We Have Become Travelers

Two years ago when my brother-in-law, John, died in a freak accident, I learned, not for the first or last time, that life goes on in autism’s shadow and light–and death, too. 

I couldn’t push the accident out of my mind for more than a few hours at a time. Six, even eight months later, I still read and reread the police reports, traffic citations, eyewitness accounts, tributes, family emails, news stories, organ donor papers, and obituaries. I could not make peace with it. The one night I set aside each week to write I spent writing about the accident—arranging and rearranging the facts at hand, telling and retelling the story, as if I could reach a different ending. 

At 8:10 p.m., Thursday, May 13, 2010, a U-Haul trailer detached from a pickup truck driving on Washington Blvd. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My wife’s brother, John, worked outside his furniture studio, as he did many nights. He wore goggles and earphones to protect him from the roaring chainsaw he used to shape a large tree trunk into a tabletop. He didn’t hear the unhinged trailer skid across the road, jump the curb and run him down. Witnesses said he never spoke a word or name. He was pronounced dead at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center—Presbyterian Hospital at 8:49 p.m.

When her sister called with the news, my wife Maura handed me the phone before her sister could explain. Her sister’s voice told all.

“Something’s happened,” Maura said. “I can’t hear it yet.”

She put her hand to her forehead in a familiar gesture that signaled she was about to cry. She already knew. I felt a pull at the center of me, a hard yank on an inner chain. She went back to bathing Colin and Quinn—safe from the news for a few more minutes while the water splashed in the tub and Colin chattered about Star Wars planets and Quinn made beards of soap suds on both of them. Maura laughed with effort: “Oh, look at you two!”

After I hung up the phone five minutes later, Maura came back into the bedroom.

“Is it John?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Is he hurt or dead?”

“He’s dead.”

This is the third brother she has lost to accidental death: In 1968, Owen, a four-year-old boy died of smoke inhalation in a house fire; in 2006, Eric, fell while trimming a diseased cottonwood tree that collapsed and brought him down headfirst onto a concrete sidewalk; and now, John, crushed by a runaway U-Haul trailer. No wonder she handed me the phone.

Friday, May 14
Our hurried drive to Pittsburgh was well underway the next night. We couldn’t afford to fly; it was unthinkable not to go. We took our sons, Colin (seven) and Quinn (five), with us, and for two long we did not explain why we were going. We answered phone calls while we packed and drove out of town—many half conversations to be overheard. Talking loud over the road noise, we almost forgot about the boys, until I saw in the rearview mirror that Colin was crying, and then Quinn, too. Of course they knew someone had died, and not only that, died in an accident involving shock and blood and paramedics—and not just anyone, but their Uncle John.

Maura turned around to calm them down and explain. Later we put on a movie to lull them to sleep and then we drove until late. To get to Pittsburgh in time for John’s viewing, we must drive 12 hours a day. We fell into silence, perhaps guilty for not being more direct with the boys or just not knowing what else to say. Maura fell in and out of sleep.

We crossed the border into Evanston, Wyoming. Fireworks stores, illegal in neighboring states, crowded the exits. I was the only one awake to see a long convoy of military vehicles with a camouflaged insect look, one truck’s trailer thrashed violently from side to side like the thorax of a trapped wasp. Not even the U.S. Military knew how to attach a trailer properly. I passed by quickly and never saw a human face through the tinted windows, as if this nighttime caravan was driven by robots or ghosts instead of living soldiers.

The night he died, John worked with a chainsaw, carving a large wood table. He wore protective goggles and ear phones. He couldn’t hear the noise of the sliding trailer, and couldn’t have done anything if he had heard. A couple with a young child drove the pickup truck that lost its trailer. They called 911. At least a dozen other witnesses stopped to help. The paramedics arrived and tried to revive John, but he had already bled out.

On that first night of travel we arrived exhausted, well past midnight in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and carried the boys asleep to the hotel room—“The Best Western Outlaw Inn,” Colin would remind us many times on the trip ahead. A living, breathing GPS system, he will remember the hotel names, room numbers, highway exit numbers, miles to the next town, gas stations, restaurants and what we ate, and the rest stops where the boys rode their scooters around narrow sidewalks.

The room in Rock Springs was far from luxurious, but the boys woke up and looked around with smiles. Novelty, delicious to all, intoxicates a child. The room’s interior door opened into a glass-enclosed patio swimming pool. Many other rooms also opened into the interior pool, but I didn’t see any lights in the rooms, not even a TV glimmer. I thought again opaque windows of the military convoy. Were the rooms empty or were we the only ones awake? The memory of being together in the small room is sweet to me now, at odds with our circumstances at the time. We were a family on the way to a funeral, after all. But we had a journey ahead of us. There was nothing to be done but pass the days as pleasantly as we could.

We fell into a routine as we drove across the country and back—more than 4,000 miles—staying in a series of modest hotel rooms indistinguishable from many thousands of others anywhere in the United States. Each room dominated by two queen-sized beds, Colin and Maura in one, Quinn and I in the other. We slept with the boys to keep them from falling out of bed onto the thin carpet over concrete floors. I propped pillows against the sharp corners of bedside tables. The pattern would continue for the ten days ahead: driving between gas stations and rest stops, hotels, queen-sized beds, and blue swimming pools. After a few days, Colin declared: “We have become travelers!”

The accidental unhitching of a U-Haul trailer must occur thousands of times in a year to no more effect than five minutes inconvenience. Not so in Pittsburgh on May 13, 2010. I try to sort out the complex timing and laws of motion and fate that brought John and a renegade U-Haul trailer into fatal collision. If someone had called him on the phone, or he had stepped back into the shop for a better tool, then none of this would have happened—one second making all the difference. The trailer would have slid to a stop against the neighboring building causing no serious harm—the incident nothing more than an interesting anecdote, forgotten within hours and never surfacing again. Instead, it was the singular cause of John’s death. A younger man than me, more fit, and at the peak of his creative work, John had put a fistful of persistent demons to rest in recent years. He had been here, alive, building long-earned momentum. Now he was gone.

Saturday, May 15
The next morning the boys woke early and stared out through the curtains at the glassy surface of the interior pool. It was all we could do to keep them out of it until it officially opened. To pass the time, we took them across the patio to a café for a free breakfast—scrambled eggs, muffins, and sausage. Then, we swam. I held their arms and pulled them along while they kicked and squealed in the echoing room. We were happy. How could it be possible? And yet it was possible. We were together on a trip, in a new place, swimming in a blue pool. I couldn’t read Maura’s thoughts, but she smiled and laughed with us.

The driver of the truck pulling the trailer that killed John said he struck a road seam. He felt the trailer jerk backwards. In his rearview mirror, he saw the trailer bounce loose and break away until it was moving along beside the truck. He saw the trailer jump onto the curb. It wasn’t until he had pulled over and got out that he saw the victim under the trailer. The driver remained on scene during the entire incident. He “rendered aid,” the police report noted. He appeared “normal and coherent,” no indications of impairment. Several witnesses said emphatically that they did not “observe any reckless driving.”

The second day we drove across Wyoming and Nebraska on I-80 East, which would eventually take us all the way to Davenport, Illinois, before we turned southeast to Indianapolis, and took another series of interstates further east to Pittsburgh. How could we get more than a superficial glimpse the country from the interstate? Yet the motion itself, all the passing miles, brought an imagined knowledge of the places we passed through and at least a vivid daydream about the lives unfolding in these farmsteads and towns and cities. Children exit a school bus and walk in dust clouded air along the road. A foul stockyard mired in dung. I count five white farmhouses with red barns, all of them set off from the fields by rows of poplars. At one of the rest stops, beautiful twin girls about Colin’s age watched jealously as the boys wheeled around on their Razor scooters. Wind turbines in the distance, white in the sun. In a field with dozens of cows and horses, one horse mounts another.

John was caught between the hurling trailer and a large table he was working on. The table shattered. The tongue of the trailer hitch pierced his leg, likely severing an artery. The driver of the vehicle pulling the trailer tried to stop the bleeding by wrapping an electrical cord tightly around John’s leg. John stared ahead, gray-faced, mercifully in shock, paramedics reported.

Today we left the highway only once, at 4:45 p.m., to buy gas at R&R Service in Dix, Nebraska. We were so near empty we didn’t have much choice. A mechanic in the garage continued his work without looking up. Not a single car passed. After a full day of driving, the boys had thrashed in the back seat like caged baboons. So Maura danced with them on the asphalt beyond the gas pumps—still no response from the mechanic. We walked right through his garage to the bathroom. We stood for another ten minutes watching a train pass. The trailer house across the street—perhaps the mechanic’s home—couldn’t have been than 20 feet from the tracks. Perhaps the man has gone deaf and dumb from the noise, and yet his hands go on repairing cars.

We finally crashed at 1 a.m. in a motel on 145th Street in Omaha. Colin will remember the name, room number, etc. We intended to stop in Lincoln and tried twice to exit the freeway but couldn’t find the roads to the hotels. We gave up and pressed on to Omaha.

One witness said John struggled to breathe. He didn’t or couldn’t, say anything. He likely didn’t know what had happened or why these people were gathering around him. Where had the U-Haul trailer come from and the Dodge pick-up? There had been severe blood loss, a pool of blood under him. The trailer that struck him was stopped by a neighboring building “and came to a final uncontrolled rest . . . the hitch assembly penetrating the cement block wall,” I read later in the City of Pittsburgh police report.

In November 2008, John Metzler made a mirror image of this trip—the same four thousand miles on the same interstates. He drove through two nights and a day with precious cargo, one-of-a-kind pieces he had made in his shop. The furniture, not yet been assembled, was wrapped in quilts and old clothes to protect it. Most important was a wood sculpture he had made for his brother, Eric, who had fallen from a tree in Portland, Oregon, a few years before and died. Eric was high up in a cottonwood tree doing trim work, his safety harness on, when the whole top half of the diseased tree collapsed and brought him down with it. The sculpture John brought was made from the same tree. John wanted to take it to Eric’s family, even have them help with the final carving and polishing. But the night he arrived at our house, everything was stolen from his car and never recovered. When he discovered the theft the next morning, the loss of the sculpture wracked him. He paced the rooms of our house and drove through the neighborhoods, looking in dumpsters where what was useless to thieves but precious to him may have been discarded. No luck. His sister Janine called the local news station. An hour later reporter and camera crew materialized in our living room to interview John. We watched the story run on both the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts. We all hoped for a miracle, but nothing came of it. John’s handmade carving for his brother Eric was gone, his handmade tables were gone. No one called in to report.

A computer-generated sketch of the “incident” shows the curve of Washington Blvd. and the truck (unit 1) heading northwest. Two shaded rectangles represent the two buildings involved—Urban Tree Forge and The Prop Shop. A short line indicates the point where the detached trainer (Unit 1A) jumped the curb of the road and collided with John Metzler (Unit 2), whose body is drawn in rough outline. A series of clustered dots on the sketch seem to represent the broken pieces of wood, remnants of the sculpture or furniture John was working on.

After his brother Eric died, John went to Portland, Oregon, and stayed for a month, helping Eric’s wife sort out affairs—finances, insurance, funeral payments, and most of all the completion of ongoing projects in his brother’s tree trimming business. He finished outstanding jobs, closed out accounts, sold the truck, ladders, and saws. This was when he retrieved a piece of the very tree Eric had fallen from and later made the sculpture with it. He took a long leave from his office job. This may have been when the idea for his furniture business, probably a long-held dream, took a firmer hold and became irreversible resolve in John. Of course I can only speculate, but it wasn’t long after he returned to Pittsburgh that he cashed in his 401(k) and launched the new business, at great risk, literally “casting his lot.”

John had a saying, his own, that he printed on post cards and T-shirts:

Know trees. Know life.
No trees. No life.

At his workshop, Urban Tree Forge, John transformed fallen wood into sculptures, tables, and mantelpieces. If he didn’t rescue them, the urban trees would fall or be felled and ground up into mulch. This was John’s vision for the business he founded: Turn the fallen trees into furniture and functional art. “Honor the tree and its hard-knocks urban existence,” he would say. A felled oak became tables for the G-20 Summit held in Pittsburgh in 2010. A fallen sycamore became tables for the Carnegie Library’s Historical Collections room. He made a set of walnut menorahs from a tree in the Hill District, a neighborhood with a rich Jewish history. A piece of arborvitae, abandoned to the trash by a homeowner and refused by the garbage hauler was rescued by John and turned into a beautiful foot stool. A felled tree in Homewood’s Smithfield East End Cemetery had natural, elegant curves that John transformed into a courting bench with seats on both sides of a shared backrest.

Sunday, May 16
I had never thought Iowa could be so beautiful—rolling hills, farms and houses imagined out of a 1940’s America, the stuff of post cards. At the rest stops, the boys tooled around on their scooters between ringing green trees. Through the afternoon and into the night we drove—out of Iowa, through Illinois to Indiana. At one rest stop, I ran through the rain to the bathroom myself, then came back for each boy separately, carrying them, running through the puddles and downpour, too wet to care anymore, laughing. I never dried out entirely for the rest of the day. We made only one long stop in Iowa City, where we let the kids play on a nest of connected play sets that stretched an entire city block. Most of the parents watching the kids play were women, young mothers, students or wives of students. Faces from around the world—India, China, Africa, the Middle East, and a rich blend of Caucasians (we were in Iowa after all). Colin walked up to these mothers without hesitation, “Hi, I’m Colin Cantwell.” Without exception they smiled. Colin played with such abandon and unbridled joy, moving from one ladder or slide or set of monkey bars to the next, Quinn in hot pursuit, I didn’t want to interrupt the play or leave the stranger’s faces behind. We spent one hour in that place and yet in some way it became part of us. “We have become travelers,” Colin had said. Yes, all of us were travelers—the ones who traveled and the ones who the travelers observed as they passed by. Those seen and those unseen. All of us, travelers.

One witness interviewed by the homicide detectives said that he and the four passengers in his car, two men and two women, all got out of the car to help at the scene. Several witnesses saw the trailer come loose and crash into the building. Other passing cars stopped, too. The witness said he could “barely see someone’s feet sticking out from under the trailer. . . . He looked frozen and he had a lot of fluid under him . . the victim’s face was extremely gray, his chest was moving, but he appeared to be struggling to breathe.” This is the scene I return to again and again, reading the different reports of the same thing, hoping to find one of them where the color returns to John’s face, he takes a breath, and speaks: “I’m okay. We can get through this.” In my mind I can see him standing up and shaking it off. He puts on his protective goggles, picks up the chainsaw and goes back to work.

The only time John and I ever spent together alone was the Friday after Thanksgiving in 2009, only a few days after John’s furniture and sculptures were stolen. We went downtown to Sam Weller’s Bookstore. John set up shop in the little café, his laptop on a table, a coffee at his elbow. I sat with him, writing in my own notebook. John shifted gears. I watched it happen. I could see it in his face. John knew his stolen items were gone for good, so he set to work writing about what had happened on his blog. He posted pictures of the lost items and wrote dozens of emails. He worked. This was his way, not so different from mine, of getting through disappointment—writing through it. We stayed for three hours, each of us taking a break once in a while to browse in the used books while the other kept vigilant watch over the laptop. John found a half dozen used art books which I found later in his Urban Tree Forge office. He was back to work, moving on—the clouds lifting. He made friends with all the cashiers at the store and the café. It was the way he poured himself into his work, how excited he got about old books of photographs and art prints. He was gathering ideas, feeding the dream. He had a big leather notebook where he wrote and made sketches. We had this in common—we both liked to drift and let the ideas settle in. We didn’t have any heart-to-heart discussions that day, we didn’t talk much at all, but there was an understanding between us that these were good hours, unburdened by worry, a reprieve for both of us. Now, this was no one else’s memory but mine.

It is well past ten o’clock when we arrive at the home Maura’s aunt and uncle, Ed and Rita Staudt, in Romney, Indiana. Navigating the dark rural streets proved difficult. We were low on gas and got lost several times. When we came upon a gas station nested all around in miles of tall trees and concealed homes, it was only just in time. We gave in and called for directions. Maura’s Aunt Rita was already in Pittsburgh for the funeral, but Uncle Ed guided us in and greeted us with his undaunted good spirits. He had put out toys, many of them his own grown children’s toys made ready as if for a visit from his own grandchildren. The living room looked like Christmas morning—and Colin and Quinn went right to the toys. The Staudt’s dog, Magnum, moved comfortably between the boys and me, taking whatever attention he could get. It was midnight when we went upstairs to the bedrooms that stretched along the hallway, bordered on one side by a banister and a view of the living room and kitchen 15-feet below. There was a room for each boy and for Maura and I. Colin fell to sleep immediately, but it took Quinn a while to relax in an unfamiliar place—a paneled room with a slanted ceiling and pictures of Ed and Rita’s married children on the wall. I fell asleep next to him and woke two hours later to make my way to the room where Maura slept.

Monday, May 17
We pushed on hard into Pittsburgh—through Indianapolis, several more hours in rural Indiana, across Ohio and through Columbus, briefly into Wheeling, West Virginia, and finally into Pittsburgh at near dark, about the time John’s accident occurred four days before. The viewing was well underway and crowded. Hundreds of visitors. John was beloved, active in the arts and urban affairs. Only a small number in attendance were family members. Our boys were each intimidated by the situation in their own way: Quinn hid behind his mother or me (several times I stepped back and nearly tripped over him). It took one of his beautiful teenage cousins to coax him into her arms and then around the room to greet relatives he had seen pictures of but never met. He relaxed and started to laugh. Colin, on the other hand, chattered to himself and pulled me toward the door, begging to go. He caught a glimpse of John in his coffin across the room. A Marine Corps veteran, John was in uniform with a folded American flag near his head. Colin questioned nervously, “Why is Uncle John in a box? Why is Uncle John in a box with a triangle flag? Why is there a triangle in Uncle John’s box?” He said, “I want to go. I want to go outside. I want to go. Uncle John is in a box, dad. I want to go outside.”

For a time I resisted his pleas. We crossed through the crowd to introduce the boys to their grandma Eileen who was seated against the wall not far from the Coffin. Eileen smiled warmly and focused all her attention on the boys. But Colin couldn’t take his eyes off the coffin. He covered his ears. A crowd of people trying to keep their voices down is still a lot of voices. John’s daughter Chelsie smiled through tears, working hard to greet everyone, so beautiful in her grief. My question was not so different from Colin’s: Why is Uncle John in a box? It’s a roomful of awkward reunions and introductions, the paradox of funerals—people happy to see people they haven’t seen in years, but hesitant to express happiness out of respect. John would have been called for as loud and happy a gathering as possible. Within the capacity of the practiced courtesy of people at funerals, John mostly got his wish.

The paramedics who arrived the night of May 13 found a dozen or more witnesses on the scene, most of them huddled around John. The witnesses interviewed brought the scene and its characters to life: “A white male who talked like a lawyer” was down on his knees to put pressure on the John’s legs, trying to slow the bleeding. Someone else “grabbed a mesh thing and tied it around the victim’s upper thigh as a tourniquet.” The passenger in the truck that had pulled the trailer held a child in her arms. She cried hysterically until “an older white male” came out of nowhere to comfort her. None of the witnesses could identify the older man or explain where he had gone. Who was he? More and more drivers stopped. To this terrible scene they gathered, and not without hope they struggled to help John, shouted out instructions, called 911 again and again just to be doing something, anything. John died among strangers, among sudden friends.

Out in the car, Colin relaxed into the familiar confines of his car seat. Rain fell hard on the windows and car roof. He hummed to himself and studied a favorite A to Z book of fruits and vegetables and said the names out loud—artichoke, asparagus, currant, endive, gooseberry, jicama, kumquat, nectarine, pomegranate, rhubarb, and zucchini. He watched the raindrops pool and flow down the windows. People rushed by with umbrellas. They wore overcoats. Men wore ties, many of them, women dresses. Some walked quickly through the heavy rain, others ran—back and forth from John’s viewing. One umbrella stood out with its red polka dots. I could only see smeared figures hunched under it, no faces. At 7:05 by the car’s digital clock the umbrella floated by on the way to the viewing and the red dots reappeared at 7:28 and disappeared into the cab of a pick-up truck.

Last week I had played catch with Colin and Quinn. We all had our baseball mitts. Quinn would have thrown the ball for an hour straight, but we struggled to draw Colin into the game. He would catch a ball or two, and then wander off, and the next time I looked he’d be dropping handfuls of grass clippings in front of his face, his head tilted, singing a song I couldn’t hear well enough to identify. I’d call him back, calling five or six times before he looked up and another ten times before he’d wander over. “Come on, buddy, let’s give the grass a rest?” This happened several times in as many minutes. Each time we’d have to search for his mitt. We’d throw a few more balls and he’d be gone again, back to the falling grass. Like countless other instances of stark comparison, Quinn now played inside with his cousins, anxious to please, laughing at the mere hint of a joke, giggling and flushed even on this somber night. Colin could giggle and run around with the best of them, but not this time. Colin sat in his car seat where it was now too dark to read and nothing to do but watch the rain and listen to the radio. I imagined the music played out in the moving headlights and rain, passing shadows, reflected light on the clouded windows.
Each time I asked Colin if he was ready to go back in, he was emphatic that he completely and absolutely can’t go back in! It was too cold and wet to roll the windows down, so they clouded up. Passersby might well have imagined a pack of dogs cooped up in the foggy box, or a pair of lovers. I finally turned on an interior light and Colin returned to his persimmons and turnips while I dozed.

The scene the homicide detectives found: “The victim’s ear-muffs, air respirator, glasses, and pieces of wood were strewn across the sidewalk . . . A large pool of blood was directly underneath the trailer where the black metal hitch meets the storage area of the U-Haul.” While the officers surveyed the scene and interviewed the driver and other witnesses, John was being treated “for massive blood loss” at Presbyterian Hospital. His mother, Eileen McCann, received a phone call and was driven by a friend to the hospital. She was the first to learn of his death. She identified the body alone and refused to let anyone else see the body—including her ex-husband Fred, John’s father. She was protecting them. “You don’t want to remember this,” she said.

After an hour in the car I saw the blurred image of a woman outside the window. She knocked hard. It was Cheryl, a dear friend of Maura’s, come to the rescue. She leaned in the open door, her dark hair damp with rain. “Maura’s coming out,” she said. “I’m going to make you some dinner.”

We followed Cheryl through an old Pittsburgh neighborhood with row houses an arm’s length apart to her home. Her daughter Rachael waited there with her son Josh—and immediately the boys set to playing, while Cheryl heated soup and buttered toast, all the time talking and laughing. Cheryl and Maura swapped stories of the days when Maura used to babysit Cheryl’s children or further back when Cheryl took care of Maura and her siblings. Rachel listened without saying much, enchanted to learn things she’d never known about her mother or the past. Maura laughed freely in the presence of a cherished past remote from the grief of the day. Maura’s memory of childhood poverty was far outpaced by her nostalgia for loyal friends and simple pleasures, a kind of pleasure only children can have in poverty, in the midst of divorce, unaware of the harsh judgments of others. For Maura, jumping rope and riding a second- or third-hand bicycle up and down the street was enough for joy, to be in motion was enough, even if they were digging up grass in the back yard to plant a garden or doing laundry or dishes. “I always had someone to be with, never by myself,” she told me many times.

Josh, Colin and Quinn ran laps through the kitchen and living room, getting into all Josh’s toys at once. When Cheryl’s oldest daughter, Meghan Blaney, arrived, things really got more lively. Maura, Meghan and Cheryl laughed themselves to tears while the boys beat a path through the kitchen, out into the entryway, through the living room, round and round, on foot or on tricycles. It was wild—joyful. Where does it come from on a day like this? And yet it does.

I hope the boys will remember this. Not Uncle John in a box. That’s what John would want. Or one of countless other moments better to remember from the days ahead in Pittsburgh and on the two thousand mile journey home: The room at Phipps Conservatory filled with butterflies that Colin will mistake for yellow jackets, ducking his head and swatting at them until he was hypnotized by the slow blink of wings and the fluttering masses high in the tropical plants. Or John’s high-ceilinged workshop where dozens of projects await: a baby grand piano in mid-restoration, tall stacks of wood, table saws, forklifts, long strips of wood being pieced together as a table. Or the moment when we all stood in the very spot where John died.

Or the nights we would swim in hotel pools and put towels down on the floor in front of the TV, a picnic of chips and cold sandwiches and soda, the smell of chlorine and shampoo, the comfort of dry pajamas after a long swim. One night I will tell boys that in a hundred years, or even a thousand, or more, we’ll return to this one-room world and realize how happy we were. If I could package memories for them, this would be one of them. Or when a truck stop waitress brought Colin a serving of fresh fruit on a bed of lettuce and he said: “I should have brought a caterpillar to eat this lettuce.” Or the night we lost a wallet found again in Effingham, Illinois. Or the St. Louis Arch seen from the freeway at 1:30 a.m., the high winds in Hays, Kansas, the moment we exited the Eisenhower tunnel—like a wormhole in space—and appeared in an entirely different landscape, the midnight snowstorm in Salina, Utah, or the hawk—and a series of its relatives—that glided over the freeway in front of us, guiding us all the way home.

Or better yet, the evening at Aunt Ginny and Uncle Don’s home in Coraopolis—the night following the funeral. Colin and Quinn ran with their cousins across the two-acre stretch of green lawn and up the hill into the woods to find the skeleton of Uncle Don’s old flying machine and his Chitty Chitty Bang Bang workshop lined with tools and boxed car parts. Motorcycles. The red car made from scratch, bicycles, lawnmowers, a tractor or two, fans, motors, unidentifiable mechanical creations. From the workshop they will look back down at the lighted windows of Aunt Ginny’s house where the cousins and aunts and uncles mill about or sit on the back porch. Inside two tables stacked with food—tossed salads, frosted brownies, fresh rolls. Chocolate chip cookies, sliced cheese, miniature carrots and broccoli, tuna casseroles, pitchers of lemonade, soda in cans, potato chips—a feast. And again the rooms filled with voices and laughter. Maura came to this same home many times as a child to celebrate holidays and warm summer nights and at times to stay overnight with cousins. This is what Maura talks about when remembering these gatherings—the voices and laughing and not having to worry about being anyone but yourself, and being free to come in and out, and move from room to room, from conversation to conversation (or animated arguments). This rich family uproar—yet comfortable enough that Uncle Al can fall asleep in a rocking chair right in the middle of three different conversations crossing the room, while the younger cousins chase each other in and out of the room.

Or perhaps the best moment of all was what happened just after we left Cheryl’s house that first night in Pittsburgh, when we followed Meghan Blaney through the narrow streets. She said: “I’m gonna to show you a killer view of the downtown,” pronounced dahntahn. She drove up steep hills, fast around corners, until we came to a crest and made a hard right to a view so stunning we didn’t have to say “Look!” to the boys: they stared open mouthed at the lights stretched out between rivers and up into the sky. We opened our windows to the night air, clean after the rain. Death was out there somewhere, but far off, so much more life and motion. Boats on the river, bridges that appeared to float in mid air, crowded arteries of red and white lights, and all the dark places between filled with John’s urban forest made invisible by the night.

May 2012

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About slcantwell25

A writer focused on the transforming power of memory, autism, parenting, and the ways we know what we know.
This entry was posted in Essays and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to We Have Become Travelers

  1. Jane Luger says:

    Amazing story Steve. Tears for losing John and laughs about the caterpillar. What an amazing tribute to John and the entire family. Jane

  2. aluminum says:

    Beautiful, Steve. I think of you and your family often, hope you are well.
    Christy

  3. Ms. Boice says:

    Steve, this is perfectly written. What a wonderful tribute.

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