It was my mother who taught me to watch the signs, to wink at the synchronicities, to see all things, even the inanimate, in possession of soul, and to view the world, despite its imperfections, as she was herself, despite hers—benevolent.
Her life and that of my youngest crossed paths, for a single month, and now, eighteen years later, when he has unexpectantly returned to the nest, we embarked on an epic road trip, covering 8 states and 1,900 miles in under a week. Because we could.
Because one of my youngest cousins was getting married in Tennessee. Because the groom and his friends were scientists & engineers (& goofy & interesting) like Aidan aspired (and now needed encouragement) to be.
We drove west out of the Green Mountains into New York, past Albany. “I’ve never been this far west,” Aidan said, and he was right, but still this surprised me because hadn’t I’d lived in the Rockies as a kid and returned as an adult, and hadn’t Aidan always been with me?
“I can’t believe there is all this country I’ve never seen,” he said, “Now I have to go everywhere.”
I chose this westerly route at the advice of friends to avoid the traffic around New York and Philly and DC, and Aidan heartily endorsed a longer route once he realized that we would pass Scranton.
“Scranton!” he said. “Scranton, PA?!!”
His enthusiasm was unfathomable as was his request to stop there, particularly when he showed such little interest in a detour to Monticello on our way south.
“Dunder Mifflin is in Scranton,” he said.
We continued past Scranton (though I took photos at his request), traveling south on Interstate 81 for an audacious 678 miles–through Pennsylvania and into Maryland and West Virginia.
We took turns with our respective audiobooks. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,” (which he downloaded “for me” because he had already read it three times), and “Half of a Yellow Sun,” by the phenomenal Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which was the more captivating of the two (in my opinion.)
The next morning we drove through the Blue Ridge Mountains in a snowstorm, with elevations exceeding 2,500 feet, which is where we found ourselves, stuck behind a box truck whose cargo caught my attention and grief, just as the characters in “Half of a Yellow Sun,” professors and parents and school children, found themselves steeped in the trauma of war.
“What is that?” I said. “Chickens?”
“Turkins, maybe,” Aidan said, navigating into the passing lane.
“It’s so cold out. Why would the truck be open like that?”
“There’s no company name on it,” Aidan said as we passed.” They don’t want to advertise.”
I snapped a photo of the cages, thinking there was beauty in the angles and color and light even as it pained me to see it, and thinking that I wanted to share what it is we do to animals before we eat them.
“This is why we get our food locally,” I said, as the truck faded from view, and Aidan nodded his head before pushing play on his second book, another Neil deGrasse Tyson’s, a new one that he hadn’t read: “Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military.”
All of this cast a spell on the afternoon–the high elevation, the wind, the snow, the chickens or Turkins, the war in the novel and the alliance between profit and killing.
“Let’s listen to the radio for a while,” I suggested, hoping to lend a sense of place, but it was then that the announcer said, “The poet Mary Oliver had died.”
This darkness stayed with me as we crossed into the Smokies and then it receded when we arrived at the site of the 1982 World’s Fair, and took the elevator to the top of the Sunsphere where dozens of relatives–uncles & aunts, nieces & nephews, siblings & grandparents–gathered inside a 360-degree view of Knoxville, Tennessee.
By the time Aidan and I left Knoxville three days later for the long drive home, we knew our way around town and had each found our favorite coffee shops–his downtown, sleek and minimalistic, and mine comfortable and homey in the historic part of town.
Our return trip was delayed by weather and so before we left Tennessee, I found us an establishment that served chicken & dumplings (in the town where Dolly Parton was born in fact, on her birthday weekend), and this meal nourished and delighted us, even the next day, as set out north on 81, out of the Smokies again, listening solely to “Accessory to War,” because the extra day meant that my library loan had expired.
We moved at a clip with Aidan was behind the wheel again, insisting on doing all the navigating himself, as he had throughout the city.
“There’s an accident up ahead,” he said, pointing to the GPS. “But this is still the fastest route.”
The traffic slowed as we approached the scene and I felt how strange it was to move in procession among the eighteen wheelers who had been such a nuisance on our journey, though there were fewer because it was MLK Day.
Their gray somber pace reminded of the teenage sport’s team who arrived at the funeral parlor, heads bowed, uncharacteristically subdued, outfitted in suits instead of cleats, as they walked past the coffin which held my lifelong friend, who died this very weekend, an unfathomable two years ago, for whom the site of the box truck with the chickens or the Turkins, would have been unbearable, so large her heart for the creatures among us.
The accident, if that’s what it was, seemed to have occurred on the soft grass up head between the north and south lanes of the highway, but I didn’t see any vehicles as we approached.
“I think it’s construction work,” I said, pushing pause on Aidan’s audiobook. But as we passed the site, he said something chilling, just as I realized it too.
The cab was barely recognizable, but the birds were.
I remember holding Aidan in my arms while my mother took her last breaths. I never understood why my sister needed to photograph even this, but those photos became precious touchstones of life, of loss, of love, and the benevolence of all that is, her passing, his arrival. Her dying palm cradling his newborn head.
We drove in silence for a good while as we continued on 81 through the Smokies and when we pulled over at a rest area just across the border in Virginia, Aidan asked if I would drive.