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My childhood church celebrated 125 years this weekend and my former youth pastor decided to seize the opportunity and get his particular group of kids together prior to the church’s celebration dinner. I went just for the youth part. The last time I remember seeing some of those kids was 25 years ago at the church’s centennial, but other than a small handful, I hadn’t seen them since I left my hometown in 1992. It was a special group with many shared memories and experiences. We were together a lot because those were the days when you went to church no matter what, and we did. There were also mission trips, camps, concerts, outreaches, movie nights, Mazzio’s, and on and on. We laughed. We cried. We fought. We defended. We knew each other’s families and business and our lives were completely intertwined. I am now friends with a great majority of them on Facebook so it seems for most, we have yet to miss a beat as individuals, but that group dynamic… It’s something.

And now let me back up a minute.

My father was a traveling salesman. He would leave home on Monday, travel the week, and I lived to hear the click of his loafers on the wood floor of the pantry on Friday evenings as he came in from the garage. He would kiss us all, change into comfy clothes, eat the delicious dinner my mother always prepared and then sit at the piano to bang out, ever so wonderfully, all of his weeks frustrations. He spent most Saturdays with the boys at the coffee shop and so Sundays were OURS. Church, lunch, home for my parent’s “nap,” my brother and I to church for youth or, my favorite, popcorn or macho nachos for dinner and Sunday evening TV snuggled in the blue chairs.

A large majority of the time I had with my daddy was in the church. My greatest memories of him are there. At the beginning of the isle.

When I was 13, my father was in a fatal car accident on the icy roads of rural Oklahoma. Our church family were literally God’s hands in holding us, my mother, brother and I, together in the aftermath. They were wonderful and I love them all still. 

I lived in that town for six years after his death but they were all tumultuous for me personally. I looked like a regular girl but I lived in mourning, acting out, looking for something to fill my soul, not knowing how to BE A PERSON.

In moving away, I found life. My exit (a large post in it’s self) was neither elegant nor simple, and instead was giant and incredibly complicated. However. It managed to save the good parts of me that were left. I kept a few old friends close to my heart but mostly, I found new. New hands to hold me up. New regular places. New people who didn’t know the wild child Chelley with the undiagnosed ADHD and who’s Daddy had died. I’ve never regretted leaving or considered it running away. I just needed to go.

I’m generally an emotional compartmentalizer. I live totally out there and I am indeed AN EMOTIONAL CRAZY LADY but I’ve learned to keep the hard stuff tucked safely away.  I’m softening with age and the tears make their way through in an appropriate manner, like on birthdays or Christmas, and I’m pretty good at dodging triggers.

But seeing all those faces again that were there this weekend.. that knew him.. that held us.. and when my youth pastor asked me if I remembered that night.. it came back in floods. I TOLD Lori I didn’t want to go.

I am now aware that there’s more to be done.

While I’ve written around, to the side of, underneath and through that night, I’ve never just written IT. And as I drove that drive home for the millionth time Friday night, I drove as fast as I could AWAY from there but I made up my mind that it was time to, as a writer, seek more of that oh, so necessary catharsis and simply and to the best of my recollection, write my most important stories. Welcome to my journey. May we will all learn something.

And now, as the first of a few, I will start with that night.

Friday, February the 7th 1986

It was around time for my mom and I to leave the house to go watch a high school basketball game. My brother was the team manager, and we hadn’t yet been to one. My brother had just left the house to pick up his best friend Beeker on his way into town. We had been experiencing freezing temps and precipitation in the weeks before, but the roads were, by then, well-traveled and were nothing that the drivers in the family couldn’t handle. My Dad had called earlier letting my mom know that he was in town and to ask what movie she would like for him to rent before he headed the last 10 or so miles home. Damn Yankees, they decided.  

I was standing in my bathroom, attempting to do some good with my too-long bangs. I was about two curls away from success when Beeker called the house to tell my mom that he and Robbie had stopped when they saw “Fred’s” car. It had been in an accident on the highway home and she needed to come right away. *Beeker called my dad Fred Schwartz but his real name was Bob. It was precious. My dad was a nut ball and so was Beeker. My mom hollered down the hall that Daddy had had a little accident and we were leaving immediately. Let’s go. I remember being pissed that my hair would look like crap for all the boys at the eventual game. I was 13. It didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t see those boys.  

We drove carefully but with lightning speed to the almost-into-town point of the little highway and we saw it. Daddy’s car. Backwards. And my dad still sitting inside. All the emergency trucks were there. My brother. Beeker. My dance teacher who was a dear friend of my parents even before there were kids. She saw the lights from her house. She said she woke up that morning with a feeling of doom and she knew. The people who owned the house where Beeker finally found a phone were there. I don’t remember seeing another, opposing car, although I know there was one.

I couldn’t see the ice that he hit either. It was too dark. I know there was that, too.

My mom pulled up behind it all and I got out of the car and just ran to him. He was trapped under the twisted steering column. He moaned and moaned. I’d never heard the biggest, bravest, most wonderful man on all of planet earth make a sound like that. I just wanted to see his face. I just wanted him to talk to me. He. Could. Not. He moaned.

Some lady emergency-worker shooed me away from him as the jaws of life finally made an appearance. I hated her. Hated. That was the last time I saw him alive.

And that’s all I can remember until we walked past the ER while they were working on him. I saw his light brown and maroon plaid shirt cut in two and hanging from a gurney and I saw his blood all over the floor. They were walking in it. I heard the counting and the paddles. I’m unsure to this day if Mom or Rob saw those things also.

They walked us into a private room where there were already people we knew. I don’t know how they knew about Daddy, these were the days before cell phones. Mom asked a doctor if Daddy was stable. He said they were trying to stabilize him. We were clueless to the thought of death. We just thought his legs had been crushed and they’d fix him.

It seemed like forever.

And the Dr. walks in.

He said,

We’re sorry. He’s died.

And I screamed. And my brother’s guttural sounds are still in my heart.

And then I blank.

And someone gives me a valium.

And my dance teacher, Judy, and somebody else drove me home from the hospital. At a stoplight, I ask Judy if the people in the cars knew that my Daddy had died. I wanted them to know. I wanted to yell to them that my Daddy had just died. She told me baby, you roll that window down and you scream to those people that your Daddy died! You can scream all you want to! Let them KNOW! I feel like I did, but I don’t remember.

They got me home, got me cleaned up and ready for some kind of rest. An older friend, Heather, asked me if I’d like to try and sleep. She’d lie with me if I needed her to. No. Thank you.

More Valium.

In my living room were all of my brother’s friends that could drive. All. Helen, who’s husband had committed suicide a year before and who was one of those friends who will be yours forever, had my mom. The strength of that tiny little woman, Helen. And my poor poor Momma.                            

I can’t here.                    

I can’t.

There was already food showing up at the door at midnight. Rob’s friends were making sandwiches. They were 17 and 18. My youth director Ed was there and I had just started 7th grade Jr. High youth a few months before. He was more Rob’s than mine, I felt, but I couldn’t sleep so he suggested I just snuggle up with him and we could talk a little. I talked all night. Head on lap. Fully heard. Talked and talked. Never slept despite two Valium. I don’t remember if the boys ever slept or anything about my mom at all. I do remember saying all I could about my dad and that there were stories told about him, by who, I don’t know. I remember saying 100 things completely unrelated to my dad and I know I was scared to sleep knowing that when I woke up, my dad would be dead. Ed became mine, too.

In the morning, Ed and the boys went home to sleep but for Beeker. My heart. He loved Fred.  

We got a call to say they found his luggage, his cases, the movie and two gifts in his mangled car. A nighty for my mom and a very 80s button down shirt for me. Did we want them?

I still have what’s left of that shirt after 33 years.

I don’t remember how I communicated the news with my best friend, but it was out and we also got a call from my little boyfriend’s mom asking if the news was true because to that point, they just couldn’t believe it and the kids had to be playing a very mean trick on her son. A house person let her know that sadly, there was no trick.  

I had been babysitting for a little neighbor baby while his parents were tax-time accountants on Saturday mornings. I answered her call asking where I was at 9:30. Oh. I told her that I was so sorry I forgot to call her. That my dad died last night. She forgave me. I’m not sure I ever returned to keep that baby.  

At some point, we either went into town or someone came to the house to cut the very bangs I was curling the moment we heard. Someone sent dresses from Blaine’s over because I was too tall for the ones in my closet. I picked one that was black and blue and then my mom sent someone into town to get me some boots for the graveside portion of my dad’s funeral. They came back with BROWN boots and what a fit I threw that they weren’t black. I was an asshole kid to my mom but I wore the damn boots.

I remember going to the funeral home. I saw my friend Dorsey on her way out from seeing my dad and I was surprised. She had been crying and so had her mom. Our friends who had owned the funeral home before had moved, but another member of our church took it over. Vince. He was a love. He fixed my dad’s hand so as not to show the blackened thumb he got when a window rolled up onto it. He couldn’t make him look alive, though. His neck was as wide as his head. Wider, even. He’d had so much internal bleeding that they were never able to make it seem like there wasn’t considerable swelling. His hair looked weird. He was very cold. He was wearing makeup. I stated all of these things to Vince and I know his heart broke. My mom had him only play piano music in my dad’s room. Daddy hated the organ.  

The church was packed, overflowing, and standing room only though there was snow on the ground. My principal had all the students who wanted to attend the funeral bussed to the church and they sat in the choir pews, filled them up, except for Nicquel who sat next to me and held my hand and peeked at me and cried. I didn’t cry. My friends in the pews were angry at me for being so happy. I was already an ace compartmentalizer at 13 having lost my family friend to suicide and my dear grandfather the year before, all while watching my beloved grandmother die of a brain tumor.

Nicquel went back to school on that bus. God.

I went to school the next day.

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