Bound to Oklahoma

My parents moved to Oklahoma from Indiana a little over two years ago. My father visited a cousin who has lived in an outlying area of Tulsa for many years. He saw an opportunity to purchase almost 50 acres of land near his cousin’s large property, and he seized it. Both my mother and father enjoy living in the country, raising animals away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s a quiet yet fulfilling life, and I admire them for the opportunity to enjoy such a way of life. The only problem with the arrangement is that there is a considerable distance—some 750 miles of distance—between my parents and their family, most of which still reside in the Chicago area.

It’s difficult for me because of a special relationship I have with my mother and father. There are many details of this relationship about which I hesitate to write for public consumption. Someday I plan to narrate some of them, but not on this day. Suffice to say that it can be incredibly difficult to be so far away from my parents, away from intimate contact and a reassuring embrace every once in a while.

It’s even harder to realize my two daughters, still in their formative years, do not get to see their Grandma and Grandpa regularly. It might be hard for me, but it is still harder on my two girls. I think it is hardest on my mother, who has so much love in her heart for her grandchildren.

A couple weeks ago, I was spending some of the last of the summertime with my two daughters, as they are to return to school this very week. I will soon return to school myself, so once our precious summer vacation is completed, we will return to a schedule where we will not have much opportunity ourselves for companionship. Our summers are precious, as we have always valued our father-daughter time together. It is my fervent hope that we can maintain future times together, even into my daughters’ adult years.

We have not seen my parents for almost a year, as they did come to visit us last year during the holidays. We’ve done our best to keep contact through the phone. We periodically call my mother, giving each of my girls a chance to talk to their grandmother. During this most recent occasion, both girls spent a bit more time than usual talking to their Grandma. When I spoke to my mother, she told me that my brother and his family were planning a visit soon to Oklahoma.

More impactful, my mother’s voice started to break as she indicated that she missed my girls. She told me she wished she could hug them. It was the third time in as many phone calls where I heard the pain and depression in my mother’s voice. She missed her grandkids. It breaks my heart every time I hear that wavering in her voice as she tries not to cry.

I am not an impulsive person. Spontaneity is not an inherent characteristic, as I subscribe to a rather staid routine daily. I do not travel well, as I tend to gravitate towards staying at home most weeks. Leaving my Michigan City home for days is perhaps one of the most frightening prospects you could introduce to me.

Yet, I hung up the phone with my mother and promptly interviewed my girls about the possibility of doing something outrageous. My oldest daughter had already forsaken some of her summer activities so she could spend a week with her father, like cross-country practice and violin lessons. Still, I asked her about the possibility of travelling with my brother to Oklahoma. Her response was she would do just about anything to see her Grandma before school started. My youngest daughter readily agreed.

My heart broke for a second time in the short span of a half-hour. I didn’t have the money to travel down to Oklahoma. My daughters should prepare for their return to school in the week that remained of summer. I had some preparatory academic work of my own, and I would have to do some finagling to keep peace with some folk. I would have to break arrangements with several people with whom I had made prior commitments.

As far as I was concerned, we were going to Oklahoma, no matter the cost or effort.

I called my brother, who was more than willing to include us on his trip. However, considering he has one son and four daughters, there wasn’t exactly room in his vehicle for additional passengers.

I then called my daughters’ mother and asked if she would be willing to allow the girls to go to Oklahoma. There was an initiation and tour of the high school that my eldest daughter would miss, but it wasn’t necessary, considering my daughter had already attended her new high school on many occasions. She confirmed that it would be better for our daughters to see their Grandma in the short window available before school started.

I also asked my daughters’ mother if she would be willing to accompany us on the trip and allow us the use of her vehicle. I realized it might be awkward considering we have been divorced for a decade, but it would ultimately make the trip work best for all involved if she could participate. We’ve maintained a great relationship for the sake of the girls, and she is still an integral part of my family, even if it is a non-traditional formation. She agreed to the trip, and I remain eternally grateful for her decision.

The trip to Oklahoma was set, and all that was left was dealing with various stressors that introduced themselves prior to our departure. Several factors contributed to a sustained depressive bout, along with some fears and doubts about taking such a trip. Worst of all, as I was lying in bed two days before departing, contemplating the why’s and why not’s about travelling, a horrible car accident occurred right outside my open window. A young girl was hit by a car as she crossed the street on her bike. I didn’t see the accident, but I clearly heard the sickening sound. I turned my head and reflexively screamed at the sight of the young girl lying on the side of the road. I rushed for my phone and fumbled to call 911 on my infuriating touch screen cell. The driver of the car was over the girl, petting her head and asking her to breathe. She pulled out her phone and called 911. I realized that my call had not worked and dialed again, despite the fact that I saw the driver of the car doing the same. I told the 911 operator that a girl had been hit at my intersection and needed an ambulance. The 911 operator kept asking me if the girl was breathing, not realizing that I was still in my house, looking from my open window. I saw that the driver was not administering CPR and realized that I needed to go out there. I ran out there as quickly as I could, but thankfully, a police officer and ambulance arrived simultaneously. Not so thankfully, I witnessed the girl’s mangled, convulsing body and painful cries up close and personal. I also got to see the girl’s father’s face as he discovered his daughter. I don’t care to reminisce much more on this incident. It was frightening, and it brought back the memory of my own brother’s fatal car accident from my youth. Suffice to say, I was a mental mess before heading down to Oklahoma.

The drive down to Oklahoma didn’t exactly help, as far as reducing my stress. We left at the crack of dawn. It turns out that driving in a car for twelve hours straight, from sun-up to sun-down, can take a toll. I learned a little bit about myself as a driver, also. When it comes to driving through the summer highways of Chicago, with its mandatory construction and aggressive drivers, I don’t really give it a second thought, even though I’d wager to say that it’s some of the most dangerous driving in the whole country. However, when I have to navigate the rolling highways of Missouri, with the steep upgrades and downgrades of the Ozark Mountains, I squeeze the lifeblood out of the steering wheel at positions ten and two o’clock for five hours straight. I know that the roads are tame compared to some of the treacherous paths of Colorado or Tennessee. What can I say? I’m a bit of a wuss because I seldom drive outside of the comfortable, blessedly-flat realm of Chicago. At least my children and their mother assisted greatly with the trek. Their conversation eased the travails of an inexperienced traveler. They even got a good laugh as I nearly had an aneurysm passing over the Mississippi River through St. Louis (I already admitted I’m a wuss!).

By the time we crossed the border into Oklahoma, we were all a bit exhausted. We were also racing the setting sun. We had about two hours to make it to my mother’s homestead. Since I had never been there before, I wanted to make it to her house with as much sunlight as possible, especially since my mother’s description consistently painted her location as being “in the middle of nowhere.” Of course, we had stopped in Joplin, Missouri, for gas, and my youngest daughter had purchased one of those big cans of iced tea. About thirty minutes over the border of Oklahoma, I received the information that she had consumed the entire can and needed to use the facilities ASAP. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many exits on the tollway entering into Tulsa. We had a bit of excitement there, but we made it before the inevitable. My daughter had to do a little bit of seat squirming, which inevitably made me share in the experience. The only thing I’m saying is that it’s a good thing the speed limit in Oklahoma is 75 mph.

We passed through Tulsa and headed west to my parents’ home. I called my mother for some last minute directions as we passed over the Arkansas River at the southernmost point of the magnificent Osage Indian Reservation. There was no driving anxiety at that point, as I paused to take in the majestic sight. I was already falling in love with the natural beauty of Oklahoma. My mother gave directions, but I admit I wasn’t paying as close attention as I should.

When we came to the exit for our destination, the sun was giving us about a half-hour at the most. That’s when the fun truly began…fun for my passengers anyway, as they got to witness my second prolonged aneurysm of the trip. We took a right turn and left the comfortable pavement of civilized roadways shortly after leaving the highway. There were no streetlights or guardrails anywhere, and red dirt roads with some rock for traction were our path for the remainder of the five-mile trek. The first road I took had an incline that went up and up and up, bringing us above the treeline of the hilly terrain. I could see all about me, including homes in the distance on top of the hills on the horizon. I was wondering if my parents lived on top of one of them as I casually looked to the side, noticing that I had about a foot of road on either side of me. If I drifted, it would be a quick plummet down through some wooded forest. I wondered if the grade of the hill down the other side of the road was going to be as steep as the climb…of course it was. Both of my hands were back to squeezing the life out of the steering wheel. We went over two more steep hills before I stopped to call my mother to insure we were going the right direction. Of course we were. I muttered something to myself, wondering aloud about the backwoods to where my father had moved my mother. My children were delighted by the new landscape (in addition to getting a good laugh from my anxious ramblings).

After the hills ended, we took a curve that turned across a railroad crossing. Two pickup trucks were travelling at great speed towards us down the middle of the rocky road, clouds of dust in their wake. They didn’t seem to acknowledge our presence, and I had to hug the side of the road over the railroad crossing, noticing another dangerous drop over the side as the trucks barreled past me. We crossed a bridge over a creek and saw a coyote cross the road in front of us. A bit further down, there was a property with several rusted-out cars, mostly VW bugs, with a mobile home further up the property on a hill. A mother deer and her baby stood to the side, gawking at us as if we were aliens. We were indeed in the wilderness. Several jokes were made about hearing Deliverance banjos on the air before we finally reached the long, even bumpier half-mile driveway where my parent’s property was located.

When we reached the end of our journey, right at sundown, we found my parents’ stunningly beautiful property, and I recognized my mother walking towards our car anxiously. I do not remember a more gratifying scene than seeing my daughters hug their grandmother with joy, with the pink and purple sky painting the satisfying backdrop. I embraced my mother, and so much of the anxiety of the past week—maybe the past year—left me. We had arrived in Oklahoma for the first time, and it felt like home instantly.

My brother and his family had arrived about an hour before us (bless his speedy little gear-head heart), so there were kids hopping about everywhere (as there would be for the remainder of the week). I noticed my younger brother was missing from the foray. My younger brother has Down’s syndrome and moved down to Oklahoma with my mother. Now over thirty years of age, he’s still maintaining his daily routine of prolonged outdoor activity, like swinging on a play-set, jumping on a trampoline, and shooting baskets (he’s still one of the best free-throw shooters I’ve seen). He’s obviously needed special care and attention, and I spent a great deal of my upbringing helping my parents take care of him. I find myself deeply missing my brother, and I wondered where he was at. My Mom told me he was in the back, swinging at sunset. I moved around the corner of the house and there he was, pumping his feet furiously, as per his usual regiment. I stood and waved at him, a big, sheepish grin on my face. He jumped from the swing, sprinted towards me, and gave me one of the best bear hugs I’ve ever received. I missed my little brother.

My father was inside. Unfortunately, he had to leave us that evening. He’s officially retired from the machinist job he retained for over thirty years of his life, but when you’re as good at installing machines as he is, there’s still work to be had…and my Dad’s nothing if not one of the hardest workers I know. He was contracted to install a machine up in Peoria, Illinois. Crazy thing is, when he lived in Chicago, he was constantly on the road, often finding himself in the Oklahoma area performing work; after he moved to Oklahoma, it seems like all of the work he travels to ends up being in the Chicago area! At any rate, I was worried about him because he had recently undergone an operation on his stomach. He had been suffering from an ailment that was preventing him from eating much food. I could tell that he had lost weight, but he appeared to be in good spirits. One thing I know about my Dad: he doesn’t let his body keep him from doing what is necessary. He’s damn tough, and I know I’ll never be able to meet his standard of tenacity when it comes to work ethic. No one can. I was happy that I got to see him and give him a hug before he left, though. We don’t converse very well much of the time, but there’s more respect and love between us than casual observers might assume.

The next few days were simultaneously a whirlwind of activity and a slow-paced enjoyment of each other while doing absolutely nothing. It’s hard to describe because it seemed to last forever, yet the time we spent together flew by much too quickly.

I spent much of the trip reacquainting myself to my mother. It was so good to share things and talk with her again. It’s not enough to talk on the phone or write e-mails; being in the same room means more than I can properly express. It was something to see her interact with all of her grandchildren again, smiling ear-to-ear. Seeing my mother so happy and content had the amazing effect of making me very happy and content.

My mother and I shared some light-hearted moments also. We don’t always see eye-to-eye on many topics, and we agree to refrain from talking about things political or religious. (In fact, I’ve made it a point to refrain from mentioning my blog to her for fear of disappointing her sensibilities…I imagine she will discover the blog because of this article…alas, I can’t keep it a secret forever). However, our epic debates are a point of interest in our relationship, and I just couldn’t resist bringing up a few inflammatory topics (much to my brother’s chagrin). My mother and I kept it to a sensible volume and mostly kept it light (though she did pull a knife from its perch atop the refrigerator at one point…a threatening gesture to make her point…jokingly of course…though sometimes I think my mother would happily plaster duct tape over my mouth to stifle my antagonism). Debate is a long-running aspect of our relationship together, and I’m glad we got the chance to reinvigorate our passions for good-natured philosophical argument. I think she would agree, as long as I didn’t push any of the hottest buttons of contention.

Perhaps the most fulfilling moments of our visit involved the isolated farm living that my parents now enjoy. As a young man, I expressed to my mother how I despised country living. I further stated how I enjoyed city living and would pave over the country if I could. That’s one of those statements I wish I could take back, as maturity and experience have changed my viewpoint. One of the best aspects of the visit, for me, was to abandon entirely my monitoring of technology, to which I was accustomed to at home. No news broadcasts. No Facebook. No cellphone. No e-mails. No blogging. Let me clearly confirm for you: it was heavenly to unplug myself from the manic trappings of so-called civilization, especially at a time with so many depressingly uncivilized occurrences happening about the globe.

As opposed to the persona I had in youth, I now possess a love of the quiet solitude of nature, and boy, do my parents have it in abundance. Every night, I stood out under gleaming stars, listening to the absence of human existence, awash in clicking insects, soft breezes, and howling coyotes. In the mornings, we attended the animals by the call of the rooster, which I admit to missing somewhat. My parents have fifteen Cayuga ducks, three turkeys, three guineas, and fifteen chickens. They also tend to sheep and goats, even though the herd was a bit thin at the time we were there. The sounds of the sheep and goats, especially at sundown, are hilarious; there’s a cacophony of braying that had us rolling…you’d have to hear it to experience the comedy. My parents also have a sheep dog that we all agreed we were going to kidnap because of its preciousness. It was also good to see their two house dogs, both of whom I was familiar with from Indiana, as precious Daisy is getting old, and it might be the last time I get to rub her belly as she grins; rough-and-tumble Bosco missed raking his claws across my arms and belly and chewing on my hands. My daughter and I witnessed a brave gopher raking dirt out of the ground. I stood two feet away from a hummingbird feeder as a dozen of them flitted to and fro, their wings audibly tickling my eardrums as they fed directly in front of my face. In the next field over, my cousin owned two regal horses and a stout, hearty mule that would often come to visit our family from their side of the fence.

One of the finest blessings from this trip was the chance to meet my father’s cousin, the man who spurred my family’s move to Oklahoma. I hadn’t met him to this point of my love, except in a time when I was too young to remember. I love his genuine personality…so loving and accepting. He puts his priority on family first and foremost, and he welcomed me with open arms. I was often reminded of my young life growing up with beloved Grandpa Edward, my cousin’s uncle. We talked about the legend of his work ethic (a common theme in my family) when he worked as a carpenter building elevator shafts within the skyscrapers of Chicago. I was reminded of the times I spent with my Grandma Isabel, playing pinochle, listening to her sing opera and show tunes, and learning about Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle. I remembered all of the Star Trek and Doctor Who stories my Aunt April shared with me as a child. It was good to again embrace a side of my family that has been lost to me for years now. My father’s cousin is now a brother for life who has helped anchor me to Oklahoma, because he is family. He campaigned for me to move down there to enjoy the lifestyle, this family, every day of the year. I can’t deny that it is entirely an unappealing proposition; though, I know I have too many obligations at my home back in Chicago to seriously make the move. Something to consider for the future, I guess.

I was able to meet some extraordinary people in Oklahoma. My mother invited her good friend, a woman, along with her husband who could not make it, who has befriended my mother and father through Biblical study and spiritual camaraderie. This friend knew of my mother’s heartache; I thanked her profusely for her love for my mother, for acting as a surrogate when my mother’s family was so far away.

My cousin brought my brother and me to visit a neighbor, an extraordinary man who raced cars in his youth. He spends much of his time in retirement working on Alfa Romeo cars, and he’s accumulated a modest collection of vintage models on his property. He has an impressive airplane hanger and airstrip, which my cousin helped to build, where in the past they’ve flown planes constructed at home from a kit. This man and his wife were so welcoming and friendly. Good people.

It was also a very good thing to visit my brother’s children who also made the trip. I admit I don’t get as much time to see them, even though they are located closer to home. My three youngest nieces left me a bit sore, at times, as I seem to no longer have the stamina to endure sustained rough-housing. My nieces are pretty adept at tag-teaming efforts, too. I still have the bruises to prove it. My daughters impressed me with their interactions with their cousins: my oldest proved to be a worthy caretaker, and my youngest latched onto my nephew, as they enjoyed their obsession with the vid game, Clash of Clans.

On our last full day in Oklahoma, my cousin took all of us to local attraction Frog Rock. Frog Rock is a large boulder at the peak of a large hill, painted annually by a local family to look like a giant frog. I’m sure the local kids use it as a place to hang out at night and drink beer, as the broken glass about the place would indicate. However, it was an impressive monument, which we all got to climb. From the peak, you could spy the entire valley with the majestic Cimmaron River cutting through the heavily wooded area. All of the children from our clan scurried all over Frog Rock, squealing with glee, creating a mental video that I’ll replay in my head for years to come. We took some pictures for posterity’s sake, and the kids were invited to sign their names to Frog Rock. Before leaving, I wrote our family name on the frog’s underbelly, and traversed to the frog’s back to scribe my moniker, “The Maniacal Professor.” I’ll have to return someday soon to see if our marks are still there, as I find myself yearning to sit again atop Frog Rock in solitude, pondering the finer points of life amidst the beautiful landscape.

When it came time to leave Oklahoma, it was understandably hard to depart. Tears flowed freely. My daughter’s mother quietly conveyed to me that she didn’t want to leave, and I begrudgingly muttered that we had to, even though I had to force it out. My two daughters were quietly sobbing, which was difficult to watch, but beautiful to behold…because it confirmed the necessity of our trip. Our family bond is strong, and the love we have maintains itself despite the separation of the width of our grand country. I embraced my younger brother first and held him for several long moments. I hugged my big, tough cousin, and we shared a good cry together. My mother gripped me as if she couldn’t let go, which reminded me of all of the times in our lives when we had to support each other to muster the will to carry on day-to-day. She whispered about how much she missed me, and I tried to tell her about how strong we have to be. I’m not sure if I believed what I was saying, but I hope that it helped, as this visit would have to sustain any emotional longing for quite a while.

On the way down, we were bound for Oklahoma; on our way back home, I realized that I am forever bound to Oklahoma. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I pulled away from my mother, wiping tears from my face, when I’d next have a chance to return.

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