I am driving in the dark, through pouring rain. There is a tornado watch in effect until 3:00 AM, and every flash of lightening illuminates a sky potentially filled with funnels and chaos. I’m following my brother, my eyes fixated on his tail lights, my hands gripping the wheel and my neck extended like a hen frozen in mid-peck, focusing on nothing but the solid line on the right, the dotted line on the left, terrified that if I blink, sneeze or wipe my sweaty forehead I will swerve into the rain-obscured guardrail and kill myself and my mother. I keep having those wierd thoughts, those “what if I can’t stop myself and I just step off the edge of this cliff?” thoughts.
We are driving home from Ann Arbor, a drive I have made thousands of times in my life as a passenger or a driver. We have just left my father in the recovery room of the University hospital there, where he has had a malignant tumor removed from his neck. He has a big, “Y” shaped incision that looks rather like the work of Dr. Frankenstein, but he’s okay, all things considered. I should, by all rights, be feeling sorry for myself – my family has long believed that if self-pity were an Olympic event or a talent usable by Miss America contestants, I could have been a contender. The funny thing is that I’m not feeling sorry for myself at all; through some strange alchemy involving exhaustion, relief, and caffeine, I am really just fine. I have a job to do, one last job in a long day, and I am doing it. That is all.
I am also thinking, of course, thinking absurd things. Paul Simon’s “Graceland” fills my head in time with the wipers. “I’m going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee…”. Then I’m thinking about the road, and how many times I’ve traveled this way, or the opposite way. It’s the beginning (or the end) of the drive to Ohio, a trip we made often to see my maternal grandparents, and, later, to take me to and from college deep in the cornfields of Lorain County. The summer between my first and second years as a conservatory student I took a cello lesson once a week from a professor at The University of Michigan. He didn’t think much of my playing, I always knew that, and I drove weekly to Ann Arbor in a stew of anxiety and despair, returning deflated and diminished.
I remember the summer I clerked for a distant relative’s law firm in Warren, Ohio, driving home every weekend in an ancient Honda with no air conditioning. I was in the middle of a tragic, long-distance romance and I played loud music, sang, cried, and chain smoked out the open window for the four and a half hour trip. When I hit Ann Arbor it was my signal to stop smoking, dry my eyes and Febreze myself before seeing my parents in a scant hour.
I remember taking my brother to start college at The University of Michigan, marveling at the dorm that would have housed nearly all the students attending my own college. Same road, same exit, even, as the hospital. I remember a trip to rescue my brother, stranded on his way home for the weekend; I was housesitting, mourning another round of Bad Romance with the same guy,and grumpy at losing sleep on a work night. My brother was embarrassed at having to be rescued by his older sister in front of a cool college friend, and he was rude to me. The incident is long forgiven, and I couldn’t ask for a better brother, but as the wipers beat, and the car eats the miles in the dark night, I remember it all.
My mother is silent as I drive. She has been married for fifty years to a man who likes silence in the car when the driving is difficult. We’ve fought a little, the past day or two, but as I drive I am conscious of her as an ally, and an essential part of every story this road evokes. They are all, really, the story of my life from swaddled baby en route to my grandparents’ house in Ashtabula, Ohio to fifty-year-old daughter driving through the night after making sure her father was comfortable in the recovery room. If I felt like talking, I might mention my thoughts to her, reminisce a little and reveal my cliché but sincere “Life is a Highway” epiphany. I don’t feel like talking, though, and we remain silent except for her occasional remark about how it’s “almost over,” and we’re “almost there.”
My brother is still ahead of me, his tail lights always visible through the sheets of rain, my mother is beside me, and we have left my father safe. Soon, we will be home.