For Frank

One man ran one red light & everything changed forever

Born in Mobile Alabama, my ex-wife (from here on -X) and I are now in our mid-thirties, two careers, two dogs, no kids, and had prepared to move back.  We would again be Mobilians. Or at least, that was the plan…

Growing up in Mobile, I lived in one house, in one bedroom, until I was eighteen.  But since finishing high school in 1992, I have moved twenty times.  I have never stayed anywhere longer than two years.  As a child, chaos is a thing oppressing you.  There is no escape.  As an adult, you throw your stuff in a truck and leave.  I embraced the road.  I would not be defined or confined by any community.  Certainly not Mobile.  And as an aspiring writer, I thought I should be a citizen of the world.

Our mothers still live in Mobile.  That’s how X and I reconnected after six years apart.  We dated in high school and then again in college in Birmingham.  We ended our roller-coaster-romance without much ado.  But six years later, when my father died, my mother told her mother in the neighborhood grocery store.  So X sent me a letter.  Mobile has a grapevine twice the speed of email.  At the time, I was living in Virginia and my ex-wife was in Oregon.  One letter turned into two, which turned into emails, which turned into stomach butterflies and flights across the country.

When I started a writing program in California, X moved down from Oregon and joined me.  We got married barefoot on the beach at Lake Tahoe with no one but the minister and the dog.  Our mothers had mixed feelings about it, but everyone came around in the end.  How can we have a traditional wedding, we asked?  X’s step-father was my father’s attorney when he divorced my mother.  I have two half-brothers in Seattle who I don’t speak to.  I have a grandmother who is so confined by her own self-imposed schedule she did not attend my father’s -her son’s- funeral.  How can we possibly have a traditional wedding?  Mobile is the sort of place where everyone knows everything about everyone.  Gossip is required.  Imagine all the thirteen year old girls you have known.  Imagine all the clicks and outcasts and the impenetrable hierarchy.  Now throw that idea over an entire city like a blanket.  You are imagining Mobile.

So we didn’t have a wedding.  But we flew to Mobile for an engagement party, for Christmas, for the various reasons that seemed to pop up every few months.  When I graduated we decided to move back to the southeast, but not Mobile.  Never.  We wouldn’t even consider it.  My father had been the town drunk of sorts and X’s father was (and is) a reclusive gambling addict (we assume -no one knows).  There was no future in Mobile.  Everything in Mobile was past.  My great grandfather founded a shipbuilding company there and made a fortune.  But after his son was killed in the war and my father drank his life away, the fortune was gone.  My father willed what was left to his fourth wife.  I have a brother who lives in Birmingham with his wife and two impossibly adorable girls.  They have formed their own community.  They have defined themselves apart from Mobile (and good for them!).  I don’t know anything about my half-brothers.

X and I committed to leaving California and starting new lives in a new town.  We would not be defined by a place.  In an effort to be close, but not too close, we moved to Tennessee.  The moving truck broke down twice in the desert.  The rental house was a mildew circus.  Jobs were not forthcoming.  My book had not sold.

Then the phone rang.

X’s brother had been admitted to the emergency room and was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer.  Everything went on hold, a constant state of panic, for two and half years.  Weekend after weekend after weekend up and down the highway.  But for the last 6 weeks, when he had decided to stop treatment, we stayed in Mobile with him.  With his wife.  With X’s parents. We all lived under one roof.  We acted as nurses and housekeepers and medical experts and drunks and fools.  We did everything we were told to do, and we guessed our way through the rest.  Our friends and family, our community, had orchestrated to bring a prepared meal to our door every afternoon at 3pmsharp. It is a powerful thing to see so many friendly faces rise together to stand by your side.  Never mind the gossip and history.  Like it or not, we were connected.

On Christmas day, we knew it was close.  We all piled into his room for the night.  At 2am, I could hear his very slow, very shallow breathing.  I shot around the room, waking everyone.  We crowded the bed and told him we loved him and that everything was all right.  His face, deeply jaundiced, went from pained to peaceful as he died.

So, as people do, we began to reevaluate everything.  Tennessee hadn’t worked out, and now we were living in Georgia.  We had lost a cat and added a dog.  My best friend drowned in a freak accident.  My book was still unsold.  Life was moving on, but not comfortably.  At night, we sat on the couch and drank too much wine and talked about what the word home meant.

We asked ourselves, what are we doing here?

We dropped down to Mobile for a weekend, I forget the occasion, when I bumped into an old friend.  She said the local high school, the one I attended for 13 years, was looking for a new teacher.  She said I’d be perfect.  She said Mobile was on the rebound.  My mother-in-law was clutching X, both pairs of eyes held a look of extreme exhaustion and beautiful hope all at once, and everything I needed at the time to know (if I’d only known…) was right there in front of me.

I had looked forward to driving the moving truck down the highway.  I had looked forward to taking the exit ramp down to our new, old street and parking in the shell driveway.  Maybe my book would sell, maybe it wouldn’t.  Maybe I’d write a different book.  It didn’t matter.  I had looked forward to spending my days teaching at the old high school and sitting up nights on the front porch with X and thinking, here we are. This is where we are.  This is who we are.

So we moved to Mobile. We got ourselves settled into the house X’s grandfather built. And we even sat on the porch and thought we would enjoy our new lives in the town we had grown up in. Had dogs in our backyard, made friends with our neighbors, anticipated my teaching job at my old high school that stood 15 minutes away. We waited patiently for our lives to begin.

And then a man ran a red-light. A man I have never met.  And thus, put me in a coma for three months. Put me in a wheelchair for six months. Ended the marriage. And had me leave Mobile. I’ll never teach at the old high school. I’ll never live in Mobile again.  It is a strange thing to have so many of life’s decision’s erased right in front of you.  And so, I miss Frank, but I’m glad he did not have to see this. His sister and I are still friends of sorts. But it is far from the same. Very far.

And divorce was inevitable. We tried, but there was too much between us lost. Losing Frank and then my time in a wheelchair shortly after was just too much. X was overwhelmed.  I see that now and I am no longer angry. I write as personal therapy. What you see right now, for example, is a way for me to sort it all out in my head. To begin to see things from a distance and not to be overwhelmed myself.  X and I are still friends even. If you can imagine. Both having surmounted an impossible situation, we muddle through and admire each other’s determination.

So I try to keep going. Try to keep writing. Try to stay upbeat when all I feel is down  The thing is, I have much to be thankful for. I am still alive after all. I am also out of a wheelchair, no longer using a walker, and have had surgery that allows me to see without wearing a pirate patch. This thanksgiving, I forced myself to think about this, and be thankful that I am moving on.

I move on by still writing.  I am still alive and trying very hard not to go insane, so I write. My writing career actually seems to be moving along quite a bit better.  To write.  To breathe.  To walk. To live. If Frank were here, I’d show him my book and hope that it all somehow made sense.  And if it did, I’d have Frank explain it to me.