The paper lay folded in quarters on the computer desk. I carefully unfolded the perfect rectangle, not knowing what might lie upon the page. Some note from a teacher? Grades that weren’t good enough to show parents? But as I unfolded it, it was just a permission slip to drive a tractor to school. An unused permission slip.
I had signed the permission slip the day before he was to drive our neighbor’s tractor to school for FFA day. But when that morning came, it was still dark when he was supposed to leave. When asked, he did confess that the tractor’s backlights weren’t working. I was relieved to be made aware of this before he departed. The tractor escapade was then forbidden, but Alex didn’t complain.
We had had a couple of beautiful seventy degree days thrown into this March, but the day of the tractor drive, March had revealed its true colors with our awakening to 30 degrees. We are not farmers at all, and our neighbor is a doctor who just happens to own a nice tractor and was a good enough friend to be willing to lend it out. But the tractors the other kids drove these days were equipped with enclosed cabs, tires so high they seemed to tower over men, and they had heat, air conditioning and radios. The other Future Farmers of America would not be exposed to the ice-cold air nipping at their earlobes, but more importantly, they would be easily seen with lights on the front and the back.
Alex didn’t complain when I told him he was most definitely NOT driving that tractor on the road to school in the dark. His life meant more to me than Farmer’s Day.
The next day, school let out at noon for parent teacher conferences. Alex and his friends planned a luncheon at Mi Pueblo, a local Mexican restaurant that served good food that was affordable. Before he left that morning, I gave him a ten-dollar bill for lunch and one to pick up our housedog, Cleo’s, thyroid medicine.
Late that afternoon, as I sat at my desk in the small real estate office where I work, my ganglion cyst on my wrist begging for a new profession, the front door popped open. People do not frequent my office very often. Most of our business is done over the phone, on the Internet or by meeting the customers at the property that they are wishing to see. So anytime the door opens, it makes me jump. This time, I was pleasantly surprised to see Alex standing in the doorway.
“Hey, did you say ten dollars would buy Cleo’s medicine?” He asked without saying hello.
I confirmed that it would, as I had called it in and told them that we only wanted ten dollars worth and that Alex would pick it up.
“’Kay, see ya later.” And he was out the door as quickly as he’d come in.
I put my nose back to the computer, took a few more calls, went over a couple of things with my boss and then it happened. My cell phone began to ring Alex’s personal ring.
I picked it up to hear his frantic voice. The wind was blowing in the background and into his phone stealing consonants from his words, and I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I didn’t want to make out what he was saying, because it sounded like, “Mom, I had a wreck!”
I heard my voice, desperate and disbelieving, “What? What? You had a wreck?”
“YES!” Alex yelled desperate to make the connection to my brain. “I need you to come here!”
“Okay, where are you?” I found my body moving in circles in my cubicle. What did I need; what was I looking for?
“I don’t know, I’m down the road from your work. Just down from your work. Down by the light.” Alex’s country boy upbringing had him calling streets roads, and he didn’t really know the names of the streets. He’d never had a reason to.
“Alex, I need you to get calm for a minute,” I said, as I tried to calm myself and send that calmness through the airwaves of the phone to his being. “And tell me where you are, so I can find you.”
“Just act like you’re going home, and you’ll find me by the light. I gotta go, the cops are here.” He hung up.
“What happened?” Michael, a senior in high school, seemed to be the only person in my office who had noticed my hysterics. He was also of Alex’s classmates.
“Alex had a wreck! Where’s my f-ing keys?” I was digging frantically through my purse, found the keys and ran out the door, as my boss yelled, “Call us and let us know he’s okay.”
I left my parking lot, my nerves rattling through my body like crumbling glass, the sharp edges causing my arms to tremble and occasionally to jerk uncontrollably. I forced myself to drive slowly and cautiously, my eyes darting side to side, defending my pursuit from any oblivious and careless drivers. I had to get there, and if I were to get in a wreck, I would not be able to find my son. My mind scrambled for the “light” on my way home that he had spoken of. There were two ways to go home, but the way that I went home had no traffic lights. I wondered if in his confusion, he had meant the light that was closest to the road to our house, or if he meant the light that was downtown that if I went the main way, I would have to pass through. Panic was tugging at the door, but I told myself it was a small town, I’d just drive down every street till I found him. To my relief, as I turned the corner, I saw, two blocks ahead, under the light, the red flashing lights of a police car. And from that distance, between the bumpers of backed up traffic, I glimpsed the shiny red paint of my son’s pride and joy – his 1997 Chevy Silverado.
I pulled into a parking spot, grabbed my purse, consciously checked for my cell phone and my keys and locked the car. As I walked at a slow sprint down the sidewalk, my eyes searched the scene of cars and traffic cops, and quickly spotted my sixteen-year-old son standing alone on the sidewalk, looking on at his beautiful truck, crushed and broken. He looked so small and young. His five foot nine, 165-pound frame seemed to have shrunk to the size of a small boy. Alex turned and looked my way; I locked eyes with him, whether it was for his sake or mine, but I was not taking my eyes from him. I walked up beside him, but did not hug or touch him. I knew he was fragile, could break at any moment, and I knew that just being there with him was all I needed to do at that moment.
I was relieved to see an old friend of mine, Jerry, was the Sargent on duty. Jerry and I had worked at a pizza place and had many adventures together in our youth. He was also the cop that had chased my speeding little sister, who had tried to outrun him, and then upon catching her in our parent’s driveway, left her to face her older sibling’s wrath, as he shook his head and drove away. Jerry had also caught my oldest son “performing” the power of his Trans Am in the WalMart parking lot in an effort to impress his older cousin, and had only requested my son take it out to the country where no one would get hurt – and he wouldn’t get caught. Jerry and I had history, and I have to say, there is something about being sixteen and tossing pizza dough into the air together that seems to form a lifelong bond.
I called my husband to see who he preferred to tow the truck and where he wanted it to be towed to, but he did not answer. I left a message that Alex had totaled his truck, and he need to call me right back, but at an accident scene, one doesn’t have time for calls to be returned. These answers, which were my husband’s area, were needed immediately. I looked at Jerry and shook my head, “I don’t know,” I said in desperation.
Jerry stood close, turned his head toward the back of mine and gave me the answers. Then he explained how it all worked, that the truck would be towed to impound, and there, the insurance person would come to see it, or they would tell us to take it somewhere else. But it would be safe in impound until we could contact our insurance company. It is amazing what a relief information is.
My husband called my son just as the tow truck was about to pull away and told him where to tow the truck, so that part ended up being taken care of immediately.
Alex’s truck was towed away, and his tears became my tears. He cried for the loss of the truck he polished and loved like his own skin. I cried for the vulnerability of life. Knowing the call could have come from someone else.
Alex was not the driver at fault. The other driver turned into him before he could even hit his brakes. He was only going 25 mph. Alex had no choice. There was no control over the moment. Fate was at the wheel.
It’s been a couple of days now, and Alex is excited to be shopping for a new truck – one with an extended cab this time. His body is sore – whiplash, the doctor said. He’s driving his grampa’s old truck for now, and complaining about the slipping transmission and the poor gas mileage. But the other driver’s insurance company has promised to settle within a week, so I’m not worried. He’ll have a new truck in no time.
As for me, I’m keeping my reflexes in check. Each time Alex walks out the door, the tears want to slide down my cheek. My fingers reach for the phone to check on him every half-hour, but I force them back to other tasks.
Yes, vulnerability has knocked on my door once more. Loved ones can be taken away. Loved ones can leave. That’s life.