Wednesday, September 06, 2006

full stop

stop sign with bullet holes -- red desert, WY by b1-66er

Most of my hours behind the steering wheel have been logged west of the Mississippi, which I never thought meant much until I moved east of the Mississippi.

The North and the South have got nothing on the cultural differences between Westerners and Midwesterners.

Stopping is one of those things that are done differently, depending upon which side of the mighty Miss you spend your time. Once you’re west of the river, if you happen to be driving within an area where traffic is sparse and people are few, you’re generally allowed what’s known as a “California stop” – that is, a gentle coast and glide up to the stop sign, a brief pause where you get a good look at the road to the left and the right of you, but never quite completely stop, before you move through the stop sign.

Maybe some westerners will disagree, but the California stop was so much a part of the driving culture of my family, that I was cautioned strongly to “come to a full and complete stop” by my father when I saddled up to take the driver’s license test. For his part, he never did. That I ever saw.

I married a careful Midwestern driver, and my lax western ways behind the wheel pretty much make him crazy. I do what I can to conform to keep the peace, but the habits of my ancestors run deep and are hard to shake.

Three years ago on Labor Day weekend we got a phone call that changed everything. It was one of those late night calls that you know are up to no good as soon as you hear the phone ring at 11.30. My father had collapsed during a hike through Utah’s Red Rock Canyon wilderness, had been airlifted to a trauma center in Grand Junction, Colorado, and wasn’t expected to live.

The nurses weren’t committing to that diagnoses, of course – all they would say was: “If you want to see your father again you should come right now.”

So we did. All four kids with family in tow, his mother, sister, girlfriend, ex-wife and ex-mother-in-law converged on Grand Junction within the next twelve hours.

He was barely alive, and stayed that way for a good week. By a stroke of good luck the physician assigned to my father was Dr. Honeycutt, an army doc who had left the military just the month before for an easy retirement at St. Mary’s, who knew trauma like nobody’s business, and saved my father’s life.

But it was a good week before we began to suspect that he might live, and a good month before we knew that things had a chance of being normal again – by then his kidneys and liver, which appeared to have given up the ghost earlier – had returned to him and started functioning again. And the infection that felled him on the hiking trail in the first place seemed to have abated (it would flare up again about a year later, but gratefully was beaten back into submission).

During those weeks I spent the days with my family just being there – which is really all you can do when someone you love is knocked flat like that. Just show up and be there, for as long as you need to be. I did my crying at night, in the dark, in the strong arms of my Midwestern boy, he of the full stops, who knows the value of good tight hug when you feel like your whole insides have exploded and spread across the heavens, and there’s no hope of getting them all back inside. Ever.

About three days into the worst of it, we needed to travel to Bluff, Utah, where my father had left his car at his buddy’s place before they headed out for the hike, because my dad’s girlfriend needed the car to get around. (She had been burying her mother in Michigan when the accident occurred, and arrived like us at the bedside, dazed and terrified, within the first twelve hours.)

The three of us – me, my sweetie, and my father’s sweetie, Cookie, a Michigan girl who has been thoroughly converted to Western ways – piled into our rental car and started the trek, covering the distance that my father had covered a few days earlier in a helicopter, counting down the miles through the far western edge of Colorado, through Moab, Utah and on to Bluff; feeling the remoteness of the surroundings, thinking of him lying there in the severe heat of the canyon area, unable to move, suffering from heat exhaustion and who knew what else (at this point they still didn’t know what laid him flat) while he waited two hours for help to come.

I spent most of that drive wondering if my father would ever wake up.

So it was a sober drive. Which is where the stop sign comes in.

After many hours we pulled into Bluff, Utah – a simmering caldera where very few people try to live. Cookie was the navigator – she knew where the house was -- “Straight to the end of this road and then left,” she said, as my darlin’ companion approached a stop sign. In the middle of nowhere. Not a soul in sight. Lacking only tumbleweed to make the scene complete. He slowed to a stop.

Cookie repeated herself: “Straight ahead. You need to go straight--- a--- head.” She turned and looked at our driver – utter confusion on her face -- trying to figure out what was happening. Why our forward progress had been frustrated. Why, for god’s sake, we were STOPPPING.

Then she looked up, and saw the stop sign; looked back to my sweetie, then to me, then back to the stop sign.

And laughed. Like cool water in the desert.

I laughed with her. And our good Midwestern boy shook his head, knowing that he had the situation under control, knowing there was no good reason to laugh at that: a stop sign is a stop sign is a stop sign.

And I knew that I could count on those steady ways in the dark when the laughter was gone and the tears had come again.

[Photo credit: b1-66er]


heather lorin said...

I can so picture this ;)

litwit said...

Oh that's lovely.

Anali said...

Beautiful story!

Friendly Joe said...

Your writing just flows beautifully.

I'm a midwestern boy too, but full stops?


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