The Worst Sunday Drive

I may have told part of this story before, but to get to where we are today, it deserves a retelling. I apologize in advance for the length of this, but you can’t put a word count on love.

 I’ve always believed in love at first sight, because it happened to me once. I’ve been in love many times. It’s astonishing how much love one person can have for other people, but I am a person who loves and a handful of times, that love has lasted from the moment of conception through today. There are a few people, who, for their own special reasons, will always have a place in my heart. Joe is one of those people.

When I was 18, I had two kids and a husband.  The kids were my everything. The husband was a formality. I loved him, because I had his son, but I was never in love with him. The marriage was a marriage of convenience for him. He never loved me, but he had love for me because I gave him a son. At the time, that was the only thing he wanted in the world. Me and husband and kids had left Knoxville and moved to Pennsylvania because that was home to me. It wasn’t long before husband got homesick and wanted to go back to what was home to him. So we packed up and moved into this little trailer park in the country. One day, I heard this terribly loud rumble outside and then it stopped. I looked out the window and there was this little black Honda civic, I think, much like the one I currently drive except it was spray painted black waiting for a coat of real paint. Standing next to the car was this little Indian dude. Native American Indian. Not the other kind. I stood at the window peering through the blinds for longer than was necessary after I saw that it was someone there for Husband. But I couldn’t take my eyes off him. And then someone said something funny and he laughed. He had this smile that I can only explain as breathtaking and natural. He looked like he was never sad a day in his life. And I fell in love with him at that moment. I don’t know if it was that day or later that I was introduced to him in the living room of my trailer, but when he shook my hand, I knew at that instant that I would pack up every thing I had including my kids and run away with him if he said the word. It turned out he was not just my husband’s friend, but he was my husband’s BEST friend, which immediately made him my best friend because I would never in a million years put myself or him in a situation destined to bring about bad karma. I didn’t know if he felt what I felt, but I thought he did. And he was always lingering around the house. When Husband was out doing the many law breaking things he had a tendency to do, Joe would sometimes just sleep in his car in the driveway. I don’t know why. When I had to go to work and didn’t have a ride, Joe would conveniently show up to take me. The first and only time I ever smoked weed and actually got ear ringing high, it was with Joe and a couple of his friends in my living room. Joe and I spent a lot of time together. At the time, I didn’t know Husband had a girlfriend. Joe probably did, but he never said anything and I can’t prove it. Time went by, Husband and I split up. I moved out of the trailer park and didn’t see him for a while (that is the very short version). I heard through the grapevine that Joe was in jail which was not a shocker because the whole little group of them were really just a bunch of juvenile delinquents who had been in and out of juvenile so many times, it only made sense that they would be in and out of jail as adults. Husband and I had been apart for years at this point. I wrote Joe. I didn’t know if he would even remember me. He did. He wrote me back and our friendship picked up right where it left off. When he got out of jail, I picked him up from Nashville and brought him back to Knoxville. We talked about plans of being together and for a moment I was happy, but all that changed when we got back home. He had an itch for adventure that I couldn’t scratch. I had kids and I wanted to raise them away from all of that. So again, we lost touch. I moved back to Pennsylvania with the kids and without Husband. Always out of the blue, Joe would pop into my head. I would always find him, because it’s easy to find people in prison and I would always write him.

Quite a few years ago, I heard a story about him that sounded like a made for television movie. He was in Nashville, in prison, again and he was working in the kitchen. for some reason, there was a U-Haul parked right outside the kitchen door with the keys in it. He’s always been smart and slick and like I said, always looking for an adventure, so he managed to break open the door from the kitchen and take off in the truck. Escaping from prison and landing himself on the run. I think it was only a day or two, if that, before he got caught. Desperate people do desperate things and he ended up trying to hijack people’s cars from them to get out of town. I guess he was making his way back to Knoxville. At one point, he stole a pick up truck that had a rifle in it. After ditching the pick-up, he kept the rifle and used it to get another vehicle and at some point had to jump out of that car and flee on foot. At this point, I don’t think he was in Nashville anymore, but somewhere in between here and there. He was running on foot. Maybe he shot the gun. Maybe he fell and it went off. I don’t remember the story, but either way, he ended up being shot in the head and because the gun was fired, his 2 year sentence that he was currently riding out turned into an escape charge and an attempted murder on a police officer charge and went from two years to 35 years. I heard about the incident shortly after it happened from Husband. We still spoke even though we weren’t together, but over the years, he found out how I felt about Joe and although he didn’t like it, he hated it actually, he knew there was nothing he could do about it. People don’t survive getting shot in the head very often and if they do, they aren’t the same. So I cried and I cried and I cried because I knew he was gone.

A few years later, I got that nagging feeling again. It always happened right before his birthday. It was like I could hear his voice in my head so just for the hell of it, I looked online to see what I could find out. It didn’t take long for me to find out that he was still alive. He was still in prison, but he was alive. So I sat down and wrote him a very short letter. I didn’t know if he would remember me because of the trauma to his brain. I didn’t know if he was “normal.” I didn’t know anything except I needed to know. I quickly got a reply. A very long reply. He remembered me. Of course, he remembered me. How could he forget, he said. And so continued our friendship like we never missed a beat. We’ve been writing since then. I don’t know how many years that’s been now. He still has probably 20 years to serve. We will be sixty when he gets out, but we have a list of all things we are going to go do and we talk about it all the time. He used to call me regularly when he wasn’t locked down for some reason or another and when I had money to put on the phone. He called me a couple weeks ago to tell me that he was now in Nashville again. We joked about him staying away from U-Haul trucks. I told him I loved him and I would be there this weekend to see him. He had a friend whose mom was driving down and we were going to split gas. Then I got a letter from him saying that the whole prison had been on lock down so he wasn’t able to get in touch with the lady I was going to ride with. I ended up working anyway and I just decided I would go next weekend by myself. But the very next day, I got a phone call at 5pm from the warden of his prison. He told me that Joe had been in an altercation and they were looking for next of kin. I’m his emergency contact, but they are really particular when it comes to blood relatives and I am not related by blood. He has a brother, who is also in prison, but other than that, they don’t really have any family left on the outside world. I am also his brother’s emergency contact. The warden gave me the hospital’s number and I called. They said he was unconscious and the prognosis was not good. Again, I cried and cried and cried until my eyes didn’t look like my own anymore.  I called the warden back and asked if I could go see him. He set up a visit for the following day and told me I could have an hour visit.

I drove three hours to visit him for an hour. It was the worst Sunday drive.  I haven’t actually seen him or been in the same room with him since the day I picked him up from Nashville and brought him back to Knoxville. We’ve had hundreds of conversations since then, but I haven’t laid eyes on him since then besides the pictures he’s sent me. I walked into his hospital room and there was that 18 year old kid that I fell in love with. His face was exactly the same. Maybe it was a little weathered. Maybe a little older. Maybe a little beat up. but I could still see that same smiling little juvenile delinquent standing next to that black spray painted Honda smiling a smile that could make the lights come on in a dark alley. And all I could say was, “Hey, Joe. I’m here.” And I held his hand and I rubbed his forehead and his eyebrows and his eyelids and his nose and I curled his hair around my fingers and I placed my hand on his chest and felt his heartbeat just in case it was the last time I ever saw him. And when my hour was up, I kissed his face and told him I loved him and I cried some more. I couldn’t stop. I haven’t stopped much in the last twenty four hours. Before I left the hospital, the doctor told me that his coma was permanent. The machines will breathe for him, but he will not wake up.

I left the hospital and the only thing I could think was that I had to be the one to tell his brother. The warden was more than willing to help me make it happen. He took a little over an hour and when I called him back to see if I was wasting my time driving around Nashville aimlessly, he told me that he had it taken care of and I could go see him. I think the last time I saw Joe’s brother, he was still underage. He said he’s seen me once since then, but I don’t remember. I told him everything I knew. He refused to believe that his brother won’t wake up. After all, he wasn’t supposed to live after he got shot in the head and not only did he live, he woke up with all his faculties. He had a better memory than me. He remembered everything about our time together from the first day we met and then some. His brother gave me hope. His brother gave me faith. When I left that hospital, I was lacking both.

On my way to see Joe, I saw a red tailed hawk sitting on a speed limit sign. Joe has always said it was his spirit animal and I thought that was his sign to me to let him go. Then I saw two more on my way to see his brother. When I was leaving Nashville, I saw two more soaring above my car. I have only one other time seen a red tail hawk and it was sitting on a light post around the corner from my house one night as I walked home. It let me get so close, I could almost touch it. Maybe it is his spirit animal. So I’m not going to give up on him just yet. I’m going to have faith that if a miracle can happen once, it can happen twice. Though, I’m not sure if the life he would have to go back to is worth living for twenty more years.

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