The afternoon in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains appeared somber as I drove along I-24 Westbound from Knoxville to Memphis to be with my children. I had been overseas for three months in the Netherlands at an educational summit and had enjoyed it immensely; well, that is until I received that fateful phone call in the early morning hours that every parent dreads. It was 4 a.m. in Amsterdam, which was seven hours ahead of the time zone of the caller, and I was groggy but the sound of the unusual ring at that time in the morning found me wide awake.
It was my former wife, Robbin, who sounded out of breath.
“David, there’s been a horrible accident and Chaz’s car is totaled.”
Chaz was our oldest of three children and had recently turned 17. The shock of that statement sent cyber fast images across my mind’s eye; a mangled car, blood, a hospital ambulance, a room of dedicated emergency medical technicians, and doctors frantically working in the organized chaos of those ever so familiar scenes.
As she was describing her reality of this nightmare and the details of the accident scene, my cell phone vibrated indicating an incoming message that she had sent. There were pictures attached; it was the car, upside down and parts of a utility pole next to it that had obviously snapped by the great force of the car. It was barely recognizable as the silver shiny Grand Jeep Cherokee that I had bought for him as a senior high school year present.
Oh, my God, I thought, as I unwittingly uttered the words to her “What happened?”.
“I don’t know David but you have to come quick”.
“I’ll be there,” I said and hung up the phone and began immediately calling the airlines to check the next available flights to the United States.
There was an early morning flight, but I first had to make a mad rush for the inner-city train in den Hague to Amsterdam Central and I barely made the flight but with the help of some compassionate airport security personnel who responded only to the words “emergency” as I held out the picture of the car on my cell. I made it to the aircraft in the last moments and could feel the cessation of the wind drafts as the flight attendant closed the cabin door behind me.
The seven-hour flight was a mental battle wrapped in a nightmare. Time became my adversary and refused to pass at its normal pace, almost intentionally, it seemed. I remembered the lyrics to that popular song of the 1970s entitled “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald.”
“Does anyone know where the love of God goes,
when the waves turn the minutes to hours.”
My mind began playing tricks on my sense of reality; blame, guilt, if onlys, permanent life of wheelchairs…..funeral? The agony intensified as the minutes lagged.
I began to pray, fervently. I had believed all my life that one should never pray for an outcome to our all-powerful creator and maker for he knows all and events will go according to his plan.
So, I instead prayed for strength and wisdom to know what to do upon landing and to have the Lord’s direction at how to comfort Chaz’s mother and siblings who would no doubt be devastated.
Tears streamed down my face from the moment of take off and through the ascension to cruising altitude. My emotional distress was at some point noticed by a flight attendant who had inquired if there was anything else she could do and with whom I shared my story. She sat beside me in an empty seat and we prayed together. She checked on me frequently throughout the flight with unbelievable kindness.
Finally, the Captain announced over the intercom, “We have started our descent over the Knoxville area and we will be landing in approximately 30 minutes”.
Countdown! Fifteen, ten, five and then, as I looked out across the Tennessee River below, I switched on my cell phone and waited for the new messages. The phone began to continuously vibrate but the Boeing 757 had touched down before I was able to retrieve the anxiously awaited news and pictures.
Before I was able to download any of the pictures, I noticed an interrupting incoming call. It was Robbin calling and my heart stopped. I took a deep breath, as I exhaled the words beneath my breath; “God hold my hand, please hold my hand”.
“David, are you back in the Country yet?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “How is Chaz?”
“David, he’s going to be fine, just some bad bruises and lacerations.”
The exultation inside me began instantly and it was moments later before I was able to breathe normally. I felt gratitude like I had never experienced it before.
There is a physiological phenomenon that occurs in the aftermath of a horrific traumatic relief that overcomes the mind, body, and spirit. A cognitive dissonance. A mental separation from reality.
The feeling is not unlike a pre-operative drug administered prior to a surgical procedure. If there is such a feeling as numbness of cognitivism of thoughts and sensations, then that would have described me perfectly during those moments, for I do not remember removing my luggage off of the conveyor belt in the baggage section of the airport.
My worst of all fears behind me, I found myself still unable to control my emotions of what could have been.
Upon leaving Knoxville was a most scenic drive along 120 miles of highway, and it was along this route that I noticed a roadway sign indicating a scenic tourist area that overlooked what is known as Nickajack Lake lookout point. It was a good time and place to stop and regain my composure, I thought, and to try to stop the constant flowing of tears down my cheeks.
Nickajack is actually a tributary that flows off from the main body of the Tennessee River and, upon seeing the signs of the rest area, I felt exhausted and decided that I should stop and rest. I wondered if I could make it the last mile to the turnoff. As I opened both eyes wide, I began counting backwards the tenths of the last mile to zero and, at last, the entrance to the rest area appeared.
I pulled in and slowly inspected the parking spaces in search for an empty one as close to the overlook bench area as I could find. I was in luck. I proceeded slowly and as I passed in front of the vending area, a car with Michigan plates pulled out from a parking space. I eased my car into the empty space, turned off the ignition, leaned back, and closed my eyes. So much farther until I could wrap my arms around my son who had, I believe, been spared from the vey grasp of death.
After a few moments of resting, I exited the car and approached the overlook area and found myself an empty bench. For the first time, I noticed the beautiful waters of the Tennessee River, its translucence and blue-green color. I sat on a visitors bench and gazed over the waters at the tall maple trees that adorned the banks and, as the sun shone above it, the reflections of the ripples and waves made them sparkle majestically. The next thing I realized, there were still tears streaming down my face and I felt pummeled by a feeling of both mental exhaustion and an almost psychic catharsis.
The reality of it all, my long absences away from the children, the memories of playing by the banks of this very same river as a youth, all became intermingly entwined in my soul and the only outlet it seemed to find was through my tears. My head was bowed at my obvious embarrassment of such a display of emotions in a public place and as I looked up to see if anyone had noticed me, it appeared as though there hadn’t been, except for one person, and that is when I noticed her.
She was an elderly but distinguished looking woman dressed with a long overcoat and a light silk scarf neatly tied about her neck and expertly folded inside her coat lapel. Had she noticed me? She was so close to me, yet she looked upon the waters with a gaze so intense that it reminded me of a bird of prey perched upon a high tree top. She was obviously too preoccupied with other thoughts to possibly have seen anything else. But she was standing so close and I wondered how it was that I had not seen her approach?
I dropped my head again and buried them in my hands as though it would appear to others that I was simply resting when, in actuality, I was hiding my reddened face and the glazed look of tears. Memories and flashbacks raced before my mind’s eye and the many emotions were so mixed that I had no idea what I was actually feeling, except way from normal. After a period of silence from other visitors and the sounds of the vending machines, I lifted my head and was startled!!
To my great surprise, the elderly woman I had seen before was now sitting beside me!!!!
“It’s a beautiful afternoon,” she said.
“Why, er, yes ma’am, it certainly is,” I responded, hoping that this exchange of pleasantry was purely out of good manners and that there would be no more. I wanted only to be left alone.
“I’ve been coming here many years,” she continued.
Then she raised her arm and pointed out to a small piece of ground protruding out from the vastness of the river. I don’t really care, I thought, but she continued to point and speak of it.
“You see that tiny little island there in the middle of the water?”
I did and nodded affirmatively so as not to be rude or disrespectful in any way. It was small patch of dry land in the midst of the main body of the river and it had a tower in the middle of it.
“My name is Sara Weeks, what’s yours?”
I told her.
“Well, David, my husband proposed to me on that island. I was 17,” as she pointed once again to the small tiny patch of ground.
She continued, “We took a rowboat there and had a picnic and he proposed to me with a ring in his hand. Since that time, we had always referred to it as Engagement Island. We visited here many times afterwards through the years. There was no tower upon it then or anything else around here in those days.”
Suddenly, my mind left my recent thoughts of the tumultuous and emotionally packed despair of the previous 24 hours. I tried ascertaining the age of Ms. Sarah Weeks and to imagine just how long ago in the past that would have been.
As I allowed my mind to run free for a brief few moments, I could almost envision this young woman of 17 sitting upon that lonely little island in a long ankle length cotton white dress, which marked the times of days long gone. I turned to look at her as she sat beside me. Her gaze was unchanged and she was still gazing out over the far reaches of the waters. It seemed to captivate her and hold her in a trance.
In the twilight silhouette of this woman, I saw the regality of a life well lived. She looked a woman of principle and purpose of all that is good in this world, or at least what was good. She reminded me of one of those characters in a Norman Rockwell painting, all so real. My heart awoke again and I remembered my own recent day’s past and my tears began to stream once again for what seemed like forever.
It was uncontrollable despite her presence and I wished immensely that this sweet wonderful lady would excuse herself and simply go somewhere else, but she did not. No matter, I thought. If she wants to stick around and watch a grown man in his grief, she might as well as I don’t really know her anyway.
Suddenly, she grabbed my hand, and it was warm, as she said, “I believe that I have come by at just the right time. Why don’t we sit here a spell, ok?”
I nodded in agreement. I couldn’t believe that a total stranger was holding my hand over no objections from me and that it felt so wonderful.
The tears continued to fall for awhile and my “miracle woman” Sarah said not a word. She would adjust her grip every few minutes but not a word was spoken and she seemed perfectly content to sit there with me and hold me, almost caressingly. I felt like a little boy whose mother was waiting with him at a bus stop the first day of school and her hand was noticeably warm and it felt good and reassuring.
The moments passed and my fears melted into nothingness as I felt resurgence within my heart’s soul. Thoughts of relief from those that had moments ago besieged my heart began to melt and I felt my very soul exhale. Still, we sat there and the only sound was silence. It was sweet and I felt as if I had known her for years.
Her words came next.
“How are you feeling, my dear young David?”
“I am so much better now,” I said.
“Good,” she said. “I must be running along now; I am late to my great granddaughter’s house for my 93rd birthday party.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to make you late,” I said, sheepishly.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said. “I am right where I am supposed to be. Besides, I’ll just tell them that it’s not every day a 93-year old woman gets to hold hands with a handsome young man.”
I blushed as she stood before me and held my head with both of her hands and kissed my forehead. She looked me in the eyes for the first time and said, “Now, go see those children of yours, they need you. God will be with you.”
As she walked away, I noticed the woman whose soul was adorned with virtue. A cool breeze began to blow and reminded me of yet more tears of which I was unaware, but these were no longer the tears of fear, agony, or despair.
These were the tears of gratitude and for the unforgettable and timeless Ms. Sarah Weeks who had, with her withered hand of strength, written an inscription upon my heart that would remain forever.
As I began to walk back to my car a thought suddenly dawned upon me: How did she know that I had children? I had not mentioned it at all. I swiftly turned around to gaze at her once again – she was gone. No matter, she had left her kindness and understanding with me. I could only utter but a few words…
“Thank you, Sarah. I love you.”
David Hutton is an author & International Lawyer who has written various publications from stories in Guideposts, to breaking news in the Bangkok Post to legal periodicals in the Indonesian Legal Digest but it’s the ‘Positively Positive’ topics and stories that drives the inspiration for his stories. He is the writer of the website/blogpost Precocious Life and its content extols the humanistic and inspirational topics and virtues of who we are.
Image courtesy of Jake Thacker.