Following a Trail of Tears

She returned to the place where her father had drawn his last breath. She had not made the conscious decision that she needed to return to this town, but she knew she needed to spend some time in the place that her father had seen in his last days, and she was naturally drawn there. Her brother had never left this town, that both haunts him and sets him free to be the person he truly is. This was his college town, and that place that he became comfortable and confident in his own skin. It is also the town that brought so much pain and struggle unnecessarily into his life. It made him question his sense of self yet again, sell drugs to make rent, dumpster dive in order to eat one square meal a day, and stole his father from him. This should be a place that he never wanted to return to, yet he has chosen it as the place that he wants to build his future in. This is why, when she was looking to begin a new phase in her life, she knew that she needed to spend time in the place that her brother loves and has chosen to call home.

As if to rip the band-aid off, she was welcomed to town with the sight of the Best Western where her father had passed quietly in his sleep. She could not be sure that that was the hotel he had been in, and she would not dare ask her brother. He had been the one who found their father cold the next morning. He had been the one who used his Lifeguard training to perform CPR on his already lifeless body. And he had been the one who called Mother and let her know that he was too late, and there was nothing that could be done to bring the father and man they loved back into this world. She could not bring him back to that day, and force those memories back into his life, so she made the assumption based on her father’s hotel habits and its proximity to her brother’s university.  Her overactive imagination had always taken her places she did not like to go, and this time was no different. Driving by the distinctive blue and yellow sign that had marked the location of all the hotels she had visited on family vacations growing up, she could not help but see the neutrally decorated, cookie cutter room in her mind – the thin comforter, short carpet designed to hide dirt, and closet containing the safe, headless hangers, and ironing board that you never use. From the back of the room, by the locked window that only allowed an inch opening for safety’s sake, her mind’s eye wandered to the door. There came a knock in the morning, steady and even like only the hands of her brother could deliver. It was not housekeeping, although she had prayed that it might be them instead of him who endured the scene that was to be discovered. The knocks came again, warning the room’s occupant that the door would be opened momentarily, should they not open it first. Expect that her father couldn’t hear the knocks, and there was no way that he could ever answer another door. Her gut reeling with anxiety, she heard the electronic locked recognize the key card’s code and open slowly with the intent of not surprising the occupant in a towel. Their father wasn’t in a towel though, and the next cleaning his body would receive would be in the flames of the kiln used to create his ashes. Her brother walked slowly into the room, careful to not wake his father who appeared to still be fast asleep, despite having made plans to have breakfast with his son and his girlfriend. With his girlfriend in tow, they entered the room and her brother walked over to the bed to gently wake their father, the way they had on every Christmas morning when he was being stubborn about getting out of bed. Except this time he wasn’t pretending to be asleep so that his children would get close enough that he could surprise them and wrap them up in his arms and hold their squirming bodies still while he attempted to shut his eyes for five more precious minutes. This time he wasn’t sleeping at all. After a couple of gentle shakes, her brother felt the chill to his father’s skin and put his head closer to search for a breath. Not finding one, his Lifeguard training and instincts kicked in and he moved to the rapid delivery of breaths and pumps of the chest. His instructed his girlfriend, who was standing shocked and scared in the corner, to call 9-1-1, and she moved as fast as she could to her phone, thankful to have a task in this scene of unimaginable possibilities. They were too late though and at that point were calling someone to come collect the physical reminder of one of the most amazing people they had known.
This was not the Sunday that they had anticipated. This was the Sunday when their lives stopped existing as they had previously known them. This was the Sunday when a beacon of her childhood vacations became a haunting reminder of the event that she was not there for and could only imagine, but is so vivid that it has not left her mind for seven years.

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