He didn’t answer the phone, so I eventually called someone else.
I waited and called again.
Then, my sister Leah called. She spoke one sentence, calmly and quietly.
I didn’t believe her.
The phone rang. It was the “law man,” calling me personally. That’s the beauty of being from a small town in the South.
With compassion, he spoke and told me the news. Still half dressed, I collapsed to the floor, emitting a moan from so deep in my soul that the sound was inhuman. I remember the coldness on my chest being something I wanted to crawl into so I could escape this terror.
I had been wanting to get on the road before all of this, but I didn’t know. Yet, I did know. Sometime between the waiting and the pacing and not knowing but knowing, I had packed a bag and even a dress.
I had to get there.
“We have to go, now!”
And so we went, and despite the short two-hour drive from Indiana, it was the longest drive of my life.
Once in the passenger seat, I called to make arrangements for our daughter who was sleeping over at a friend’s house. Sleep quickly cleared from the other mom’s groggy “Hello” when I told her the news. Honestly, my husband Brent should have called, but I was insistent, irrational. Undoubtedly, he would have waited to call until at least the sun kissed the earth, thus softening the shock to this mother.
I remember calling my brother Eli at least 20 times and every single time moaning, “Why aren’t you answering the phone! Please answer the phone! Answer the damn phone!”
It was no different yesterday when I called my Daddy all afternoon and evening, but he wouldn’t answer the phone either. I wasn’t worried, though, because Leah would be with him that evening . . . but she wasn’t.
There had been plenty of times I had worried—but not about this. I’d even called my high school friend, now chief of police, to check on Daddy— in the middle of the woods, in his home he saw in his dreams and built with his own hands.
I remember driving into town and into that parking lot that I had not legitimately visited since 1993. We arrived, but had to wait. We had to wait, and I had to see. My insides were convulsing, like every organ, every cell within me needed to come out and breathe and escape. Nothing felt real, nothing. It could not be real.
My husband’s presence kept bringing me back to reality. He was with me. He made the drive in the hours after midnight and before dawn. He made the calls to family and friends. He cancelled the trip to California. He was there because I could not be. I could barely function or think or speak.
Once I saw, I didn’t want to leave. I had to be removed. I was warned about what I touched, but my lips and caress ignored the warning. What does it matter now what I touch! With knees buckled, my stomach in my throat, and shards of my heart falling on the floor with every step I took, my husband helped me exit.
After leaving that lot, I remember parking at the gas station and calling Mom. It was 7am by now, and the sun was shining on the streets of my hometown, shining on everything except my spirit.
“Well, hello!” Mom’s voice chimed, excited to hear from me but confused about the time. Through sobs and tightened breaths of pain, I told her the news, and her excitement and confusion quickly vanished.
“Yes, I will meet you. Anything. Anything at all, I will do,” she said like a mother would say during a time like this. She’s all a mother should be, and I am thankful for her, despite not being born to her.
Still no answer from Eli or his wife!
“I need you to answer the phone! I need you to call me!”
I really have no idea what I said on the voicemails but am certain that I gave no details. No one would want a voicemail with those details.
So, we went to the next parking lot, a lot I had never visited but that my high school friends Clarissa and Todd owned. I truly believe Clarissa might be an earth Angel, for her way is so comforting and peaceful and kind, despite the bombardment of sadness.
We were there in that building on that lot, but I was there alone. My husband was there and Clarissa and Todd were there, but I was alone. Feeling alone, surrounded by people is a feeling that still hangs with me today.
Mom showed up shortly after we arrived. She sat with me, holding my hand. I listened to Clarissa but can’t say that I heard her. It was like the words of Charlie Brown’s teacher. Nothing made sense. It was only noise, and I was waiting, waiting for someone to answer the damn phone or to tell me this wasn’t real or to give me an instructional guide.
An instructional guide would have been helpful because to this day I question the decisions I made and try not to regret. I do not regret, however, inviting Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and of course my long ago friends Russ and Stacy who shared Amazing Grace with us.
I remember Leah and Erik showing up, and they sat down with us too. So many questions still remain in my mind and heart for my baby sister. Yet, I remind myself that our relationships with him were different, and I remind myself that we each have our own way of untangling the webs of life. When she’s ready to talk, I will be ready to listen.
My phone rings.
“Eli?!” Static. “Eli, are you there?!”
My phone rings. It’s a number not in my contacts.
“Hey, Sis. What’s up? We’re at the lake. Reception is bad. I’m calling on a friend’s phone.”
I told him the news in one short sentence–at least I think that’s what I did.
“What!” my baby brother choked out, not understanding and not sure he heard what I said through the crackling reception.
So, I had to repeat the sentence. Then, I had to tell his wife because he couldn’t speak. I remember he cried out and then I was talking to April, and I told her. I remember.
They were 5 hours away, and so we had to wait.
And then, we were all together, and we had to make decisions. We had to decide and agree, the three of us, because there were no instructions and there was no money. There was only shock and numbness and complete and utter heartache, and I am confident these do not make for solid decision making.
At some point, we went to Grandma’s and Uncle Greg’s, but I don’t remember our first visit. Upon visiting the second time, I opened the door to my Grandma lying on the floor.
“She fell on the porch, and I pulled her in,” Uncle Greg said.
“Are you serious!?” I said as I looked up to the ceiling.
Grandma’s fall jolted me into reality. We—I’m not sure who—carefully moved her to the couch, but something wasn’t right. Someone called 911—it might have been me, but I don’t remember—and the ambulance arrived shortly after the call.
Someone answered the phone this time.
This time, the ambulance drove a few miles in the still shining sun to the hospital a few blocks away, instead of the ominous lot in the middle of town. Once there, we sat again and waited, and when we were called back, the doctor was Daddy’s doctor from a few years ago.
Another look to the ceiling and then I exchanged the proper pleasantries.
As for Grandma, my initial diagnosis was confirmed. A broken hip. She must be taken by ambulance to Nashville, with surgery soon after her arrival.
And the day of disbelief continued.
Later, Eli and April quietly announced they are pregnant. I’m serious. They did and they were and they now have a wonderful, handsome one-year-old son named Dylan.
So, after five days of muddling through it all, handicapped by heartache and exhaustion, it was over, but it wasn’t.
Despite my Daddy being my hero and training me up in the way I should go and teaching me to serve God in all I do and to be observant and humble and kind, he decided not to answer the phone.
More specifically, in a Western Kentucky county around 7pm—according to the medical examiner’s report—on the evening of May 24, 2014, he pulled the trigger and escaped his earthly world of chronic physical and emotional pain, and in doing so shattered his daughter’s soul and the world as she knew it.
The sound of amazing grace is not always so sweet, but grace will always lead you home.