On Wednesday evening, December 26, I was sitting next to Dawn and in front of Bryce in the B concourse of Midway airport. We had successfully pressed through the security checkpoint, rearranged our clothes and shoes, and walked to our gate to wait for an hour before boarding a plane. Bryce was eyeing some passenger’s ice cream, whispering to me about wanting some. I told him to wait, to let me get settled. I told him I had just sat down. I told him to stop looking at the woman’s ice cream like that because he was scaring me and probably scaring her.
We were heading to Charlotte, North Carolina ultimately to complete our annual time with Grammie Joseph. It would be a week where we would see the Gant museum, walk through the botanical gardens in Belmont, eat at Captain Steve’s, talk a lot, catch up, do nothing. My aunt, Lynnie, called me while we were waiting to board. I have a rule when certain people call my phone: I always answer. I do not observe this rule for most people. I’m a pastor so I cannot. I meet with people and they say things to me, and when they say these things, it makes a lot of sense for me to stop the rest of the world as those people present their worlds to me. So I’m “present” with them as they talk. I ignore the phone. I don’t hear rings in those moments. But I make exceptions. When my aunt calls, because my father has been in the nursing home in her city, I take her call, even if I need to ask if I can call right back.
As she always does, she asked me how I was. There was static in the line. Perhaps it wasn’t static. Do cell towers allow for static? It was choppy. Whatever the interference, I couldn’t quite hear her clearly. Some voice was droning about a passenger whose flight was leaving or some gate change. There was Bryce switching to his mother and asking her for ice cream. He’s been doing that more and more: shifting to her when I don’t answer the way he thinks I should.
Aunt Lynnie asked if I had gotten her message. I pulled my phone from my ear and looked at it as if to ask it if it had rung without my hearing it. Perhaps it sang while we were in the cab with the preacher cab driver who I talked theology with on the way to the airport. “No,” I told her, “I didn’t.” Then I thought—as she let out a long “Well,”—perhaps she called the house. I heard her “Welling” and I had a flash of some indication of what was to come. It was something spiritual, like and unlike the Welling in the black church, when people sometimes rock while they hear the preacher. They say “Well” as they listen, and something about the “Well” makes what they hear stick. My aunt’s well was different; she was stalling just for a moment, and auntie, in my experience, didn’t stall. She breathed and she said it, quickly and clearly, without interference from cell towers or airport clutter. My dad had passed an hour or so before that moment.
They were just arriving to the nursing home; the snow had prevented them from getting there sooner. I knew Little Rock didn’t get snow. I imagined my three Little Rock aunts, wrapped in coats, looking as lovely as always, dressed in care and concern and love and something familiar. They were there, three of my father’s sisters, a group of faithful friends to him, and he was dead. I asked her to repeat herself. Actually, I said, “What?” I had heard her, but something in me got very cliche in that moment. Or something in me needed to hear again. Dawn heard me and she knew. She had been down a path like this one when her father was snatched over six months after his stroke two years ago. I felt Dawn turn to me. I saw her take Bryce by the hand. I was really surprised at that simple sentence from my aunt. I wanted to turn to Dawn; I wanted to turn away.
I had just seen him. This was my first thought: I had just seen him. One week ago at the hospital in Searcy. He hugged me twice. I held him, walked with him. I showed him pictures, something, I realize now, I did often on my trips to see him. My second thought was: I just talked to him. It was on Christmas Eve, two days before. His voice was bright, brighter than usual even. he talked to Bryce, asked about Dawn. I thought he was getting better. I didn’t realize he was leaving.