My world was unsteady in the Autumn of 1999.
My first wife and I had separated in the latter part of July, 1999. She moved back to Atlanta with our 15 month old son whom, because of the extensive traveling required, I was able to visit only once a month. The summer was unbearably hot and as fall approached I daily considered the prospect of having to fashion a life for myself while adapting to being a father living 900 miles from my son. I tried to maintain as normal an appearance as I could in my public life. I worked on the yard, painted the master bedroom, and wrote letters for my estranged wife to read to our child.
A few notable happenings during that time included my appointment to the County Board of Health in September. In October, my brother fell from a tree while removing a large dead branch with a chain saw, knocking himself unconscious. My mind was so disturbed by the isolation that I slept every night with the radio turned on and could not shower with the bathroom door closed. As I said, my life was unsteady.
Autumn pauses for winter to ready itself around the time of Thanksgiving, the penultimate American contrivance of a family themed holiday. I was not looking forward to the day. My sister in law was cooking for all of us, my mom and dad, brother, sister, and nephews. When morning broke, I thought of my wife and son so many miles away, spending the holiday without me, wondering if I would ever feel normal again.
The morning was grey and humid, with a temperature in the low 50's. I struggled to sit still until the 1pm scheduled meal time to no avail. I was on edge, wishing the day would be over before it began. To pass the time I went into the yard and walked through the leaves on the grass, smelling the sour sweetness of the colorful decay. Traffic was light on the street in front of my house that morning, which is odd, being that the road is a rural highway used as a primary east-west thoroughfare in northeast Illinois.
Lost in a familial reunion daydream of some sort, I was surprised by an older Jeep Cherokee pulling into my driveway. The rust all over the Jeep was visible from a distance. As it pulled closer I could see two occupants in the front seat. On the passenger side was a young woman. The driver was a young man. The car stopped about 50 feet from where I was standing. I expected I was about to meet someone who had lost their way, seeking directions to where they needed to be. This is usually what happens.
The young man bedecked in a faded army green jacket and knit hat approached me and said good morning. He told me his name and apologized for having to ask a favor. He told me he and his girlfriend had driven all night from Colorado and were heading for his father's house in Antioch, Illinois, a community about 10 miles away from my house. He also said they were about to run out of gas, no gas stations were open, and they had no money to purchase any. He asked if I had any gasoline to spare.
To fuel my karma, whenever anyone runs out of gas by my house, which happens about once a year, I gladly provide one or two gallons meant for the tractor. I told the young man I would be glad to help and asked him to come to the garage with me. When I got there, I was surprised to see that none of my gas cans had any appreciable amount of fuel in them. Now it was my turn to apologize for not being able to help him. "Sorry," I said, "but I don't believe I have any gasoline except for the half gallon meant for the chainsaw." For those unaware, the chainsaw fuel is pre-mixed with oil and shouldn't be used in an automobile.
Confidently, the young man said, "Sir, I'm pretty sure that gas will get us home." "By all means," I told the young man, "take that gas." He walked with the can back to his Jeep and poured it into the tank. He handed the can back to me when it was empty and said, "Thank you very much sir." It was then I saw how very young this boy was and how frail his blond, equally young girlfriend looked. They were both dressed with hats and scarves and gloves, seeming to indicate the car had no working heater. I wished the young man, good luck. With that, he got into the car and turned the key. With an angel watching over those two, that Jeep started right up. A single wave from the end of the driveway, they were gone.
That day I thought about family and what it means. The need to be with family at the holidays sent those ill equipped children halfway across the country without enough money to make it but with a determination unequaled by any adversity laid in their way. I thought of providence, being in my yard at the right time, and I thought of my son, wondering who was watching out for him.
I went to thanksgiving dinner, and appreciated the food, kith, and kin more than ever before. When I returned to my house in the afternoon, there was a message on my answering machine. It was my wife, asking if I would come to Atlanta to bring her and our son home. The next day I stood in a terminal at O'Hare Airport waiting to board a Delta flight to Hartsfield Airport, hoping the pilot wasn't going to need to stop to borrow any gas.
Just this year, I finally resigned from the Board of Health, twelve years after my initial appointment. Back then my first wife and I reconciled but the following October we separated again, this time our son staying with me full time. Fourteen months after that we reconciled again. In another twelve months after that, we divorced, my son remaining with me once again.
I wonder what lesson in family I learned from that young couple in 1999. Hopefully they made it and are still out there somewhere teaching others how desperately we all crave to be with family at Thanksgiving.