Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Morning Thanks--Highway markers

When finally we came to the place on the highway where he was killed, I realized neither of us knew exactly where it was--specifically, under which overpass.  I had deliberately avoided the stretch of road in previous trips up and back to Wisconsin, but this time I decided it was time that I passed the spot where it happened. 

Being told of my brother-in-law's death was the kind of experience one wishes never to have, and, once experienced, more boldly wishes never to repeat. It was a call. Cell phone. We'd just come out Knobloch's Nursery, out in the country, a car full of plants, on a sunny spring day. We were ambling down country roads on the way home, no more than a mile from a tiny once-upon-a-time town named Alvord. 

"Is this James Schaap?"

The caller gave me his name, claimed to be the hospital chaplain at Mauston, Wisconsin.

"I am very sad to report that there's been a terrible accident," he said. No preliminaries. "Your sister is not in any danger, but your brother-in-law didn't make it. He died."

That's all I remember. Hard-edged, no formalities. Firm yet considerate. All business, but not at all thoughtless. Merciful even in its economy. 

It would have been out of place for him to ask about the weather, wouldn't it? He had only one reason to talk to me, so he went at it with considerate immediacy. No one can dress awful news in niceties. 

When the conversation ended, we happened to be at Alvord, the little town my brother-in-law listed as his hometown. I turned in and we drove through just a few minutes after being told Larry was killed in a horrible accident.

Sometime later I learned that the rescue squad had taken him to Lyndon Station, the closest town along the interstate, where there was a good place for a helicopter to land. But the helicopter never came because the love of my sister's life was killed right there on the highway, killed instantly, at some spot we were passing. 

It happened in highway construction. The man who hit them was ticketed for inattentive driving. They were hit very, very hard from the rear, and it happened, I remember from news photos, somewhere beneath an underpass.

There are three along I-90/94 just south of Lyndon Station. That it could have been any of three somehow diluted the sadness and horror. 

Which is not to say I won't remember. I will absolutely never forget those three overpasses every time I'm there on an otherwise featureless stretch of Interstate 90/94.

We were on our way back to Iowa. Early that morning I'd visited my parents' grave at an obscure cemetery a mile north of Oostburg, Wisconsin. They're all there--all the grandparents too. I always stop, but it's not like I have to make a visit. I want to.  I wouldn't call it a pleasure, nor do I feel it an obligation. It's just a visit I want to make. 

R. T. Wright says--and everyone knows--that what happens when we die, what happens in the now once we've shucked this mortal coil, is total mystery because no one has been there and back, despite claims aplenty.

Christians believe--as I do--in the resurrection of the body, but that my great-grandparents will peel themselves from the earth beneath that tipsy stone is as much fancy as any other view of death. We don't know.

I don't know that anything of Larry abides at the underpass where he was delivered from this life. I honestly don't think so. Nor do my parents await the second coming from muddy seats given them in the terra firma at Hartman Cemetery, a place named, almost certainly, for my own great-great grandparents. The people we knew and loved are certainly not there at a spot on the highway or a graveyard little more than a mile from the shore of Lake Michigan.

But something abides, doesn't it? Something startles the memory. Something won't let us forget. Highways all over the nation wear crosses in unusual places, some of them unmistakably ornamented. You see them everywhere. They celebrate lives most of us don't know but loved ones won't ever forget.

Something abides there, something is very much alive as long as we are.

I don't know where the accident happened exactly, under which underpass of the three just south of Lyndon Station; but to me and all of Larry's family that stretch of ordinary interstate will never be anything the place where Larry died. 

That it's unforgettable is a blessing. What's more, it's a blessing for which I'm thankful this overcast Iowa morning.

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