Thousand-Mile Drive

Digital art depicting a moon-lit sky. A tree is seen in the middle ground.
1. Start out going west toward N Academy St. You do not have a GPS or a smartphone. You do have these printed Rand-McNally directions and a compass shining red on the rear-view mirror: E, S, W, N.

You know you are going north. Follow the N on the mirror and you’ll be fine.

2. E McKnight Dr becomes W McKnight Dr.  

This is not the way to the Middle Tennessee Medical Center, the route you drove every day for two weeks, taking her back and forth for the radiation treatments described in your Family Medical Leave Act paperwork as “palliative.”

Today you are going home, and that is a different route altogether.

 

3. Turn right to stay on W McKnight Dr.  

On Monday you will drop the FMLA paperwork at HR. You have ten more weeks of family care you can use this year, at varying rates of pay, should the need arise.

 

4. Turn left onto US-231/SR 96.  

Your son-in-law will have given you his road atlas and you’ll analyze alternative routes around Nashville. But you will stop to buy gas and get coffee and end up taking the first likely looking road north, improvising, not missing any of the Nashville traffic after all, smoking the cigarettes you told yourself you were not going to buy.

He will have given you a thank-you note, too, and Raisinets for the road.

 

5. Merge onto I-24.  

You won’t have gone to Carmen’s, their favorite Mexican restaurant, but you did have take-out wings from the Slick Pig. There are certain dietary restrictions now. No dairy, no soy. You will have spent time at the coffee shop with WiFi across from the Medical Center, where you bribed the little girls with cookies and fruit cups while you checked your email and their mama had another appointment.

 

6. Merge onto I-24 W/I-40 via EXIT 52B on the left.  

“Part of our task,” her sister said, “is to avoid making our emotional burden her emotional burden.”

 

7. Merge onto I-24 via EXIT 211.  

You will scan the radio dial for talk shows, live sporting events. Music will be unbearable.

 

8. Merge onto I-24/I-65 via EXIT 46B.  

I-65 N through Louisville will be closed for construction, which these directions won’t account for. After you take the wrong detour exit, and are circling Louisville looking for a north-bound highway, you will be listening to two women on the radio discussing the processes that assure Louisville’s exceptionally pure and tasty drinking water. One of the women will say something to the effect that she would never move away from the Ohio River valley and its water.  This will infuriate you, suddenly and beyond all proportion.

 

9. Merge onto I-65 N via EXIT 88B (Passing through Kentucky, then crossing into Indiana).  

You will find yourself screaming at the water woman on the radio. You will loathe her and her imagined blonde highlights, her gold earrings, her crisp blue-and-white striped Talbot’s blouse. You will shriek into the cocoon of your car, shaking the steering wheel, panting and raw at 75 miles an hour on an unfamiliar freeway.

 

10. Merge onto I-465 N/US-31/SR 37 via EXIT 106.  

You will keep it between the white lines, your heart will stop skidding, you’ll breathe and concentrate on exits. You will find the right one.

All the rough futilities will be riding shotgun now.

 

11. Take the IN-37 exit, EXIT 37.  

You will stop for the night in Coldwater, just inside the border of your beleaguered, pretty state, and still you’ll be only halfway there.

 

12. Merge onto I-69 N (Crossing into Michigan).  

You’ll realize you don’t know what time it is. There was the change from the Eastern Time Zone to Central going south, then a change from Standard to Daylight Savings while you were gone, and now the switch from Central back to Eastern. It will take you quite a few miles’ worth of thinking to figure out that you’ll need to set the clock on your dash forward one hour.  It was right for a week there, in Tennessee.

It shouldn’t have taken you so long to puzzle it out.

 

13. Take the I-69 Business exit, EXIT 10.  

You will stay in the same Comfort Inn you slept in going down. It’s not terrible. You have friends and cousins still in this part of the state, but you will not call them. You don’t know the answers to any of their questions.

 

14. Turn left onto I-69 Business.  

You visited Coldwater many times as a child.  This is where your feral cousins lived. After you check in to your hotel room, slamming the dented metal door behind you, you will drive up and down Chicago Street trying to locate your cousins’ old house, the house where the adults were seldom in evidence, where there was always Pepsi in the refrigerator.

 

15. Turn slight right onto Division St.  

You won’t locate the Chicago Street house. It’s been forty-five years and nothing looks the same. You’ll turn around in the Agri-Group parking lot, drive through KFC for a Nashville-style dark meat meal with coleslaw and go back to the hotel, walking through the echoing screams of the birthday party in the dim indoor pool area. Patio furniture on maroon carpet, adults in jeans with boxes of beer and pizza.  Breathless children hoot and leave wet tracks to the food, their pale skin glowing in the lavender light. It’s way too early for tans at this latitude.

You will eat the chicken and watch the NCAA basketball tournament. You have new things to Google: Xgeva, Lupron. Letrozole. Ibrance. Tips for caregivers. Metastasis. You’ll make the mistake of reading the statistics. You will not click the tab that says, “End of Life Concerns.”

Second leg of trip

1. Start out going north on I-69 Business/

W Chicago St.

 

In the morning you will have eaten scrambled eggs and something like sausage from the free breakfast buffet. You’ll be on the freeway before you notice that you left your travel mug in the breakfast area. You will be all the way home before you discover that you left your husband’s Northern Exposure dvd set—the one she borrowed and is now returning—somewhere. You will have also misplaced your only white bra. These are just the things you know you lost.

 

2. Turn right onto US-12/E Chicago St.  

Your son will call you and you will use the hands-free phone capabilities of your car and he will keep you company through all of this morning. You will talk about her, you will talk about his new job, his family, the progression of spring, the progression of disease, March Madness. You will realize that this is the first year in a long time that you didn’t fill out a bracket. You hope to make it home before the evening games start. It’s just general interest fandom from here on out. Your teams are already eliminated.

 

3. Turn left to take the I-69 Business ramp.  

Driving north into Michigan is entering a funnel.  The great arms of the Great Lakes will herd you to the tip of the mitten, where you will fling across that dream of a bridge into the Upper Peninsula. Then you’ll be really north. Then you’ll be nearly home.

Heading south two weeks ago, driving out of the wide end of Michigan’s funnel, you could have wound up anywhere. The map was essential. Your terror was unfocused, diffuse. It will be hardened now: an iceberg the color of guts.

 

4. Merge onto I-69 N.  

On the way down she texted to prepare you for what you would find when you got there. You replied that you were prepared for whatever it was. You will not have been prepared for the cane, or the way she held her breath to move.  Perhaps both of you knew you were faking.

 

5. Merge onto I-69 W via EXIT 72 on the left.  

You don’t know what the five stages of grief are.  You don’t know if it’s time for that yet.

 

6. I-69 W becomes I-96 W.  

Going back home will begin to seem like a kind of fleeing.

Pull-ups and potty chairs, cheese quesadillas and yogurt, playgrounds, parks, nature trails. While Mama rested, the little girls helped you wash your car, make Irish soda bread, clean the refrigerator. You will have finally seen Frozen.

 

7. I-96W becomes I-69 N. Remind yourself to send her the link to the soy- and dairy-free nutrition bars.
8. Take EXIT 89A-B.  

You stop at every rest area. These are your doctor’s instructions; you have your own minor issues to manage. If there isn’t a rest area within an hour, you will find an exit with a gas station convenience store. The guy tending the shop will be inventorying the liquor and wearing his Bluetooth earpiece, speaking Arabic or something like that into the phone, pausing to take your money, switching to English without missing a beat. You will admire his cultural facility, contrast it to your own uncomfortable encounter with the locals during the Sunday after-church rush at a Long John Silver’s on the Indiana/Kentucky border.

 

10. Take the US-127 N exit, EXIT 89B.  

You will have been busy and funny in Tennessee, changing the subject during certain small silences and refilling the water bottles.

 

11. Merge onto US-127 N via EXIT 82B.  

You will toss these instructions in the back seat about now. You no longer need any direction; the Upper Peninsula pulls at you, magnetic north aligning the iron in your corpuscles.

In an hour you will see the snow where it lingers along fencerows and the shady sides of buildings.

 

12. US-127 N becomes I-75 N (Portions toll).  

It was full-on spring when you left Tennessee.  Birds, daffodils, flowering trees. The little girls wore shorts when you fed the ducks in the park on the Medical Center campus, when you held hands just yards from the railroad tracks and watched a freight train go by. It was so close! And all the three of you could do was watch, transfixed by its bigness and your smallness. Your insignificance in its trajectory, your non-consequence in its progress.

 

 

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