I woke up at 1:15 a.m. on April 20, 2011, and rolled over. TJ wasn’t in bed. My eyes adjusted in the dark and I could make out his silhouette at the window.
“Come back to bed, sweets.”
“I will in a minute. It looks pretty bad out there.”
Sure enough, the weather sirens started going off a minute later. I rolled over, annoyed by the idea of trying to sleep through the sound.
“I think we should head to your parents’ house.”
I sat up, surprised by his suggestion. We typically ignore the sirens. They sound way too often in our county, and usually over nothing.
“I mean it Kate. It looks terrible out there. If there’s a tornado, we’re screwed up here.” We lived on the top floor of an apartment building in a complex called Pinnacle. He had a point.
I rolled out of bed, grumbling as I pulled green basketball shorts and a grey hoodie out of the closet. I dialed my younger brother’s phone. He seemed surprised that we were coming over, but said he’d unlock the front door.
We ran out the door right as the wind really began to pick up. By the time we got to the car the rain had started, and when we pulled into my mom and dad’s driveway four minutes later the wind was whipping so hard that the rain was hitting us sideways.
As we pushed our way into the house, Rosie, the family dog, met us at the door. Zach met us in the kitchen, still surprised to see us. I told him TJ felt like we needed to be below ground. Zach shrugged, but headed for the basement door.
The 3 of us sat there on the couch in Dad’s TV room with Rosie, watching the channel 12’s coverage of the bizarre weather. We could hear the wind rushing outside the walls and the house was creaking. Zach texted on his phone as TJ sat impatiently. I stood up and headed for the stairs. Zach looked at me.
“Where are you going?”
“I want Mom’s rings near us.” If this storm was going to rip our house away, there was no way I was letting it take her most important material possessions.
I ran upstairs to the family room and saw the gold glinting from the mantel. I grabbed her wedding band and engagement ring, then headed back into the basement. It was 1:35 a.m. The wind continued to rip through our world, pushing and pulling the house around with it. The rain teemed against the small windows in our basement, streaming down to the ground like tears.
Twenty minutes later, the storm had subsided and channel 12 was telling us we were safe. I asked Zach if he wanted us to stay with him. I had stayed with him the night before. I didn’t like him being alone in the house with just Rosie for company, but we both knew Dad wouldn’t let Mom spend one night alone in hospice. And we understood. He was needed more there than at the house.
Zach told us to go home. He’s a night owl, and he likes the quiet. TJ and I left the house, avoiding the rivers of water running down the driveway as we made our way to the car. I lamented the fact that the storm had woken me so completely. Sleep was hard to come by, and was usually peppered with memories of my mom in happier times, dreams of all we could do when she got better, and nightmares of what-if-she-doesn’t.
We walked into our apartment and just as I threw my purse on the dining room table, my phone began to ring. Is there ever a phone call you want to take in the middle of the night? When you’re 21 and you know your friends are drunk in a bar, maybe. When your 21-year old brother is home by himself and your dad is keeping watch over your dying mother… no.
I answered the phone as TJ walked across the room to stare out the windows at the rain, now falling softly from the black sky.
My dad’s voice, soft and calm, greeted me. Hon. Not Pig, my nickname since childhood. Not Kate, the name my family normally uses. Hon.
I responded with a hello, and there was a moment of silence. And then the words.
“Mom passed away about twenty minutes ago.”
I steadied myself against the table as my muscles went slack. And yet, I didn’t cry. Maybe I’d known this was coming. Maybe I’d felt it happening. Maybe, despite my unending optimism til this bitter end, I’d realized this was inevitable. I squeaked out an ok to my dad. As I said it, I saw TJ’s body tighten. He knew.
We quickly discussed the right way to tell people. For a second we considered waiting til the morning call anyone, but we knew it wouldn’t be right. My dad decided to call my mom’s sister, Mary, and I decided to go home again to tell Zach. I think my dad wanted to tell him – I don’t think he wanted to make his daughter responsible for such a thing – but it was more important that someone be with Zach when he heard the news.
I put my phone down and TJ was there. There were no words, no tears. Just a single hug before I walked out the door, got in the car, and for the second time that night, drove back home.
As I entered the house, it looked just as it had an hour earlier. Rosie met me at the door, and Zach stood in the kitchen, looking confused as to why I’d be there. From the doorway, I studied his face. And as he stared back at mine, I think he knew something was different.
“Bud… Mom’s gone.” The pain of telling someone you love that his favorite person has died is second only to the pain of losing your own favorite person. And in that moment, the weight of both landed on my chest.
He leaned his head against the wall where the kitchen met the hallway, staring at the floor. As I walked toward him, his quiet tears started. We wrapped our arms around each other. I suddenly felt very small and very young. In the world, we are two young adults, but in this moment, we were children. With my head on his shoulder, I stared at our kitchen table and remembered the family dinners we’d had there and the way my dad kissed the back of her neck after every meal in appreciation. The nights I’d spent doing homework there with my mom checking my work over my shoulder. The days we spent sitting there, talking about anything and everything while drinking French Vanilla Café coffee. The time the four of us spent a weekend at that table recreating the Lincoln Memorial for Zach’s social studies class. The African Violet one of her students gave her that sat in the center for years without blooming but never dying. The holidays we sat there with her mother, sister and sister-in-law, telling stories and drinking wine. The games of Clue and Apples to Apples on cold evenings. My mind was flooded.
Zach and I shuffled into the family room and plopped down on the couch. Rosie curled up with us, trying to lick the salty tears off our faces. Within minutes, my phone rang again – Dad, with further instructions. I called TJ, and then we waited._________________________________________________________________
What started as a scary storm turned symbolic when we learned that Mom was pronounced dead at 1:35 a.m. As the storm was whipping into a frenzy, TJ and I were being pulled out of our bed and to my childhood home to huddle on a couch with Zach. As the wind howled around us, she was singing her good-byes. In the minutes I was feeling a pull to the family room to get her rings, she was taking her final breaths. And as we sat on that couch, assuring ourselves that the storm would pass, my dad was whispering his final words to her – “I love you.”
Is it crazy to believe the storm came at that time so Zach wouldn’t be alone as she was passing – so we would all be awake in the world as she went to sleep? Am I a little nuts to think that a blowing breeze is my mom reminding me she’s around?
But the world changed that night, and so I too am changed. Things that were once written off as coincidences have more possibility, more meaning behind them now. On my darkest days, a strange occurrence can feel uncomfortable, even sinister. But on a good day… yes, on a good day, those strange happenings hold hope.