said he was feeling better, that he'd see her when she got home. Did he know then? Was he protecting us?
Mom and I left the hospital and headed home where we found that the sheriff had left every light on in the house, even the ones in the showers and a few shining on the deck that we'd forgotten about. Later my sister would say, "How fitting that the man who would string the front yard with at least 600 strands of Christmas lights would leave home with the house ablaze."
We got home and I checked the house, fearfully expecting to find signs of anything. Blood or twisted sheets. Instead, we found only an unmade bed and a phone among the pillows.
Mom stayed up calling people until well after 10 pm, neither of us settling until around 1 am, when Mom finally climbed into her bed to rest, if not sleep. I showered upstairs, then joined her, like I used to do when I was scared. Tomorrow was a big day.