Wednesday, June 11, 2003

I started writing this right after I moved to Nashville, and finished it shortly after moving to Missouri...just some thoughts

A Long Trip Home

One often calms one's grief by recounting it.
~ Pierre Corneille ~


Five months ago Dennis died. Those words are bitter on my tongue, and hit me with such force that I am left numb. I wouldn't think five months would be so hard. Six months maybe. A year definitely. But who would have thought five months?

It's hard to believe how much things can change in five months. How the very foundation of your life can shift and leave you standing amidst the ruins of what you thought would last forever.

I will never forget March 5, 2002. It was a Tuesday, and I was in Rio Negrinho, Brazil on a mission trip with a group from my college. The day was humid, and we had just completed an afternoon of speaking in stuffy classrooms about life in America. The work was fun, but tiring, and standing in those stifling rooms waiting for a breath from the oscillating fans had caused my head to pound.

Now the group was standing outside a charter bus, preparing to go on a shopping trip before dinner. As I watched the rusted pipe belch diesel, which then floated back in the windows, I decided a trip to a pottery outlet wasn't how I wanted to spend the afternoon. My roommate, Hollie, and I convinced the missionaries to let us go back to the pousada to shower and rest.

A few hours later, I sat on the leather couch in the lobby, my legs sticking to the seat as the humidity hung thick in the air, making everything feel damp and heavy. Just as we were heading out to the car, the phone rang, and was handed to Michelle, one of the missionaries. As I think back, I wonder why I didn't get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don't know why I didn't have some kind of clue that that phone call had something to do with me. Not even when Michelle took the phone to the other room and spoke in hushed tones did I think anything was wrong.

Michelle hung up the phone and joined us in the car. It was dusky outside, and the inside of the car was dark. Just as we were pulling out, Michelle told Reed, the other missionary, to stop, and she turned around in her seat. It was hot, and I remember looking at her bangs sticking to her forehead. Still no idea.

She reached out and took my hands, and said softly that the phone call had been for me. My stepfather, Dennis, had had a heart attack. I still didn't know. I asked if he was going to be okay. She told me he had died.

In that moment my whole world stopped. Dennis was the man who had raised me for nineteen years. Though he wasn't my biological father, he was the man who taught me how to ride a bike, who dried my tears, who got out my splinters and told me he loved me. He was my daddy.

I remember hearing this awful wailing sound, and not even realizing it was coming from me. I pressed my face into my hands and rocked violently, my head bumping into the seat in front of me. I didn't know I could hurt so much. The tears were hot, purging this awful feeling inside of me.

I don't remember going back inside, but that's the next place I remember being. Michelle held one hand while Hollie clutched the other. I alternated between thinking I was going to throw up to thinking I was going to pass out. Soon someone handed me the phone and asked me if I wanted to call home.

I was in shock as I listened to the phone ring. My brother answered, and as his voice crackled over the line, I thought it had all been a mistake. He didn't sound like I felt. He sounded fine. Chipper almost. He was covering the pain. I asked him where mom was. He told me the funeral home. There had been no mistake.

Later that night, I sat in my room and gradually the other members of the group trickled in. Some held me, some stood there awkwardly, others spoke kind words. None of us knew what to do.

Someone gave me some sleeping pills to help me sleep that night. When I awoke, I fleetingly prayed that it had all been a nightmare. But when I saw my partially packed bags I knew it wasn't. I stood under the hot water in the shower, and the grief just washed over me again. I leaned my face against the cool tile and sobbed with such intensity that I could hardly catch my breath, making strange, animal-like noises as I crouched there, shrouded in steam.

Why was this happening? Why now? Why when I was so far away from home? When I felt like I was, for once, where I was supposed to be. I cried out to God, pounding my fists on the green tile, not caring who heard me, not even trying to mask my anger, confusion, or weakness. This was no time to play games. The energy that it would have taken for me to hide my true feelings simply did not exist. I wanted answers. But the silence was deafening.

As I dried off, I heard someone calling my name. I quickly threw on clothes and went to answer the door. There stood Pastor Modesto, the pastor we had been working with that week. We didn't speak the same language, but the tears in his large dark eyes were enough. We sat down on the bed, and he just held me and rocked me as our tears made dark spots on the bedspread. I clung to his thin t-shirt and he placed his hands on my hair, still wet from the shower. He prayed over me and cried with me, shouting out in a language that was foreign to my ears but spoke directly to my soul. His anguish surprised me, almost frightened me. His words quieted to a whisper, and he took my face in his thin, strong hands. "God loves you," he whispered, his coffee-colored eyes staring deep into mine. And I knew he spoke the truth.

After Pastor Modesto left I finished packing and sat on the edge of my bed. I couldn't control my thoughts, and no matter what I did, they immediately went to death. I calculated what I had been doing the exact moment Dennis had died. I had been standing in a classroom in front of 30 Brazilian children, telling them of my life in the United States. Singing about Father Abraham and his many sons.

All while Dennis lay dying on the side of the road. While I tried to position myself next to the window for that rare breathe of fresh air, he lay in the cold, alone. When I was riding in a school bus, bouncing along the deeply-rutted dirt road, he was in an ambulance, my mother clutching his hand. What were his final thoughts? Did he pray? Did he want to know why? Was he in pain? Was he at peace? Did he think of me?

A soft knock on the door ripped me from my torturous thoughts. Mary Jane, one of the missionaries, asked me if I wanted to go downtown with her. I agreed and we went to the lobby to wait on her husband. We sat in silence, shifting on the couch so our skin didn't stick. We didn't know what to say to each other, so she went to check on her husband. I pulled my knees up to my chest, hugging them tight, wishing I was anywhere but here.

I heard murmuring and looked up to see Denise, the owner of the pousada. She stood behind the desk and was speaking softly to her son. She kept glancing at me, and repeating something over and over. Soon she walked over to me and lay her hand on my shoulder.

"Do you want some juice?" she said haltingly. She spoke very little English, and I knew immediately that her son had just taught her those words so she could express her sympathy in the only way she knew how. I nodded, trying to smile at her, and she pulled me close for a hug before she went to the kitchen.

A moment later she returned with a tall glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice. I sipped at the juice, willing it to pass around the lump in my throat. I managed to finish most of it before Reed and Mary Jane arrived. I took the glass and sat it down on the desk in front of Denise. I was surprised to see that she was crying.

"Obrigada," I said, and she nodded, glancing away from my tear-stained face. It's hard to stare into the eyes of someone who is grieving.

I wandered around aimlessly downtown, staring but not quite seeing. Mary Jane kept up a steady stream of talk, and I nodded at the appropriate times. We met the rest of the group for lunch, and I let their chatter flow around me. Few people spoke directly to me, and I stared at my untouched plate. It all seemed so trivial. I just wanted to go home.

After lunch we had a prayer time. I don't remember who held my hand as we stood in the gazebo, the smell of exotic flowers floating on the air. I saw my tears form dark shapes on the concrete, and I tried to quiet my sobbing. It was loud and I was embarrassed, but I couldn't stop it from rolling out of my chest and periodically drowning out the words my friends were speaking.

After the final amen I began to walk slowly across the grass to the car. After a round of hugs, I climbed in the stifling car. I buried my face in my hands, wondering if I would ever make it home.

"Brandy," I heard whispered softly. I looked up to see Heather, standing awkwardly by the car. In her hand was a tiny stuffed bear. She held it out to me. "My mom gave this to me before we left, but I want you to have it." The words flew out of her mouth, as she raced to get them out before the sob that closely followed. I took the bear and Heather ran back to be with the group that stood huddled together.

Three hours later I sat in a crowded airport, waiting for my flight. Hollie and I sat alone in a sea of tired faces, and I listened to the foreign words that surrounded me. I tried to keep myself distracted, but every once in a while I would catch myself staring off into space, and the tears would begin again before I could even catch myself.

There was a man sitting next to me, so I decided to keep myself busy and start a conversation with him. We chatted for a few minutes, and he ended up asking me why I was in Brazil. I found myself spilling out the entire story. I will never forget the first time I said "My stepfather died." The words hung in my throat and felt so final as they rolled off my tongue. He patted my arm, and we sat in silence. When the flight began to board he smiled at me, and told me that he needed to go make a phone call to his dad.

The flights blurred together. In Miami, I had to explain to the ticketing agent why I was flying back earlier than my ticket indicated. The second time I recited the words "My stepfather died" were no easier than the first. In sheer exhaustion, I lay my head on the ticket counter and began to cry.

"It'll be okay," the ticket agent whispered, and I looked up to see her quickly wiping away the tears that were spilling down her cheeks.

"I just want to go home," I said quietly. She nodded, and handed me my ticket.

"You will."

Finally, I got off of the last plane. I walked briskly through the airport, knowing that my journey was almost over. When I saw two of my best friends standing at the end of the terminal it all hit me at once, with such force I didn't know if I could stand it. Arms supported me, and three sets of tears blended on our cheeks.

"You're almost home," one of them whispered.

The ride home was quiet. What does one say when death appears so suddenly? "It was his time to go" just didn't work. "He's in a better place" sounded hollow. I didn't care. I wanted him here with me. I wanted to wrap my arms around him, to feel his whiskers on my chin, to see his smile, to hear his belly laugh. Heaven didn't need him. I needed him.

When we pulled into the driveway my heart began to pound and I could hear the blood rushing in my ears. My throat was sealed, and the tears dripped off of my chin. I shoved open the door of the truck and stood there in my front yard. The squeaky front door opened and out came my brother and mom. They met me on the steps and we stood there, not saying a word, clinging to one another. Where there once stood four there were now only three. But I was home.

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