An Ultimate Moment 
on the Open Road

Jessica Seck Marquis
 

© Copyright 2009 by Jessica Seck Marquis

Photo of a highway seen through the windshield.

 In 2004, Jessica Seck Marquis was nearing her breaking point and embarked on a solitary road trip to reclaim herself and her sanity. The highway, however, had other plans for her final destination and the lessons she would learn along the way.

 Some moments in life rock a person’s core.

 Rare enough to matter but frequent enough to keep life captivating, these moments define and refine. Personal empires get toppled and paradigms do a dramatic sashay stage left.

I’ve come to use the term “ultimate moments” for such times, for that is exactly what they are: The epitome of living.

 Yet we never know when these ultimate moments will come.

Of course, some moments may have a grand entrance. We will know, for example, when we are about to give birth. We can plan a celebration for the night we receive that blood-sweat-tear-drenched diploma. And, come February 14th and a bent knee, the ring box indicates that life has taken a new course.

 Still, we do not know when those life-refining experiences, the ultimate moments of mystique and emotion, will rock us.

In the 24-hour period of 12:00pm, August 27, 2004, to 12:00pm, August 28, 2004, I had the misfortunate fortune of encountering one such moment.

It was mid-August 2004, and I was on a solitary road trip from my home in Detroit to those of extended family throughout the western portion of the Midwest. It was the second trip I had taken by myself that month, and I had made no secret of why: I was exiting the strenuous rigor of graduate school and simultaneously picking my way through the emotional aftermath of a messy breakup. I craved the inimitable solace that comes from the fragrant blend of solitude and loved ones.

 Even now, years later, it continues to fascinate me how the body and brain can disengage long enough to survive a period of crisis, but then tumble over themselves in processing it later. There was considerable tumbling in the car as I drove those long stretches of flatland highway.

 My impatience with the healing process was evident. I was unmistakably bitter, disconnected, and tired as I half-consciously traversed I-94, yearning to be unbound from the cognitions, feelings, and routines that had shackled me indefinitely to the starting line. I was ready to live, to tear up life’s road – but I was in need of the permission to do so, permission I did not know how or where to find.

 At 12:00 pm the summer day in question, I was en route with my great aunt and uncle to the iconically bombastic Minnesota State Fair. My first time at this event, I was overwhelmed with the juxtaposition of the natural farm exhibits alongside the wide variety of fried entrees. The sense of “This is not me” only encouraged me to explore further and with vigor. After all, it is during times of early healing that one is often the most courageous.

 We had finished viewing the sheep with the neon jumpsuits and were ambling toward the horses when my cell phone rang. I left barn for better reception. It was my dad on the other end of the call.

 “Jess, Nana is in the hospital. It doesn’t look good.”

 I do not know how I kept that phone in my hand; I know for a fact that I lost any trace of feeling in my appendages, and the periphery of my eyesight blended into a homogenously fuzzy frame. It was all I could do to command my body and brain to un-tumble so I could focus on what was coming through the phone next.

 “If you want to see her, you should come home now.”

 Math equations popped up like flashcards in my mind. A car traveling 70 miles per hour from Minneapolis to Detroit and only making stops for 10-minute restroom breaks will take how many hours? What kind of gas mileage will a car get traveling at this rate?

 “I’m coming home,” I said sternly, interrupting my story problems. Within three hours, I was packed and on the road back to Detroit, wishing I would somehow stumble upon a time or space portal and arrive before dusk.

My math abilities were accurate enough to know that I would not make it home in less than 12 hours.

 The car was a movie projection room of filmstrips from childhood until a few days ago when I saw her last. Nana, my family’s nickname for my maternal grandmother, had been a second mother to me by every definition of the term. She lived with my parents long before I was born, and, when my brothers and I arrived, she cared for us as if we were her own. This living arrangement came about as a symbiotic meeting of needs: Nana’s need for financial stability, and my parents’ need for a caregiver to my younger brother Steve and me while they tended to our cognitively-impaired older brother Josh. A nontraditional family structure, but it felt as natural as un-fried food to me.

 Nana taught me how to iron, sew, and be an independent single woman. She did not give me cooking lessons because she was lousy in that department. In fact, it was common at our house to laugh over the mediocre dinners she prepared when Dad was running late from work and Mom couldn’t break free of tending to Josh.

When she babysat so my parents could get a night out, Nana would join the three of us for board games. She never hesitated to state a correction when one shouted a disappointed, “Geez!”, reminding us that we were getting too close to “using the Lord’s name in vain.” Her faith was astonishing and unwavering, even after having lost her husband, brother, and son to untimely deaths.

And deep was her love for her grandchildren. There was nothing she enjoyed more than watching us put on a play that we had just dreamt up, complete with singing and costume changes. She even laughed so hard a few times that she passed out, which was frightening but secretly thrilling to us to know that we were funny enough to induce a sudden state of unconsciousness.

Here I was, nearing the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, eyes striving to adjust to the dusk-dimmed highways, reminiscing through rituals and adventures that were over two decades old. My chest contracted at the thought of her not waiting at the dining room table when I arrived home, offering me coffee in anticipation of catching up on how all the family members were doing.

 A month before I crafted this road trip, I had stopped into her bedroom with tears streaming steadily, soaking my messy hair and tattered pajama shirt. I was nearing the end of a particularly difficult class, and my sanity was slipping. Nana sat quietly with me – a feat for her, as she loved to talk – and simply sang an old hymn. When the tears dried to sticky tracks on my cheeks, she mentioned that my cousin Paul had asked when I would be visiting him next. I immediately began the planning.

 I tried to refrain from crying now so I could stay attentive to the highway. I was successful for the most part. Instead, I chose to scream.

 The anger and unfairness was too much for me, and my emotional burnout served to crescendo the outpouring. How could Nana leave me when I was this far away? How could she not say goodbye?

 The picture of seemingly-perfect health, she had unexpectedly collapsed on her bathroom floor. Mom discovered her and called the hospital. The doctors who took her from the paramedics found a ruptured colon due to undiagnosed colon cancer. How could we miss that? She was 85! Why did we not think to have her checked earlier so this would not have happened to her? To us?

My screams continued until I was exhausted in body and mind. It was fortuitous that I was near my cousin Paul’s house, whom I had called earlier to request lodging for the night. I forced myself to rest there while Paul distracted me with amusing memories of Nana and other attempts at light-hearted banter. Grateful for the diversion, I eventually passed out on the borrowed bed.

Early the next morning, I was already on the road, determined to make it to Nana’s bedside as soon as the math equations would allow me.

 The cell phone rang again. I knew who it was without reading the display.

 My hand demonstrated a magnetic repulsion from the phone; however, eventually, both joined and found their way to my ear.

 Gulping hard, I uttered the greeting, “Hi Dad.”

 “Jess—“

 I cut him off so I could ask the question before the answer was forced upon me. “Can I still make it to see her?” It gave me some illusion of control.

 There was a pause.

We don’t know what happened,” he started, “but she’s recovering.” His voice shocked me out of the numbness into which I was unaware I had entered. “Her color is returning. She’s even talking to us!”

 My arm slackened again, but this time out of an ecstatic shock.

I screamed with delight, thanking God for a miracle for which I had not even thought to ask.

 “So don’t hurry yourself and risk an accident,” he continued in his cautious fatherly voice, thinly masking his delight. “She will be here when you arrive.”

As if for the first time in 20 hours, my eyes registered all that was around me. The cloud-punctuated sky and the endless road carried me forward, appearing to lift me into the horizon that joined them. Life reverberated in every mitochondrion.

The rocking in my core spoke the message I needed in that season of burnout, pain, and life restored:

 Every day is the most important day of my life, but it is up to me to make it so.

I can choose to carry on with sadness or numbness, with resentment that seethes and anger that rages. The option exists, though, to look at the open sky and express gratitude for life, for those I love, for these emotions, for the chance each day to experience the entire spectrum of it all. Life must be grabbed, adored, and consumed, or it will leave me behind.

The remaining drive was effortless and brimming with the all-encompassing peaceful exhilaration that follows crisis. My body and brain had transitioned from tumbling to dancing together.

I arrived at the hospital to find Nana alert, her cheerful, talkative self. As I had expected, she apologized for cutting my trip short. I assured her that it was more important to me to be there with her than eating fried Twinkies in front of neon-clad sheep.

 The road trip had started out as a sojourn for healing and reclamation outside of familiarity, but instead it brought me home. Instead, it brought me to a new version of my old reality, a new appreciation for what mattered, a new knowledge of how to get there. All the ultimate moments that have followed that day still stir up the image of the highway and sky connection that led me away from the starting line and into the hope-infused horizon.

 That mid-August 24-hour period in 2004, I gave myself permission to drive it.

 Jessica Seck Marquis is a freelance writer living in Phoenix, AZ. She road trips and celebrates ultimate moments with her husband, sending letters back to Nana who still lives in Detroit.
 
 

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