We turned onto their road, the only road I ever knew as their road. They lived in the same house for 37 years. It was out in the boondocks, as we used to say, the boonies, way out in the country. Years earlier, after my future husband Dan and I visited my parents together at their house for the first time, Dan told me that he had been nervous on the drive. Webberdale Road, flanked by two neat rows of once identical ranch style houses, seemed to appear out of nowhere after a series of winding, hilly, dirt roads. On that first trip there together, Dan wondered where I was taking him. He wondered if it was legit. By this night, some 17 years later, Dan could have navigated those roads with his eyes closed. He knew where to let up on the gas pedal because the hills were steep, where to look out for cars coming the opposite way because the road narrowed to almost one lane, and where the road twisted around so sharply, it was possible to drive right into the swamp if he did not turn carefully.
It was raining and probably had been for days. Potholes covered Webberdale like chicken pox. Every few bumps, I felt my stomach lurch up into my throat. I remembered driving those roads when I was pregnant, anxious that if Dan wasn’t more careful, I might go into labor. I looked back at our three sleeping children in the backseat. Dan gave me three options after he told me that my mom had called while I was out. After he told me that my mom found my dad in the shed. After he told me that she thought he was dead. She was a nurse. If he were dead when she found him, I knew she would know it. My options were: 1) He could go to my parents’ house; 2) I could go to my parents’ house; or 3) We could wake the kids up and take them to my parents’ house. I hated the thought of waking the kids, and ordinarily I wouldn’t have chosen that option, but this didn’t seem like an ordinary situation. It was dark, it was raining, and I was on the verge of hysteria. I couldn’t imagine myself driving safely to my destination. I needed Dan. I couldn’t imagine hearing the worst news I had ever heard without him by my side. I couldn’t imagine facing the loss of my dad without the knowledge that I had to be okay because I was a mom now. In a strange and selfish way, I also needed my kids.
My parents’ house is halfway down the street. As we approached, I saw an ambulance. The lights were flashing and the back doors were flung wide open, but there wasn’t anyone around. The driveway was filled with my mom’s Subaru, my dad’s gray Ford pick-up truck, and a police car. I decided to go check things out while Dan waited in the car with our sleeping beauties. When I stepped out of the car, I sank in mud. I hated the dirt roads when I was a kid, I abhorred them as a teenager, and I wasn’t a big fan as an adult. The mud rose up around my feet to greet me as if it held a grudge for all my years of hatred. My parents’ driveway could barely fit the width of a car, and I struggled to walk around the cars that were there. I had my head down, trying to keep the rain out of my eyes. I heard a man’s voice in the dark.
“Are you the daughter?” he asked.
I looked up, searching for his face, but it took me a second to register his question. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I’m the daughter.” I replied.
“Your mom is in the house, and the MSP is in the back with your dad.”
The MSP was in the back with my dad. “Oh. So, is he okay then?” I pictured him in the shed telling jokes to the MSP, whoever that was.
“Um, I hate to be the one to tell you this, ma’am, but your dad slipped away.” The man’s voice trailed off, it too slipped away. His words hit me like a punch in the gut. The blow blasted through my trunk, leaving a hole in my heart.
“Oh.” I said, trying to swallow the boulder forming in my throat. I can picture the expression on his tired face. He looked unsure, maybe even a little fearful of how I might respond to him. He didn’t know what I would do next. He didn’t know me. He didn’t know my dad, and yet he was the one who told me, even though he hated to, that my dad was gone. I looked down at the car next to me. I was using it to keep my balance. It said Michigan State Police across the side. “Oh,” I said again. I was catching on. “And the MSP is the Michigan State Police?”
“Right,” he said softly. “Do you need help?”
Nothing seemed certain from that point forward, but one thing I knew was that I did not need help. I did not want help. The man who told me that my dad slipped away headed out to the road, and I made my way to the house. I opened the front door and yelled for my mom. The smell of my parents’ house swallowed me whole. It still smelled a little like woodstove to me, even though many years passed since my dad took the woodstove out of the house. And it smelled like my dad. He had an earthy, musky scent. His smell was everywhere. The house was dark, except for a light glowing dimly in the kitchen. The entry way was cluttered with my dad’s boots and my parents’ slippers. A hat rack stood next to the doorway with a funny-looking hat from my dad’s collection on each branch. I sometimes thought his hats were funny looking, but they were simply unique, like my dad. There were books and remnants of collections and projects piled on tables and on the floor. I sighed, wondering how my parents found their way through their clutter. Wishing, like I had so many times as a little girl in this very same house, for a clear path out of there. I searched the whole house yelling for my mom, but my mom never answered.
I opened the sliding glass door in the back of the house and saw flashlights and what looked like people crowded in the door of my dad’s shed. Woody’s World. He carved a sign out of wood and hung it on the door to his shed. His nickname for many years was Woody and the shed was Woody’s World. Truly, the shed is a work of art to me now, but then and in the years leading up to that moment, I thought it was ridiculous. It started as a little gazebo type building kit. Then my dad added on to it. Then, I think he added on to it again. In the end, it appeared to be almost as big as the house. Almost anytime I called to talk to my mom and asked what my dad was doing, she would say, “He’s in the shed.”
I yelled out the door, “MOM?”
“ANNA! Oh Anna....” my mom wailed in a voice I never once heard in 18 years of living with her, and 37 years of knowing her. I tried to make my way to the shed as quickly as possible, but I kept hitting patches of ice and slipping into the mud surrounding them. It was March 11, 2010 in Michigan and we were between the deep freeze of winter and the promise of a thaw in spring. The ice was starting to melt due to the recent rain, but in the dark I couldn’t tell the difference between ice or mud or solid ground. It was still raining, my mom was wailing, I was slipping, and flashlights were shining in my face. It felt more like an episode of CSI than it did my own life in my parents’ backyard. The men surrounding my mom formed a line to help me to the shed. It seemed like there were hundreds of them, but really there were about four. One by one they grabbed my elbow and guided me forward.
The last man in the row stood in the doorway of the shed. He had been shining his flashlight down to light my path, and he stepped back so I could step into the shed. It was very crowded. My mom stood next to a police officer that looked just like my cousin Greg, and my dad sat peacefully at his workbench.
My dad was hunched over with his eyes closed, and he looked very ordinary, like he had fallen asleep on my couch, waiting for my mom to gather her stuff so they could leave my house. The book that he was reading was on the floor next to him. He must have dropped it. His long, soft, shiny white hair was pulled back into a ponytail and other than a few extra layers of clothing that he must have added when he got home, he looked no different than he did hours ago when he really did leave my house. He didn’t look dead to me, but he did look as if he had slipped away. He looked like he had slipped away from his body, like a snail when it dies and leaves its shell behind. The shell becomes but a souvenir, a remnant of the life lived inside it. It seemed as if my dad did that too. Maybe I should have been grateful that my dad left his Earthly body and moved on. I couldn’t look for long. I had to look away. I wanted to hug and hold my sobbing mother.
By that time Officer Greg had gently suggested that I take my mom inside the house. Again, nothing seemed sure then, and I really had no idea what would be the right thing to do, but I knew that nobody could make my mom go into the house if she didn’t want to go into the house. Officer Greg didn’t know whom he was dealing with. Just to be nice, and possibly to avoid being arrested for disobeying an officer, I asked my mom to go inside with me. She said no. I wasn’t surprised.
I turned my attention to the shed around me. My dad had hung parts of his collection of antique saws from the ceiling. He had posted a few notes on the walls of the shed. One of the notes said something about the edge of darkness. I felt like I was on the edge of darkness. It was as if my dad had left that note for us. My eyes shot around, trying to process the darkness of the night, the saws hanging from the ceiling, and the notes my dad left behind. I tried to keep it all together. I was traumatized. I knew this moment would leave a scar on my life. I knew my path from childhood to adulthood had ended. Abruptly. From then on, I would be my mom’s primary caretaker. Never again could I melt down in her arms like a child, as I had so many times. But still, even though I stood in my dad’s shed as a grown woman, a wife and a mother of three, a childlike voice inside me wondered what these men thought of my dad and his shed. I wondered if the saws hanging from the ceiling made them uneasy. I wondered if the scene looked suspicious to their discerning eyes.
“Mom, you can stay as long as you need to, but I can’t stay here with you. Dan and the kids are in the car. I need to tell them what’s going on.” I looked at her, trying to read her, and she looked at me and nodded. She wanted me to do what I needed to do. One of the men gave me his flashlight, and I slowly made my way back to the road where my family waited. I told my husband that my dad was dead.
I knew my dad would die someday, of course, but I never expected it to happen so soon. In fact, I had more or less determined that he would be in his 80’s when he died. I imagined him at graduations and weddings. I imagined him continuing his bond with James, my oldest son. I knew they would have a long future together discussing aliens and outer space. I knew James had many years ahead of him attending guitar lessons, maybe even with my dad taking him, and most definitely with my dad reminding him to trim his fingernails before he left for the lesson. I knew no matter how much James practiced his guitar, it wouldn’t seem like enough to my dad. And usually it wasn’t enough. It never occurred to me that my children would lose a grandfather while they were still kids. I never imagined that all the dreams I dreamt for my children and parents wouldn’t come true. I was happy to see that all three of them were still asleep when I went back to the car. Dan held me as I sobbed into his shoulder as the rain fell around me and all over me. Dan took our children home, and I walked back into my parents’ house.
It wasn’t long before my mom joined me. She didn’t want to leave my dad, even though Officer Greg had assured her that he would stay there with him until the coroner arrived and that he would keep my dad safe. While I believed in my heart that Officer Greg and his cohorts would gladly have given my mom what she desired, to stay as long as she needed to, I also knew they had work to do. It was cold, rainy, and dark where that work was to be done. There were saws hanging over their heads and words taped to the walls. They needed my mom out of the shed to do that work, and as frightening as that seemed to me, I understood their motives.
Later my mom shared that she had asked Officer Greg if he would make his own mother leave his father in a situation like that. Greg shared that his mother had no choice but to leave his dad when he passed away because she had small children to care for. Greg was one of those small children. I pictured a young woman, a mother, finding her husband dead in their home with no choice but to leave his side. The ache in my heart grew as I pictured her returning to her children. How did she face them? What did she say? How did she possibly go on? And yet, here Officer Greg stood, living proof that even after the most unimaginable tragedies, people live on. I was being initiated into a new society, reaching a new milestone in my life. I joined the ranks of children who lost a parent. I graduated to a new level of understanding life and death that night, even though there was still so much left to try to understand. The image of Officer Greg’s mother leaving her dead husband’s side to care for her small children haunts me. It wasn’t long before we counted the fact that my mom’s own children were grown when she lost her husband among the many blessings for which we were grateful.
Before my mom came into the house she prayed with my dad. This quiet moment with him allowed her to make peace with needing to leave his side. I recently listened in as she told my oldest son what happened the night his Papaw died. James was dubbed “Mr. Questions” within minutes of arriving at our hotel at the start of one of our vacations. He asks a lot of questions. We like it when we have answers. My mom told James she thought my dad was sleeping. She said, “Shields? Did you fall asleep?” She began CPR as soon as she realized that he was not sleeping. She made her way back into the house to call 911, my sister, and me, and then she went back to his side. I can hardly allow myself to imagine what that must have been like for her. Waiting, in the house, for her husband to come in to share the dinner he left on the stove while he ran out to his shed. Waiting, wondering, when would he come in? He had to know she was home by then. Then, making her way out to the shed – in the rain, through the mud and the ice, thinking he might be sleeping and finding that he was dead. Trying to bring him back, all the while knowing that he was gone. After all that, the time she spent in prayer with him was essential to beginning the long, impossible process of letting him go.
When she came inside, I was sitting on a beautiful old green fainting couch that my parents had inherited from my Baba, my dad’s mother. It was my favorite napping spot when I was a little girl visiting Baba, and really my favorite piece of furniture at her house. The fainting couch and I went through a lot together over the years. We conspired in acting out very dramatic fake fainting spells right into my teenage years. The beautiful green couch was there, first at Baba’s house, and then at my parents’ to comfort me when I needed comforting. When I was too old to run to the arms of my grandmother or my parents, I went to her, the fainting couch. The green slope cradled me like a huge soft arm. It felt right to return to her then, and to let that old, green lady couch cradle me in her arm again. Eventually my mom and I sat there together, side by side, but facing each other, looking at each other, neither one of us quite sure what to do. I held a pillow embroidered with Santa Claus in my lap. Never mind that it was March and in most houses Santa had made his way back to storage. I can still picture my mom’s face in that moment. A dullish gray tone had taken over her sparkly blue eyes. She looked frightened and tired, and old. She had never looked old to me. She said, “Anna, you girls think I’m so strong, but I’m not. I got all my strength from your dad.”
I was horrified. My mom is a very private person, but what I knew of her life was that it wasn’t always easy. It was rarely easy. Despite the challenges she faced, at every stage of her life, she persevered. She kept going, living wholly and even with an open heart at times. I am quite confident that she is by far the strongest woman I have ever known. I didn’t believe her, but I was afraid of what might happen if she was right. I was afraid of the possibility that somehow I had missed her bluff and that all these years she really was getting all her strength from my dad. But I knew in my heart that wasn’t true because there were times when my dad wasn’t even there to give her strength and she persevered through those times in the same ways that she continues to persevere now. I think my mom was making an advance plea for forgiveness. She needed me to know that she couldn’t be strong. She needed me to know that she could not be strong then, that she wasn’t feeling strong at all, and that she didn’t foresee feeling strong anytime soon.
Another officer came inside and asked us if we needed anything. He did not look anything like Officer Greg. He surprised us with his question. We glanced at each other. My mom and I didn’t know what we needed. “What do people normally need in this situation?” I asked.
“Well, some people request a priest. Something like that...” The other officer meant well, but his good intentions were lost on us. We looked at each other, dumbfounded. We both knew we didn’t want a priest. My dad wouldn’t have wanted a priest. I thought of something.
“We haven’t been able to reach my sister,” I told him. He seemed relieved to be able to help us and told us that he would send a state trooper to her home in Ann Arbor. I pictured Sarah riding to my parents’ house in the back of a police car. I was so desperate to reach her that I was relieved to learn there might be a way to get through to her. She and her husband didn’t have a landline at their house. As her older, less tech-savvy sister, I thought that was really irresponsible and was often frustrated with her lackadaisical attitude about missing my calls. “Oh sorry, my phone was off.” she would say in her singsong voice with a maple sugary giggle that usually took my frustration away as it moved through the room. I was beside myself with all different kinds of emotions resulting from not being able to reach her, and I knew she had to be reached. Officer Not Greg was on the job. When she finally called us she asked whether she should come to the house. An unfamiliar voice spoke to me, telling me that I couldn’t answer that question for her. I should have just said, “YES!” Instead I told her that was up to her, knowing that she knew she wanted to be there but not knowing that she needed some type of affirmation that we wanted her there. It was an awful experience for her and her husband to find a state trooper pounding on their door so late at night, shining his flashlight into the window. It was another horrifying, surreal scene straight from CSI.
Sarah really wanted to see my dad before the coroner took him away, but we were running out of time. I looked over my mom’s shoulder, from the living room where we stood, to the backyard and the shed where my dad’s body and all that surrounded it were being examined. Flashes from the coroner’s camera lit the dark, rainy night, and a slight wave of panic washed over me. We didn’t know what caused my dad to die. This was an unexpected realization. Of course, nothing that happened that night could have been expected, but anytime I stopped to consider the circumstances of the night, my only conclusion was that it was all so unusual. The one thing that made sense to me was that my dad died in his shed. It made perfect sense to me. He built that crazy shed with plywood and 2x4 boards and his own two hands. His shed and his silver-grey Ford F10 pick-up truck were probably the places where he spent most of his time. As ominous as the shed seemed to me that night, I knew it was my dad’s escape from the outside world and that he loved it for that. The shed was a clubhouse for one in a forest of trees. It seemed so appropriate that my dad slipped away from inside his shed. I don’t think he would have had it any other way. In that same conversation with James, my mom said she wished she had been with my dad when he died. James said, “Maybe Papaw got a message that he was supposed to die alone.” It might be true that wiser words were never said.
As the coroner’s camera flashed, I wondered briefly whether my mom was a suspect in my dad’s murder. A fear that he may have committed suicide crept through my mind. There had been a space heater in the shed with my dad, and we wondered if it malfunctioned and poisoned him. The people I knew who had died, did so in accidents or in hospital beds. I couldn’t recall a story where someone had died in his or her home like my dad did. The dynamics of this type of death struck me as odd. It reminded me of my son Alexander’s birth. He was very sick when he was born and was whisked away by nurses and doctors shortly after he arrived. Days later, Dan and I held him for the first time. Even though he was ours, he wasn’t really ours. It felt like he belonged to the hospital. I felt so powerless and completely at the mercy of the doctors and nurses who so swiftly and competently (thank God) cared for him. I felt powerless again the night my dad died, as the police officers urged my mom to leave my dad and the coroner stood in the shed with him taking pictures of his body and the space that surrounded him. I would love to know what he captured that night. I wonder what he was thinking and what became of the pictures he took. It is strange, yet a little refreshing, to think that to the coroner this might have been just another night on the job.
***That's the bad news. The good news is after all that, and a whole bunch of other stuff, losing my dad woke me up to the opportunity to live a more meaningful life. It is indeed a process, but it is well underway. Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I appreciate it.
It's been three years since I saw you last... I miss you every day Dad. I miss your voice and your hugs and the ways you loved my children. I miss your sense of humor and your passion for life and for your art in all the forms it took. I miss your music. I miss seeing your face. I miss your Carhartts and work boots. I miss your flannel shirts. I miss the mess you left behind when you made coffee. And all your hats. I miss it all. I hope the lives we're living here on Earth are enough to make you smile. It's really hard to keep going sometimes. We're trying. I love you, Dad.
xoxo love, Anna
xoxo love, Anna