“No one sees it coming. No one walks when they should’ve been running.” – Brandi Carlile
I don’t know what I expected. Cans of beans and jugs of purified water stocked in neat rows in a linen closet. Clunky, metal lock securing a dimly lit bunker. Boarded windows. A dreaded date circled on a calendar. Public hysteria. Or maybe something of Biblical proportions. Earth would shake and flood and rot, fire spit from the sky, the good called evil and the evil called good, a mighty storm would wash the world away. In retrospect, perhaps the last guess was as close as any. The hardest part to grasp, the fearful bit, is that it’s hard to tell when the world is ending. No clear signs, no lightning bolts, no voice of God booming “RUN. DON’T WALK!.” For all the times we’ve bit our lips and waited for it, anticipating a Mayan date or technological meltdown, the wrath of a displeased God, the end if surprisingly subtle. Until it’s not.
AlI I knew that morning was tidy rows of flip-flops stacked across my closet floor, zippers clicking closed the suitcases, a much anticipated start to a beach vacation circled on the calendar. It was a sunny Saturday, children buzzed around the store as parents stocked carts of back-to-school supplies. I tried on bathing suits, picked a blue butterflied something. When my phone buzzed I was debating how big a girl could pull off a two-piece. I was picturing waves and calm and tan skin. I was picturing impending happiness.
The phone buzzed again. Again. And again. I grabbed sunglasses to compliment the towel I’d chosen to compliment the bathing suit. The phone buzzed on and on & I finally answered it, absentmindedly surveying the goods in my cart as my mother rattled off four little words. I wasn’t paying attention, would’ve bet my blue butterfly trunks that she was just calling for small talk, bored and wanting some company. “Your dad is dead,” I think she said, but it hardly registered. “Your dad is dead. Your dad is dead. Oh my God, your dad is dead,” and still I wasn’t understanding. I looked down at my beach essentials and thought I better go ahead, check out, go take care of this. Her voice shook and blurred, like patchy background noise, and I realized I was crying, right there in a Wal-Mart. The body understands before the mind. I’d darted to an empty aisle. A white-haired stock lady turned and looked at me, alarmed. Her eyes said she was horrified. As I shook my head to clear it I realized I was horrified, too.
Then I am in my parked car. I am calling police in a town a couple hours away. I am patched through to the Captain. I’m not sure what he is the Captain of. He is apologizing, but I can’t hear him. Fumbling with the air conditioner, switching the radio, I realize I can’t hear over my own wheezing. I am asking him to clear this up. I would like him to tell me where, exactly, my dad is so I can hold his hand. It’s seems important, crucial even, that I am with him, holding his big, square hands. I am saying, “No. I was just there. With him. I was just there with him. This week. There should still be pizza in the fridge. My son drew Poppi a picture. I was just there with him. He told me I looked pretty in my blue sundress. I was just there with him.”
I am begging someone to tell me dad’s ok. I will learn later that he is not. I am begging someone to tell me at least dad died in his sleep, a quick, quiet heart attack. I will learn later that he did not. I am begging someone to tell me that dad was shot. Oh my God. And I realize this is a scary, new place I’ve found myself in: a world in which I am desperate for my dad just to have experienced the quickest, less painful murder available. I am begging the impossible possibility that if someone could take his gentle life that they took it gently. But it wasn’t gentle, I’d learn much later from a news report . Where am I? What world is this where even a gunshot was too much to hope for? But for now The Captain cannot tell me details. No one can tell me anything save for my dad is dead and seemingly not of natural causes. They can tell you the world is ending but not how. Maybe you wouldn’t believe them even if they could.
This. This is how the world ends. Deflated, emptied of joy that keeps your chin up, shoulders open, upright. Refilled with a thick, slow sludge of leaden grief. Heavy. Heavy. You are paralyzed in fear and you are drowning in the sorrow.
I threw up in an orange plastic cup in my car. I can’t see through my tears, but there is my husband coming to get me. Then I am grabbing my bag. Then I am hugging my neighbor. He’s rushed in to keep my son safe from the chaos. He is wearing an American flag bathing suit. For a minute I remember I was just shopping for a suit. I remember it’s a sunny Saturday. It’s sweet, honey-suckle smell. It’s summertime. Then I am in a shaded backseat on the interstate. We’re going to Dad. We’re going to get this sorted out. I read a news report on a phone but can’t comprehend the words. My eyes stop hard on the images of my dad’s duplex cordoned off with bright tape. A metal rack wheels a big bag to the trunk of a shiny van. My brother’s picture is flashed across the screen. The reporter looks sad. And still I’m not understanding.
My phone buzzes and I answer it. A sweet woman’s voice asks me medical questions about my dad. “I’m here with your dad,” she says. Thank God. I cry out in temporary joy. I tell her we are on our way. Tell him we are so close to him. Tell him I’m going to hold his hand. I felt a surge of frantic gratitude. Thank God for the mix up. I expect her to comfort me, assure me that I’m having a bad dream and can wake now. But she’s tasked with explaining that she is with his body. Just his body. And still, because all the helpless can do is hold on for dear life to hope, I need to hold his body’s hand.
This is how the world ends. You are drowning, overwhelmed and overcome, and then you are torn from the grounded, solid place, sucked up and hurled- spinning, spinning, tossed. You land in a hot parking lot in Jackson, startled and hurting. I’m here! I’m here! Where am I?
Then I am throwing up Diet Coke in the bland bathroom sink of a police station. I noticed it fizzing and for a minute things are quiet and narrowed down to a sick stomach and some soda. That’s all this is. My belly hurts. Let’s go home. I walk out to a flurry of detectives who cannot give details and there are my sisters with wide, blank stares and there is my husband with tears dripping from beneath sunglasses and there is my dad’s baby brother and I am stunned all of a sudden at the sight of him. He rode to Jackson with us, two hours in the car but maybe I hadn’t seen him. There is his mustache and his eyes and his big shoulders and I feel punched, knocked back for a split second thinking he is my sweet Dad, come to clear this mess up. There is my mom, what is left of her. I see her heavy shuffled steps, her shoulders curled in. I can see her spirit withered, and I can tell she’s heard the world is ending, too. I think of the mugshot, the bizarre and dizzy sight of my brother on the news and am knocked back again realizing that my brother is my mother’s son. Oh my God. Oh her God. Oh my dad. Oh her little boy. I look around the room to what is left of my family. We are sunken eyes and tired bones and hardly shadows of who we were this morning. “Oh my God,” I think. “He’s killed us, too.”
You are falling down, washed over and over, pulled under the water and then thrown up and out of the sky. You crash down on the curb, the parking lot of a Jackson hotel on a Saturday night, and you are disoriented, unsure of why you’re here. You are making mental lists of tasks to do: call crime scene cleaners, plan a funeral, breathe, breathe.
I glance over to my big sister and her eyes are swollen and raw from tears. Deepest shade of sadness. Her legs are being eaten up with bugs who found her on the asphalt and I realize my legs are bitten, too. But it seems impossible to get up. It seems like we might just sit here until Dad comes back. Or at least we’ll sit here until everyone else has been informed. The world has ended. It is over. I feel horrible to break the news to them. I’m so sorry to have to tell you. The world is gone.
A dad carries a sleepy toddler through the sliding hotel doors. A few tipsy teens huddle across the lot from you, sharing a lighter, tugging at their short skirts and exposed bra straps. “Nothing’s wrong here,” I think and it is the single most stunning thought of this world-ending day. He has never not been here. He’s gone. Yet the world is still going through the motions despite its rapture. All they know is that it is a hot, Saturday night in a little Tennessee town.
This is how the world ends. It is a beautiful day full of bright sun and green trees. It is an unsuspecting family getting a too-late phone call. It is the obliteration of everything you ever felt safe and sure about. It is exactly not what you expected. Because I’d have told you that the worst part of the end of the world would probably be the actual end of the world, the death of it. I wouldn’t have guessed that the harshest, horrifying part would be this: The world will end and your poor eyes will have to bear witness to the aftermath, little girl. The world will end, the good are gone, his hands aren’t here to hold, and you’ll be left behind. This is how the world ends. Just a sunny Saturday in July.