Dad liked to drive with the windows open. Not just in summer when the air conditioning was being fickle, but in winter too. On sunny days. At night. In rain. He’d crank the heat on his feet and let the breeze blow through his hair. As a kid in the backseat I hated it. The air coming in the window was cold at the best of times. It blew my hair into my face, and drowned out the music coming through my headphones. The smell of cow manure, or skunk would leak in and poison the oxygen. I would demanded he put the window up, and he’d shout “what!?” pretending not to hear me over the wind coming in from outside. Eventually he’d get sick of the complaining and he’d roll it halfway up, until he thought I’d stopped paying attention, then it’d go all the way down again so he could rest his arm on the door.
I got older, got my license, and no longer had to ride in the backseat of my dad’s GMC. Sitting in the driver’s seat, with all the controls, I could do whatever I wanted.
It’s late August, and I roll the windows down. The evening air is chilly on my skin, and I put the heat on low, and go for a drive. Turns out he was onto something, my dad. The hot air fills the car like a protective shield against the world, and the cool air from outside keeps the sweat at bay. It’s a perfect balance.
I drive downtown. It’s nice to be alone.
And then it’s an hour later and the road is winding around a familiar bend. Past the miniature horse farm. Past Clint and Cathy’s, then Amy’s, and I can see the Murphy’s up ahead. My house is the next one. I should hit the breaks. But I don’t. I keep driving. Past the curving uphill driveway. The dirt potholes at the bottom, and the green mailbox with the little American flag zip tied to it. The trees wizz past, just a blur of green as I push harder on the accelerator. At the fork in the road I stay to the right, cruising over the town line.
The same scene keeps playing over in my head. My aunt answering the door. Mom and Emily in the kitchen. Everyone’s eyes watery and red. A cube of watermelon in my hand, and sticky juice from it dripping down my fingers as I heard the words. It’s your dad. The lump in my throat. Unable to eat. The words that left my mouth. That doesn’t make sense. Mom’s lower lip trembling. Her arms reaching for me. The tears that slipped from my eyes. No sobs. Just tears on an emotionless face. Mom’s hands around me. The call to my brother. Mom crying. My aunt answering the door. The kitchen. Red eyes. Watermelon. Dad. Tears. Mom crying.
I turn up the music. “Tiny Dancer” is playing on repeat. I let Elton John drown out the thoughts. Oh how it feels so real, lying here with no one close. Only you. And you can’t hear me.
There’s a man standing in the road at his mailbox. Wearing jeans and a white shirt, barefoot. He’s glaring at me. “Slow Down!” he mouths aggressively. I swerve over the yellow line as I go around him. Out of guilt I switch my foot over to the brake and watch the speedometer drop to 40 mph.
I turn down the next street, Bennet Road, and circle back toward my house. I should go home. It’s getting close to a meal time now. Not that I’d be missing a big dinner by not going home. None of us would be hungry, we just eat because we know we’re supposed to. It’s a habit we’ve fallen into, picking at the leftovers in the fridge whenever the clock strikes noon or six. I don’t enjoy being home, or being with Mom. But when I leave I feel like that’s where I should be.
My dad died. He just stopped existing in the world. He wasn’t sick. He wasn’t old. One day, out of nowhere, his heart stopped beating.
I drove mom home from my aunt’s house after she told me about the heart attack. I didn’t ask her how she was doing. Her husband was dead. The person she had built a future with wasn’t around to see that through anymore. She didn’t ask me how I was doing. I was replaying the last hour in my head. The going to the door, the red eyes, watermelon, Dad, tears. I was trying to look in control as I drove. My hands were at ten and two. My bottom lip was trembling, and every so often I’d wipe my eyes to make my vision less blurry. Mom didn’t say anything to me for the whole forty-five minutes. She made a phone call to her brother, or Alex. Someone. And I listened to her talk about what happened. It must have been the fifth time she’d told the story.
He was cutting wood. He came in for a break. He wasn’t feeling well. He didn’t drink all of his gatorade. He laid down on the couch. He asked her to bring him to the hospital. He had a heart attack outside the emergency room, and another one inside. He was alive that morning when I left the house. I said good bye and he told me to put gas in the car. And then my mom left the hospital alone.
I think when someone dies, people are afraid to leave the grieving alone. My mom hasn’t left the house at all since that night I drove her home. Aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors brought food and company and talked and laughed and tried to make things feel normal. But things aren’t normal, and what I want above all else is for people to leave me alone. I don’t want to answer questions like “How are you doing?” because I don’t have an answer. How am I doing? I’m alive.
When I pull up the driveway there’s three cars there. Everyone’s home, I think. It’s a habit, seeing whose car is in the driveway. But then I remember. The white truck doesn’t have anyone to drive it and the only people who are home are Mom and Emily. And I feel like leaving all over again. It’s a sharp pain in my stomach. The thought of oh shit, this is really happening.
I park and I turn up Elton John, just a little bit, letting his words lull me into calmness. Letting him assure me that I am understood. Now you’re in me. Always with me, Elton sings. Maybe Dad’s in me, but he’s not here and I don’t feel any less alone.
I think maybe Dad felt trapped in a sealed up car. He needed the windows open to feel at least a little free. I think, for the first time, I really understand that. I wish I could roll down the windows on life to let in a little air to breath.