By Erin Johnson
In Loving Memory of George Rodgers
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11.
No sixteen-year- old ever wants to attend her parents’ funeral, and to be honest in the grand scheme of world happenings, this should not be one of them.
I’m standing between my grandparents in the cemetery, shivering like crazy because I’m wearing a too-thin dress, and it’s only a few weeks before Christmas. My eyes are focused on the preacher, who is talking in a rather unfeeling monotone, the whole bit about “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,” trying to ignore the looks of pity and sadness from my large entourage of Aunts and Uncles and cousins.
“It happened suddenly and they didn’t feel any pain,” my grandmother insisted when she broke the news over the telephone, although it was hard to believe as she sobbed her way through the conversation.
Mom and Dad were on their way home from a long weekend of romance in the Poconos ,their all-time favorite winter vacation spot, leaving me in sole charge of our lovely but too large for three people horse farm in Chester County. I didn’t mind, of course, because I helped to care for the animals on a daily basis anyway, getting up at the crack of dawn to feed and water the five completely majestic beasts.
The night of the tragedy I was finishing the chores on a long list my mother left for me on the kitchen counter, crossing each item off the list with an air of satisfaction. Mom would be pleased to find the house in one piece, a fear she always seemed to harbor even if it never actually came to pass. I was more responsible than they gave me credit for, but until I’m an adult and living on my own I have to deal with their frustrating antics.
The phone call came around 10:00pm as I was watching television in the living room, my cat Astronaut (don’t ask) curled up on my lap. He was purring up a storm and the idea of moving him was rather cruel, but I couldn’t let the phone ring for too long.
“Come on,” I begged as the cat dug his claws into my pajama pants, letting out an unhappy meow as I finally managed to toss him across the room. I managed to reach the cordless phone on the third ring, pressing the ON button and putting the receiver to my ear. “Hello?” I asked wondering who on earth could be calling at this hour, because most of my relatives and neighbors were sound asleep by 9:00.
I could hear a quiet voice saying my name, “Samantha?” and at first I couldn’t recognize it.
“Yes?” I asked and arched an eyebrow, walking back into the living room, and turning down the volume on the television.
“Samantha, it’s your grandmother.”
My heart immediately started to pound because Mom Mom never called, especially not well past dinner time.
“What’s wrong?” I immediately asked and she began to cry, a gut wrenching sob that made my entire body feel numb.
“Your parents were in a terrible car crash tonight,” She explained once she managed to gather her wits, and I stared at the phone in disbelief. “They were on 95 South and a tractor trailer hit the car head on, your father crossed the median because he’d fallen asleep at the wheel.”
I wished I hadn’t scarfed down that box of Oreos, because I felt as though they were making their way abnormally to the back of my throat.
“Are they…” I paused and swallowed past my dry throat, and could see Astronaut lying with a dejected expression by the sliding glass door. His yellow eyes always seemed to glow in the dark, and his black tail twitched ever so slightly. “Are they okay?”
Mom Mom hiccoughed as she tried to speak again, and told me that they were dead at the scene, that any chance of reviving them was futile. Then she began to tell me how sorry she was, how terribly sorry, as though apologizing were going to right the most serious wrong in my world.
She went on to tell me how she was certain they didn’t feel any pain; that she and my grandfather would be up to be with me first thing in the morning.
“Your Aunt’s going to be there before us,” my grandmother explained after a pause and I closed my eyes, feeling slightly dizzy.
“Okay,” I practically whispered and after hanging up, I curled into a ball in the very corner of the leather couch, feeling as though I were lying inside of a freezer. The blanket Mom knitted a few months ago lay on the other side, but I was too weak to reach for it.
Dead…my parents were dead.
I couldn’t even imagine what their car looked like after being smashed into smithereens, wondering what had happened to the driver of the tractor trailer. I wanted to hate him or her for ruining my life, but for some reason I couldn’t.
I was still lying in a fetal position when my Aunt Theresa arrived, and somehow managed to drag my butt from the couch to the front door. I opened it and found her on the doorstep, mascara running down her cheeks as a result of tears, and she embraced me in a rib crushing hug.
“I’m so sorry, Samantha,” She sobbed and I winced as she pressed against me, wishing people would stop apologizing already.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I’m going to bed.”
She stared at me as I headed for the stairs, Astronaut bouncing after me, his tail raised high and straight.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk?” She asked, and I turned around while I stood on the first step, and shook my head.
“There’s nothing to discuss,” I replied. “They’re dead, end of story.”
I ignored my Aunt’s concerned stare as I made my way to my room, and collapsed on the four poster canopied bed.
I was too numb to cry.
My Aunt probably expected to find a sobbing mess when she arrived, and figured trying to get me to talk would open the flood gates.
I lay under my covers with Astronaut, staring at the shelf that contained my many ribbons and trophies, a testimony to the years of horseback riding competitions I’d endured.
I preferred barrel racing more than any other horseback sport, and my desk was cluttered with copies of a magazine cover I’d just been featured on.
Mom insisted on buying every issue at the grocery store she could find, and wanted me to autograph them for my family before we mailed them. I had gotten through three before my parents died, wondering if it was even worth continuing the process.
I pulled my lilac colored comforter up to my chin, wishing my body would warm up so I could actually get some sleep.
The last thing I remember Mom telling me before she and Dad hit the road, was to be good and not have any parties without their permission. They acted like I had some crazy hidden social life despite the fact that I was homeschooled, and my best friend from toddlerhood lived in a military household.
I wanted to call Grace and tell her that within minutes my life had been turned upside down, that I had no idea what would happen to me now that I was an orphan. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, and I wasn’t legally able to head off on my own. I knew Grace had a strict no phone calls after 7:00pm policy that had been in place since she was old enough to dial a number, and right now I didn’t want to talk to anybody.
I didn’t even want to feel Astronaut curled up against me, his purring so loud that it sounded like a helicopter.
I wanted to be alone in my misery, alone in my grief, and I could only obtain that wish by shutting my bedroom door.
I wonder if Mom and Dad had made plans about who would take me in if both of them perished suddenly, or if like me they figured they’d have more time. I think all of us expect to have more time; that we’ll get to stuff later, when really our lives could be snuffed out like the flame of a candle as quick as a blink.
I didn’t remember falling asleep but I woke up with the bright sun pouring through the window, and realizing I’d forgotten to set the alarm. It was well past ten thirty and I hadn’t been out to the barn.
I cursed and began to stumble around my bedroom, wondering why my parents hadn’t come into wake me, wondering what I was thinking as I tripped over my sneakers.
I slipped into a pair of old jeans and my favorite striped sweater, thundering down the stairs and yelling for my parents. “Mom, Dad!” I called as I entered the kitchen, to find Aunt Theresa making breakfast on the stove. I stood staring at her with wide eyes as she turned around to face me, a small smile having formed.
“When did you get in?” I asked and she flipped the pancakes she’d been working on, encouraging me to have a seat at the table.
“The horses,” I said breathlessly from all the quick movement, and Aunt Theresa finally turned off the stove and began to fill our plates with food.
“They’ve already been taken care of,” Aunt Theresa explained and I cocked my head to one side, still standing and she patted the table. “Have a seat, Samantha, we’ll talk.”
I gave up and sat down at last, staring at my pancakes and bacon, and wondering why my Aunt Theresa had come and where were my Mom and Dad?
I asked and she bit her lip, tears filling her eyes, as she realized I’d forgotten everything from the previous night.
“Oh sweetie,” She breathed.
“What?” I asked and began to cut the pancakes, my stomach growling with hungry. “Aunt Tee, tell me,” I said and she reached for my free hand, squeezing it gently.
“What do you remember?” She asked and I frowned.
“Apparently nothing,” I said and she took a deep breath.
“I feared this would happen,” She said and I arched an eyebrow, completely confused at this point.
“Aunt T, please,” I groaned.
“Your parents were killed,” Aunt Theresa explained and at once I dropped my syrup coated fork, my mouth hanging open. I remember having a nightmare about something terrible happening to them, but I had bad dreams all the time. I didn’t for a second think it was real, and my stomach immediately clenched.
“You’re not serious?” I asked and she nodded. I closed my eyes, my heart racing quickly, and I wanted to run somewhere, anywhere to escape this ridiculous situation. How could my parents be dead? I had just turned sixteen in September, surely there had to be some mistake!
I wanted to run but my legs wouldn’t move, and Aunt Theresa lowered her head.
“I wouldn’t joke about something like this,” She said. “Samantha, there was a car crash, and they didn’t make it. Your grandparents will be here by lunch time, they wanted to stop at the hospital first and identify the bodies,” She said and I suddenly felt nauseous, excusing myself from the table to rush to the bathroom.
I was on my knees and hurling within seconds of entering, choking and sobbing and gasping for air. Aunt Theresa came to check on me once the vomiting eased, but I was still sobbing, grasping the rim of the toilet bowl so tightly that my fingers hurt.
That was the last time I cried about my parents, the last time before their funeral that I shed a single tear.
When the service ended around 12:00, the preacher announced that there would be a wake at the Crab Trap restaurant, and I followed my grandparents to the black limousine. My grandparents decided to bury Mom and Dad in the family plot, located in Cape May, New Jersey where they had been living for the past eleven years.
Grace had come with me to the funeral, and sat next to me at our table.
Her long blond hair had been curled, and like me she wore a too-thin dress but unlike me had decided to wear a cardigan to match. I was too busy fearing I’d lose the ashes on the way from the church to the cemetery, clutching the two silver boxes in my hands almost as tightly as I had the toilet bowl.
Grace was awesome because she didn’t pressure me into talking, and knew that when I was quiet there was a good reason. Instead she ate her seafood pasta, gazing out at the boats on the bay, and admitted she was thinking about our last seashore visit.
My parents brought Grace and I down to Cape May every year for the first two weeks of summer, and we rented a home only a few blocks away from my grandparents. Every day of that vacation we would spend on the beach (unless it rained), and Grace loved to go to the boardwalk at least once.
Mom Mom cooked for us every night, and her meals definitely beat Mom’s rather pathetic attempts at culinary creations.
“It was so much fun,” She said and I nodded my head, attempting to eat a house salad. “Have you talked to Matt? I’m surprised he’s not here.”
My heart thudded in my chest as I thought about the son of my grandparent’s new neighbor.
I didn’t believe in love at first sight until I met Matt, and it felt as though we were soul mates, completely meant to be together. At the end of my two week holiday he’d said the words, and I’d said them back. I knew he would have dropped everything and come to me, but for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to dial his number.
I told Grace that I Matt didn’t know, and she stared at me in disbelief.
“He would have been the first person I called,” She said. “Samantha, what is wrong with you? I thought you two were like crazy in love!”
We were, but Matt was currently in California spending Christmas with his Dad for the first time since his parents divorced; his reason for living in the small seaside town.
I explained this to Grace who couldn’t seem to fathom that I hadn’t at least picked up the phone, that even if Matt wasn’t able to come to the funeral, he would have been grateful to hear my voice.
“I will call him as soon as we leave,” I said and she shook her head with determination.
“Call him right now,” she ordered and I winced at the tone in her voice, taking my small clutch outside. It was starting to snow and I shivered as I pulled my cell phone from the bag.
It was only 10:30 in the morning in California, but Matt was usually up before the sun, to practice his surfboard technique. I’d gotten to watch him surf in the Atlantic ocean, making a few failed attempts at the sport myself.
He answered his phone right away and the sound of his voice made the tears choke my throat, and for a moment I couldn’t speak.
“Samantha?” Matt asked and I sniffed hard, begging myself to calm down.
“My parents are dead,” I sobbed and there was a long pause. “They…they died in a car accident on Sunday morning.”
Matt was still quiet and I wondered if he was mad at me for keeping this from him, if Grace had been right all along. She usually was and I got awfully annoyed with being outnumbered.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” He asked quietly. “I would have been there,” He added and I sat down on the curb, not caring that it was wet, and hugged my knees to my chest.
“I didn’t want to believe it myself,” I admitted. “Matt…I’m…”
“I know,” He said. “I’ll be on the next flight home.”
“Don’t,” I begged. “One of us should be allowed to have a decent Christmas.”
I could see him rolling his eyes at my stubbornness. “Samantha Marie Danes, I am coming whether you like it or not,” he said and hung up before I could argue.
Mom Mom found me outside a few minutes later and scolded me for having scared her half to death.
“I had to call Matt,” I said and she nodded in understanding, but demanded that I come inside at once.
I followed her back into the restaurant and rejoined Grace at the table, who watched me expectantly.
I told her that Matt was taking the next flight home, that he hadn’t been so much angry with me as surprised that I hadn’t told him.
When lunch ended we headed back to my grandparent’s house, a one story structure made of brick and white aluminum siding. The trees and my grandfather’s gardens were hibernating for spring, giving the place a gloomy feel. I loved to come here in the summer when everything was in full bloom, when the petals from the cherry blossom tree would shimmer in the sunlight as they fell.
My grandparents continued to serve food and drink to my family who had come from all over, laughing and crying together as they recounted stories of my parents.
I made my way down the hallway and towards the guest room, containing two twin beds, whicker vanity table, whicker nightstand, and a closet with doors that opened with flat knob. I sat down on the white bedspread and took the familiar stuffed green frog that lay against a lace pillow, hugging him to my chest and staring out the window.
The snow had begun coming down harder, and I lay on my back as I gazed at the large flakes.
My grandmother came in and found me lying alone on the bed, shutting the door quietly behind her. She was in her early 70’s with short white hair and a rather stocky body, and she sat on the edge of my bed.
“I’m not sure if anyone’s told you but you will be living with us from now on,” Mom Mom said and I stared at her with surprise.
“What?” I asked. “What is going to happen to our farm?”
Mom Mom smiled and stroked my hair.
“We’re going to sell it,” She said and I stared at her. “Honey, with your parents gone, there’s no point in keeping such an expense.”
“It would be easier for you to move in with us than for us to move into your parents’ home,” Mom Mom explained and though I hated to agree with her, she was right about that. Still, I hated giving up my horses, and of course, competing would be out the window.
“When would I move in?” I asked and my grandmother told me that they would bring me back home on Monday, and we would begin the lengthy process of packing up my parents’ things.
I knew Matt would be ecstatic to hear I was moving in next door, but he would have to know where I’d be if he got to New Jersey after I left.
“I know this is going to be a big adjustment,” She said, “Living with two old biddies like us, but I assure you, we will do whatever we can to help make the transition easier. I’ll register you with Lower Cape May Regional High school and you can start after Christmas.”
I hadn’t been to a real school since the third grade, when I began competing regularly. Mom decided to go with correspondence courses, and I completed them while on the road or at home.
“Okay,” I said and she gave me a hug, kissing the top of my head.
“I really am very sorry this happened,” Mom Mom said and I fought the urge to roll my eyes. “I know that doesn’t help anything.”
“What happened to the tractor trailer driver?” I asked and Mom Mom’s mouth opened for a moment as though she were about to answer, but then shut it again. I didn’t know why I asked but I needed to know, maybe to get a sense of justice or whatever for my parents.
“He survived without a single injury,” Mom Mom replied and I blinked stupidly at her. “The police didn’t charge him because your father had been in the wrong, and simply put it was an accident despite the outcome.”
I stood up and glared at my grandmother, clenching my fists tightly.
“How can you possibly blame Dad?” I snapped and she stared at me worriedly.
“Honey he fell asleep at the wheel,” She explained. “There are ways to avoid…”
“I don’t care,” I said as my body trembled.
I was angry and acting out at her for no reason, but it felt good to yell at someone.
“Samantha,” Mom Mom warned and I walked over to the window, staring through the lace curtain and wondering why they thought this style would provide privacy.
“No,” I said in a more quiet tone. “I won’t let you or anyone blame Dad. He’s dead, he can’t defend himself. You said it was an accident, let’s leave it that way.”
Mom Mom stood up and came over to me, placing a hand on my shoulder, which I immediately flinched away.
“You’re right,” she said after a few moments of awkward silence and a deep breath to calm her nerves. I folded my arms and watched as the snow covered the cars parked on the street and in the small driveway, figuring my grandparents would have me out there shoveling before long.
“You’re absolutely right, I’m sorry I said that.”
I turned around and faced her again, noticing her eyes were once again tearing up, and scolding mine for staying dry.
I finally gave her a hug and she held me for what felt like a long time, and I didn’t even realize I was crying until I saw her wet shirt when we released our grip.
“Do you want to stay in here for a little while?” She asked as she smoothed a tear from my cheek, and I nodded my head. “I won’t let anyone come in and bother you, I promise.” She squeezed my hand and left the room, shutting the door once again.
I was thrilled when Matt came home from California the afternoon following the funeral and leapt into his arms when he came to my grandparent’s house.
He was so handsome it was almost illegal, with his dark brown hair and green eyes, his thin but well-toned body. He buried his face against my hair and breathed me in, and I did the same with his chest.
“I’ve missed you so much,” He said and I reached up to touch his cheek, smooth from a recent shaving. “I’m so sorry about everything,” he said and I hugged him again, pulling him inside.
Only a few of my family members remained: Aunt Lisa and Uncle Frank, the still single but looking Uncle Howard, and my cousins Mary Beth and Peter, who belonged to Aunt Lisa and Uncle Frank.
They were sitting with my grandparents in the living room, and looked up when they saw me with my amazing boyfriend. Long distance boyfriend for the most part except on weekends, but still…
“Matthew,” Mom Mom exclaimed as she stood up to give him a hug, and he returned the gesture, giving his condolences. “It’s so good to have you home, how was your flight?”
Matt shrugged as he kept his arm around my shoulders while we sat down on the floor together, the only available space in the room.
“Long and boring as always,” he said and I leaned against him. “Plus I’m coming down with a cold so my head was killing me from the altitude,” he admitted and I frowned at him.
“How long have you been sick?” I asked and he shrugged.
Matt hadn’t been sick since I’d been dating him, and it had been a good six months.
“A few days,” He replied. “Sore throat, coughing, and…” he paused to sneeze and all of us jumped and blessed him. “Thanks, sorry,” he apologized and I continued to keep my arm around his waist. That was why he hadn’t kissed me and had only hugged me in the driveway, avoiding the spread of unwanted germs.
“You should go home and rest,” I suggested and he shook his head, scratching at mine just the way I liked it. I pretended to purr as Astronaut had done my last night living in my parent’s house, and wondered if I’d be able to keep him at least.
I asked my grandparents this rather mundane question and they looked at each other; they never had a pet in their lives, even with seven children. They had a stone dog by the fireplace, which they insisted was the ideal pet, because it didn’t make noise or have to be cleaned up after.
“Well…” Mom Mom said and I gave her a sad look.
“I’m pretty allergic to cats,” Matt told me and I turned to him with a frown. “Means I’d have to limit my visits, or have you come over my place more often.” He kissed my forehead which was safer than my lips currently.
“You could always get allergy shots,” I said and he grinned playfully.
“Well I guess it’s the least I could do considering you’ve lost your parents and all,” He said and I rolled my eyes, pretending to shove him.
“You’re darned right it is,” I said and Mom Mom held her hand in the air.
“Now wait a minute,” She spoke and we both turned to face her curiously. “Your grandfather and I never gave our response.”
I stuck out my lower lip as Uncle Howard leaned forward so he could get a better look at them.
“Samantha I’m sure will take full responsibility so you won’t have to worry,” He said and I grinned with relief at him.
“Cats are sneaky and they shed everywhere,” Mom Mom argued and I promised I’d take care of everything in regards to Astronaut’s shedding and his supposed sneakiness.
“Come now, Pat,” Poppy said with his own smile. “It really is the least we can do for her. If her cat provides the comfort she needs of home, then we should allow her to keep it,” He said.
Mom Mom pursed her lips and lowered her head dejectedly, knowing she was outnumbered three to one.
“Alright, alright,” She agreed and I thanked her.
“If he scratches my furniture out he goes,” She said and I promised he wouldn’t…Astronaut hadn’t scratched our furniture at home.
“He’s an outdoor cat anyway,” I said as Matt sneezed again, turning away from me just in time.
“Excuse me,” He said and I rubbed his back, as my grandfather offered him a handkerchief from his pocket.
“It’s clean,” Poppy insisted and Matt accepted it, bringing it up to his face just before releasing another sneeze.
“Good gracious,” Mom Mom said and he shook his head with frustration as he coughed and blew his nose, and I ordered him to go home before he infected the rest of us.
“I love you too,” Matt said and kissed the top of my head, insisting he’d see me tomorrow.
“Samantha will be in Pennsylvania helping us pack up the house,” Mom Mom explained and Matt nodded in understanding, asking that I call him when I got there and let him know when I was coming home.
“I will,” I insisted and walked him to the door.