It’s about 1:30 a.m. and I’m thirteen hours into a ten-hour trip in the dog days of August.
I’m alone in the baby blue mom van, lost off a highway, pulled over in a dingy industrial park somewhere in Connecticut–either because or in spite of a quirky and outdated GPS. A smart phone is a few years away.
A day earlier, with my youngest daughter riding shotgun and providing the musical score, we made a seamless drive from New England, skirting across the top of New Jersey and meandering along to Pennsylvania. I was moving my baby girl into her freshman year at college.
The dormitory into which I helped hoist her belongings was bedecked with cherry red balloons. She has a redhead’s temperament, a mathematician’s mind, and a dancer’s body, the latter sporting a sleeveless cream top and a swirling aubergine skirt as she gently shooed me away. Lovely.
I’ll be fine.
A pause. I looked at her, tilting my head slightly upward to get a direct line into those amber eyes.
You’ll be fine, too, mom. I love you. ‘Bye.
I was still well within her new city’s limits when I took my first wrong turn. Without my daughter next to me to provide entertainment I relied on the radio and a handful of CDs. But by the time I pulled over, long after deep dark, in that abandoned industrial park I had given up on scanning for stations within range and was weary of even my Mumford & Sons.
That’s when I rifled around in the mess of miscellany in the pocket of my mom van’s driver’s door.
That’s when I caught a glint of gold, deep among ancient receipts, vintage paperwork, and expired Barnes & Noble coupons.
It was a CD, labelled in Sharpie in Jim’s distinctive writing: “John Hiatt.” My husband had burned me a CD.
The thing is, he had died two-and-a-half years earlier.
I took in a fathoms-deep breath and popped in the disc as I tried to find the interstate again.
It’s like I got two hearts with you, baby
Like I got two ears
It goes in one and out the other
Whenever you are near
A train of smoke and dreams keeps coming
Like a burning spear
And I know you, you watch me go
Even as I’m standing here
Notes trail off low
Love comes and love keeps going
That’s really all I know
You hear the sound of a lonesome town
You want to let that whistle blow
But it gets there before you do
And it leaves before you want to go
He had made me a soundtrack of the grief he knew was coming . . . like a burning spear. Three of the songs he chose for me had been titles of posts in the blog I would start more than a year after he died.
A false move here, a stumble there
A box of letters and a lock of hair
That’s all that’s left when I turn out the light
I count the missing pieces every night
And I realized, listening to this collection of songs on the highway in the dark, heading back to a home that would be empty of children for the very first time, that I couldn’t have listened to it before then.
The songs captured me so well–the me he knew and the me who had precariously evolved in more than two years without him–that he managed to make me laugh aloud, alone. There I was, surprising my ever-unflappable husband after I’d slept off some out-sized grudge:”I’ve seen you when you felt like running, I’ve seen you with your gun/ A single bullet in the barrel/Midnight chamber’s spun/ A morning kiss, an unclaimed fist/ And you laughing at the sun.”
There I was in my enduring Grammar Nazi incarnation, tackling misplaced modifiers (he would sometimes call me from work for an authoritative decision on a grammatical point): ” I was thinking back to the first time we met/Over plangent chords in a sad vignette/You were waving goodbye in a cherry red Corvette/And your lips were too/Cherry red that is, with the sky so blue/It was almost mean and your eyes were, too/So blue that is, now I am too/And my heart burns cherry red for you….”
The last song on the CD is “Circle Back,” from the album”Beneath This Gruff Exterior,” just about the most upbeat tempo and magnetic beat you’ll hear in a song about loss–including the very particular loss experienced by a parent dropping off a child-no-more at college.
Well it’s 99 in Topeka
The wind is blowing hot
Blowing through my oldest daughter’s hair
With everything else I forgot
I drove her out to college
Drove back to an empty space
Thinking back to when she was a baby
Trying hard to see that face
I got to circle back
Touch something near
Find out which way to go
Just to get on out of here….
Jim knew me better than anyone else ever will. He introduced me to most of the music I love.
He knew that when he was gone, gone away, my mom van would continue to be a mess for as long as I kept it.
He knew our youngest daughter would graduate from high school and go off to college somewhere, and of course that I’d be the one taking over all the driving and helping move in and settle all of our children.
He knew I’d continue to get lost, both in my own head and in unlikely and foreboding places in the dead of night.
He knew I’d have inadequate directions and an insufficient supply of music for a long trip.
He couldn’t have known I wouldn’t find the CD until I was finally ready to listen to it.
He couldn’t have known I’d happen upon it on my way back from dropping off a daughter at a school farther away than I’d ever driven by myself, a place he had no reason to know she would one day attend.
He couldn’t have known I’d get just far enough off course that I’d choose that moment to fish around in my car door, when there was just enough flickering light to make the gold CD call to me.
But somehow he knew.