By Karen Brode
As soon as Mother opened the front door, she sent me to my room. Aunt Winnie stood on our porch, clutching her handbag in one hand and holding a handkerchief to her nose with the other. Her red eyes were wide and unblinking. Her face was sopped with tears she had already shed. At ten, I didn’t have to be told that something bad had happened, but it must have been really bad if I wasn’t supposed to hear it.
I did as I was told at first, but left my door open a crack so I could hear something. It was hard not to hear Winnie’s sobs as Mother led her to the kitchen. It wasn’t long, though, before my curiosity got the best of me and I crawled out into the hall on my hands and knees, trying to be as quiet as possible.
“How could this happen?” I heard Winnie sputter through her tears.
I poked my head around the corner as slowly as I could and saw Aunt Winnie at the table with her head in her hands. Tears ran down her arms onto the table. I could only see the back of Mother’s head and her own arms outstretched on the table, as if trying to reach out and comfort Winnie.
“I don’t understand,” said Mother. “Harold is dead?”
This brought on a wail from Aunt Winnie, who nodded and soaked up her tears with her handkerchief. The only Harold I knew was Aunt Winnie’s cousin from Amarillo.
“He was…” started Winnie. “He was driving home from school and…OH, it’s just terrible.” She threw her head on her arms and cried.
“He was driving home from school,” said my mother. “Was he in a car accident?”
With her head still down on her arms, Winnie nodded. She looked up, took a deep breath, and with determination in her eyes, she blurted, “He was decapitated, Hazel!” Then she threw her head down again and sobbed.
Decapitated! I sat up against the wall and felt for my throat, as if it had happened to me. My heart beat hard in my chest. It was the worst word to hear, the worst kind of thing to happen.
“Oh my word,” Mother said. Her voice cracked with what I was sure was the same kind of fear I was feeling. “How could this have happened?”
“I just don’t know!” said Aunt Winnie. She seemed to take comfort in rattling Mother as much as she was rattled. Her words were still swilling in sobs, but she was able to go into more detail. “They say someone’s hubcap came shooting off their car from the other lane. It went right through Harold’s windshield and….” She trailed off in a wail.
Even I teared up thinking about what had happened. I cringed and wiggled on my spot in the hall. Mother was right. I should have stayed in my room. What made it worse was that I remembered meeting cousin Harold and his wife not a month before. They were visiting Aunt Winnie and I remembered her saying they were planning trips they wanted to make when Harold retired at the end of the school year.
I felt a little nauseous and started to crawl back to my room when I heard Aunt Winnie say, “There’s no point in doing anything, is there? How can anyone get up in the morning and get dressed and make plans for the day when something like this could happen at any moment?”
“Any moment,” I echoed. My throat closed up thinking about other deaths I had heard about that were unforeseen.
Mike, a boy in my fifth grade class, had been playing by the railroad tracks after school one day, and somehow gotten hit by a train, and killed. I knew that this would never happen to me because I would look carefully both ways before I even stepped onto a railroad track. I had often wondered if Mike had been tired of living, even though he was only ten years old. He didn’t have many friends and he was going home to an empty house because his parents both worked. Maybe he just didn’t want to go on. It was easier for me to think that than to imagine a train sneaking up on him and killing him.
What Aunt Winnie said was true and I knew it in my heart. Terrible, irrevocable things could happen without warning at any moment. Why would anyone even leave their house?
Finally, Winnie stopped crying. I leaned back around the corner to get a glimpse of her. She was sitting up looking out into the nothingness in front of her. Mother, too, was quiet. There wasn’t anything to say. Words would have been useless.
“Maybe he was tired that day,” whispered Winnie, who was hoarse from crying. “He was probably thinking of getting home, sitting in his recliner with a cold glass of tea. He wouldn’t have any papers to grade since it was Friday. Maybe he would have nodded off in the recliner for a nap.”
Winnie and I both knew that people died everyday. My own dad had died not four years earlier. There were all kinds of deaths, and usually, it was after some lingering, some hospital visit, and maybe after a surgical procedure when the doctors just sewed everything up and told the person to enjoy what little life they had left. But they all had a warning: Death is coming. Soon.
Death wasn’t supposed to just just fly through the air and decapitate someone.
As Winnie talked about Harold’s last moments, I listened, imagining everything she said.
“There he was,” she said. “Sitting at the wheel of his car. He was probably squinting into the late afternoon sun.” She blew her nose in her handkerchief. “Oh, Hazel. He had taught for so long. His whole life was held together with habits and character and being careful.”
She took a napkin from the holder on the table and mopped her tears from her arms. “He was not a risky person, you know. We were cut from the same cloth about these things, but even I thought he was a little crazy for using his seatbelt every time he got in the car.”
Winnie usually didn’t wear her seatbelt because it bothered her to think she might be trapped by the seatbelt if there was a wreck. Even so, she still threw her right arm out to catch me if she had to stop suddenly.
She stared off again and winced as if seeing everything unfold for her in person.
I sat there thinking about cousin Harold. It occurred to me that he and Winnie were a lot alike. I remembered her telling me how important it was to work hard and put myself through college like she and cousin Harold had.
“There are no free rides for people like us,” she’d say. She and Harold both seemed to expect to have to work hard everyday to make the best of life.
My thoughts were interrupted when I heard Winnie talk about one of Harold’s students.
“I know this is ridiculous, but I thought of a student Harold told me about as soon as I heard the news. This boy was scary, probably a psychopath. He’s taller than Harold and, apparently, he used to just glower as he wrote math problems on the chalkboard.” Winnie’s lips tightened. I could tell she had wanted to blame the boy for Harold’s death, but even I knew it was a crazy accident.
“It is just unthinkable,” I heard my mother say and I saw her clutching the necklace at her neck.
For years later, Winnie would talk about what had happened to Harold, as if it might happen to her too. “They say he hadn’t even seen it coming,” she would say. “That he was probably fiddling with the radio or adjusting the sun visor.”
Even as she sat at the table with my mother, she contemplated whether it was better if he had seen it coming or not.
“He must have been surprised to realize he was dead,” she said, dabbing her balled up napkin at a spot on the table. “Or maybe he didn’t even know he was dead.” Then she shrugged. “I can’t imagine any of it.”
She was silent for a while, as was Mother, who got up to get them both glasses of iced tea. When Mother returned, Winnie continued.
“What do you suppose he was thinking just before he died?” she asked.
“Probably not death,” said Mother.
Winnie nodded. “He had just put in another week teaching and he was going home to Juanita. They had talked about visiting their son, Mark, in Abilene. Harold was certainly not thinking about death.”
I knew that Winnie would’ve been upset no matter how Harold had died. Seeing him just a few weeks ago with his cheeks aglow with health and vitality made his death seem ridiculous and unnecessary. But this way of dying, this was almost too much for any of us.
“Do you think it would have been different if he had just stopped to check his teacher mailbox after school?” she asked. “Or maybe if he had forgotten something from his classroom and gone back to get it? Do you think that would have changed all of this?”
Mother shrugged and shook her head. “It’s hard to say.”
“We were so much alike,” Winnie said. “Harold went to work everyday and taught math, just like I do.” She blinked back the tears that were threatening to spill over her lids. “Hazel, he was such a good man.”
“I know,” said my mother, handing her another napkin.
“He went to church on Sundays and taught a Men’s Bible class on Wednesday evening.” She blew her nose into the napkin and balled it into her hand.
“There were no black marks by his name,” she continued. “This isn’t supposed to happen to good people.” And as she said this, she looked up at the ceiling and clutched her throat as if she too, who had devoted her life to being good, was doomed to the same fate.
Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.