It’s after midnight on a Saturday night in mid-August in upstate New York. My husband signals and turns right onto the ramp to I-87 South. I’m in the passenger seat, trying to sleep and failing miserably. I haven’t drunk any coffee, but adrenaline courses through my veins like caffeine.
Just go to sleep already, I tell myself. You have to drive soon. Sleep. Sleep.
My sister finally gets through at 11. We are returning from my husband’s family reunion in Ontario, and stop for the night with friends in Saranac Lake, New York. We stay with these old, dear friends regularly and have an established routine: hang out, then visit the one decent Chinese restaurant in town for takeout. After dinner, the kids watch a movie and the adults retire to the basement to drink G&Ts, play euchre and listen to 70’s classic rock.
This Saturday night, we follow the routine, but my husband and I tire of drinking early and switch to water at 9. It’s as if we somehow know we’ll need to be sober later. Our friends pull a homemade ice cream cake out of the freezer to celebrate our anniversary. 17 years we’ve been married, and we toast our marriage, and our friends, and our lives, with water and ice cream cake.
We call it quits and head to bed before 11. The kids have put themselves to sleep and are piled happily in sleeping bags. I am brushing my teeth when my husband calls to me sharply from the guest room that my sister is on the phone. His tone is uncharacteristically harsh, and I realize that something is wrong. I spit and hurry to the phone.
My sister is calling from the road. She’s been trying to reach me for two hours, but my phone has been out of earshot. She sounds frantic. Months later I have no real recollection of the conversation, except in short, disjointed phrases: “Dad” and “hospital in Virginia” and “stung by wasps” and “massive anaphylactic shock” and “cardiac arrest” and “coma” and “not sure he’ll survive the next 24 hours.” My brain can’t process all this. I tell her I’ll call her back in a few minutes. As I go to hang up, my sister says my name.
“Yeah?” I say.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.” This is not something we usually say – it’s always been a given. But somehow tonight, when nothing is a given anymore, it needs saying out loud.
We quickly decide that we need to leave as soon as possible. Our friends immediately start packing coffee, Diet Coke and snacks for us. They are worried about us driving through the night, but understand our decision. We pack all our stuff in the car and lay our sleeping daughter in the back seat under a blanket. (It’s a chilly night in the Adirondacks.) The dog snuggles in with her.
So now it’s midnight and we’re headed south. We’ve got a bit less than 500 miles to go. My husband, full of coffee, has taken first driving shift. I wish I could sleep. I close my eyes, lean the seat back, and try to relax but the hamsters in my head won’t stop running the wheel. Dad-hospital-coma-stung-coma-shock-dying-Dad-dead-Dad…
I try and fail to sleep for two more hours. Our friends text us regularly, making sure we’re OK, until they drop off at 2. I kid myself that I’ve at least gotten some rest. My husband runs out of steam north of Poughkeepsie, and we pull over in a rest area and switch. I’m grateful for the chill in the air – it gives me energy and resolve. I jump up and down a few times, then climb into the driver’s seat. The dog and the girl sleep soundly in the back. My husband joins them quickly, mouth dropping open after a few minutes.
As I drive down 87, the only car on the road at 2.30 AM, I look out the window. It’s a crystal-clear night, and the stars, thousands of them, shine bright and deep. We’re far enough from New York to skirt the light pollution, and the sky is putting on a show. Constellations everywhere, and the Milky Way a faint, glowing ribbon. It’s breathtaking, but reminds me how small we are, barreling down a lonely highway in our ancient Mazda. People romanticize the freedom and exhilaration of driving alone at night, but maybe they’re driving to somewhere exciting? Or away from something terrible? I seem to be doing the opposite.
In short order I reach the I-84 interchange and head west into Pennsylvania. Over the state line, my attention switches from the beauty of the night sky to terrifying, truck-beaten pavement. The bumps are constant and jarring, and the streetlights disappear, leaving me to drive in near-total darkness. I slow down to 60 as we climb into the Poconos, all my attention focused on the quarter-mile of visibility ahead of me. Nothing like sheer terror to keep you awake and alert.
Gradually the road flattens and smoothes out, so I speed up again. To distract myself I mentally compose complaint letters to Pennsylvania about how much its roads suck. It’s 4 in the morning, and completely dark. The coming dawn has erased the stars, but the sun hasn’t yet started rising. There are no other cars nearby, and my family is asleep. I’m three feet from those I love best on earth, but I haven’t felt this alone in years. Worry and fear surround me like a fog.
It occurs to me that we are trapped in a sort of limbo, between the happy, ignorant previous evening and the horrifying, unknown morning that awaits us in a hospital in Virginia. I have never been good at truly living in the present moment, and I’m not sure I really want to live in this one. But then again, my mind shrinks from the future that awaits us some six hours down the highway.
At the same time, weirdly enough, I feel more in control, more like an adult, than I ever have in my life. I’m taking care of my family, focused on driving them safely down the road, focused on the mile of highway ahead, focused on that endpoint in Virginia. There is nothing else that’s important, nothing that matters more than us, and this car, and this road. I may be terrible at living in the present moment, but present circumstances demand it, so I’d better step up.
About 45 minutes later, just as my arms feel like they really have disconnected from my torso and are gripping the steering wheel by themselves, I start seeing signs of the dawn. The sky greys behind me as we drive west through the never-ending state of Pennsylvania, but the sky ahead is still dark dark dark. Over the next half-hour, I’m treated to a glorious rearview-mirror sunrise. It inspires me (Nature! So beautiful!) and cheers me (Light better than scary dark!) but also tears at the limbo I’ve been inhabiting and intensifies the dread of what’s to come, what gets closer with every passing mile.
Just after 6 AM, on the far side of Hazelton, my husband wakes up, which is good, because I’m done. My body is screaming at me from lack of sleep, and my eyes ache from staring into the darkness. We stop at a gas station for a bathroom-Gatorade break. The girl and the dog keep sleeping. As my husband pulls back onto I-81, my body finally conquers my anxious mind and I drift off into uneasy oblivion.
Two hours later I wake with a start and realize that we’re stopping again. My husband needs food and the back seat is stirring. As we pull into the gas station parking lot, I hear a small voice from the backseat.
“Why are we in the car? Why aren’t we with our friends?”
I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and turn around. I explain what’s happened, how Grandpa needs us, why we’ve driven all this way through the night. She seems to comprehend, but looks as if she can’t quite take it all in. You and me both, I think. After she and the dog are fed, juiced and bathroomed up, we get back on the road.
From this point forward the miles blur together as the sun climbs higher in the sky. We finally cross the border out of Pennsylvania into Maryland, and drive the last leg with an increasingly restless child and dog in tow. The temperature, chilly overnight and pleasingly cool in the earlier morning, now reaches the high 80s. Welcome to Virginia. For hours I’ve been getting regular texts from my sister and stepmom that say the same thing – no change, still in a coma, when are you getting here.
Just after 10 AM we drive onto the hospital campus, find the ICU building and park. My sister stands outside the entrance, waiting for me. My husband hugs me and tells me to head inside. He’ll take care of our family.
We’ve driven 10 hours through the night and the terrifying reality we’ve been driving toward is now here. The limbo is over. My sister has briefed me on what I’ll find inside, but something tells me this is not anything you can truly prepare for. I take a deep breath, step out into the heat, and start walking toward the door.
Martha Culver resides, wives, parents, works and Twitters outside of Boston. She is obsessed with classic British mysteries and and occasionally blogs about them (and other stuff.)