In the summer of 2006, my future husband and I found ourselves kid-less. They were all at camp: band camp, basketball camp, sailing camp. The idea of adult camp grew into a magnetic force we couldn’t contain. We packed up his new Audi A4 and took her to the open road.
The five hour drive from Houston to New Orleans became four as we blasted our way around road construction and endless lines of eighteen-wheelers. We timed our departure for late morning: avoid rush hour at both ends and arrive on Bourbon Street while the three-for-one beer offers were still good.
I had never been to the French Quarter so my boyfriend decided to show me the sights. We walked from one end to the other; we heard music from Zydeco to Doo-Wop. The Quarter was a pocket of the city that survived Hurricane Katrina less than a year before; the city itself, still reeled from the destruction. The next day, we hopped back in the car to see firsthand the wreckage.
We realized the devastation as we drove through town. Blue plastic tarps covered roofs, plywood covered windows and doors; buildings, dilapidated, left to fend for themselves, lay vacant and abandoned.
We drove through areas where the waterline left marks taller than I, taller than my 6’1” boyfriend. Houses with a giant X spray painted on them indicated the number of bodies found within. Most had 0, some had more. We meandered, slowly, absorbing the damage. Some people were out with shovels and brushes; laying concrete, painting houses. Rebuilding had begun.
In search for the Lower Ninth Ward, the area of New Orleans hardest hit by the flooding, we continued to drive. Hurricane Katrina left its biggest mark on the poorest in the city—stuck, helpless, homeless. The little rebuilding we saw dwindled. Foundations lay empty, evidence that someone’s life had once been there but was now gone. Apartments resembled bombed out buildings in Bagdad or Beirut.
We found what we were looking for as we crept along the pothole riddled streets, and then they found us. In the distance as we drove towards a dead-end street, kids with nowhere to go. They started to gather and walk towards us with sticks and stones. 200 yards, 150 yards, 100 yards, “Back up, turn around, now!”
We left in a hurry, before the gang of twelve or fifteen could reach us. We drove fast, no longer interested in the sights, no longer worried about the bumps in the road. We found Bourbon Street in a hurry, visibly shaken by our almost encounter.
I’ve returned to New Orleans several times since then and have watched it come back to life. But those hardest hit, those left for dead, children, not at summer camp but at a dead-end street, those are the ones etched most into my memory.
I think I’m haunted.
I’m at the grocery store. I shop. I pack my car. I return my cart.
Sounds normal enough.
I frequent a place where Shopping Is a Pleasure. Each time I check out, the bagger asks if I need assistance. I love this when I have a 50-pound bag of dog food or a few cases of beer. But most of the time, I politely say, I’ve got it today, with a smile. And today was not any different.
I wheel my items to the car. Fill my trunk. And trek back to the store with the cart. I must do this because, at my store, there are very few cart-return racks.
I (almost) always return my cart for a very simple reason. One day, someone said to me, that my actions could have a profound impact on someone’s day.
Really? I asked.
Yes, he said. Take for example a grocery cart. If someone does not put their cart away and the wind shifts, the cart could roll into a car and cause a dent.
Hmmm. I thought about the example and agreed, putting the cart away was something I could do to help someone else have a better day.
Since that conversation, I (almost) always return my cart. And today I did. I loaded the groceries into my car, closed the trunk, and wheeled the cart past four parked cars, across a wide thoroughfare, over the curb, and to the sidewalk in front of the store.
I then walked back to my car and opened the door only to turn around at the sound of a cart rumbling toward me. It was the same one I just put away. It had rolled off the curb, across the thoroughfare, and past the four parked cars. I watched in amazement at the trajectory and was unable to extract myself fast enough to save my bumper.
As it approached, a woman took a stride forward and exclaimed, I’ve got it! And she did. She pushed it back from whence it came. What had been an ordinary day almost wasn’t. But fortunately for me, someone else had altered the chain of events that stopped the wayward cart from ruining my day.
So, from now on, when the bagger asks if I need help to the car, I’m going to smile and politely say, Great. I’m the white Honda over there.
Good night stars/ Good night air/ Good night noises everywhere*
I kiss my sleeping boy on the forehead. The smell of baby lotion lingers on my lips as I tiptoe from the room. I stretch and yawn and decide it is time for me, too, to dress in my cozy pajamas and read myself to sleep.
Closing my book and turning off the light, I snuggle into the bed, surrounded by white fluffy pillows and a soft down comforter. I sink, slowly, into the mattress and let my thoughts gently float away.
I sigh and roll to my side. Moving slightly, the bottom of my PJs brush my foot. I lay still and review the day. Picnic on the beach. Baby laughing as salty waves chase him over hardened sand. Pulling at my cheeks with tiny hands, whispering, “I lub you, mama.”
I bend my knee to find the comfy spot. Arm under pillow, knee angled, light blocked. Only the sound of a distant car, driving down the public street.
My silky pant leg, again, brushes my foot. A string, frayed from its bottom, loose and dangling over my leg. The sea air drifts through the open window.
I adjust my foot again. Smile. Memories of baby swinging, bellowing laughter with each rise and fall.
The thread travels as my leg moves. It tickles, slightly; annoyingly.
I kick, try to grasp the offending twine with my other toe to remove it from the clothing. It shifts again. Away from my toe.
Annoyance gives way to frustration. Images of baby crying, waddling towards me, holding a hurt finger. I kiss it but it needs a Band-Aid.
I try again for the string, this time with my hand. It shifts again. I sit up and fling the covers from my bed, ready to pull, not caring about the hemline or seam.
My eyes adjust to the darkness. I see clearly. With the covers back, I move my leg only to watch a cockroach crawl, then jump from its nestled position inside the sheets towards my face. I scream and follow the miscreant out of bed. Skin tingling, itching, prickling.
I flip on the light and watch as the bug scurries from the room and through the gap in the window.
I slam shut the casement, tug at my clothing, flinging them haphazardly as I run to the shower. Heart pounding, palms sweating. Water splashing cold. I steady myself and wait.
I wait for the temperature to warm, for my unrest to calm. For now, my night must begin again.
*Lines from Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
“Oh,” my mom says as she claps her hands together. “Don’t you look just like an airplane pilot!”
“You really think so?” I asked, as I button the blue polyester blazer. In 1976, it was the in-thing.
“Now just remember, the Johnsons will meet you in Dallas. Don’t worry about a thing.”
“Okay.” My smile revealing my confidence.
I was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime. A ten-year-old, on her own, flying half way across the country to visit her grandmother. I was so excited I could hardly stand it. And my new navy blue bell-bottomed pant suit with the big gold buttons was the classy garb to get me there.I’d made this journey before with my family. Fly from Philadelphia to Dallas, change planes at the airport, and arrive in Oklahoma City a few short minutes later. As a big girl, I knew I could do it on my own.
The first flight landed in Dallas right on time. A flight attendant sat next to me. We chatted about swimming and the fun I would have going to Branson, Missouri with my cousins. And, just as my mom promised, the Johnsons were at the gate to greet me.
The Johnsons were my parents’ friends. They participated in each other’s weddings. They had sons. Cute sons. This I knew. We strolled through DFW easily. Mr. Johnson flew for the airline and wore his uniform as he shook hands with everyone and was treated like royalty. I wondered if he thought I, too, looked like a pilot, but I didn’t ask.
After a leisurely lunch, they pointed me to my gate and waved as I stood in line for security. On the other side was the same flight attendant I’d met earlier, waiting for me.
I put my small tote onto the scanner belt and moved to the metal detector. The man on the other side motioned for me to walk through. I did.
A loud signal chimed. The man motioned for me to return through the security screen and try again.
He stopped and looked at me. He scowled. He studied me as heat crept from my belly, into my chest, and up my neck.
“Hold out your arms,” he said sternly.
I watched. Arms outstretched, feeling the heat rise to my cheeks as teardrops hovered over my eye lashes. I bit my lips. I sucked in my cheeks. I wiggled.
“Stand still, Miss.”
He grabbed his electric wand and waved it in front of my face. Tears, falling in earnest now, slid from my eyes and onto the floor. He moved his machine above my right arm and around my head and across to the left. Down my back. Over my torso. Buzz. He stopped.
He waved it again.
The sound was deafening, echoing in my ears, shouting at me. A sob was about to break loose. I couldn’t hold it back.
“It’s your buttons, Miss.” He smiled at me. “It’s fine, you can go now.”
I stood still, shocked. I ran my sleeve across my face and dried my eyes as best I could before walking slowly to the conveyer belt and snatching my Barbie bag, tucking my chin in shame.
I don’t remember the rest of the flight or if I ever wore that navy blue bell-bottom pant suit with the big gold buttons again, but to this day, I can’t walk through a security gate without a flinch. And if it buzzes, heat rises in my belly and flutters slowly towards my cheeks. So while other people complain about full-body scanners, I silently smile and think, at least they don’t beep.
“Yeah, but what’s it like?”
Wait, what? Was I really on a date with a guy who just asked what it’s like to be a young widow with children? If my BFF were nearby, she would have thrown up a red flag.
[Pause—let me give you some backstory. My first husband died of ALS when he was 40, leaving six- and nine-year old sons behind. If you have to stand in line and pick a disease, don’t stand in Lou Gehrig’s, it’s about as bad as they come. Now back to the jerk.]
“Really, I want to know, what is it like?”
We were sitting at this hole-in-the-wall restaurant with a handful of tables, a small French menu, and dim lighting. Outside, the Houston traffic rattled on while the sun slowly sank into the ground. There’s no answer to his question other than the one I offered: “It sucks.”
A counselor once told me I was suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Today, there’s a general acceptance of traumatic stress in a variety of situations, however, PTSD was a buzz term in 2005 and I shook my head. “No, that’s for soldiers coming home from the Gulf.” I was just a mother who still had laundry sitting in the washer and happened to have a husband pass away.
When I later dissected the comment, I reluctantly agreed that the words fit. I wasn’t a soldier who watched my buddies run over an IED, I didn’t see a motorcyclist fly off his bike and into on-coming traffic, I didn’t witness my home burn to the ground. What I did experience was a strong, determined man lose his ability to talk and walk and blink and breath over a slow three-year period. It was stressful, it was traumatic, it was over, and it sucked.
I looked out the window as the Houston highway reflected orange and red in the setting sun.
I added, “Like the sun, you rise the next day and survive all over again.” To me, that’s what it’s like to be a young widow, or a soldier coming back from war, or a witness to a horrible crash, or a survivor of a house fire. My date continued to ask questions. His need to experience my journey was uncomfortable. I had no words of wisdom to offer and was left with the sick knowledge that people want to know what horror feels like; they wonder if they could endure it. “Well put it this way,” I snarked while trying to decide if his inquisition was full of adulation or bewilderment, “it doesn’t make me a superhero.”
In reality, there’s no way to predict how someone will handle stressful situations. And while there is lots of advice on the topic of stress and PTSD, know this one thing: Just like the sun, you’ve got to rise tomorrow and survive the day all over again.
I sent a message to the universe that I wanted to be a Ghost Writer. Several friends hounded me to write their stories. It sounded like a cool idea, I’d already been writing for associates and family on a small scale, why not turn it into a career?
I met with a fellow writer who offered some pointers about becoming a Ghost Writer. In case you are wondering, Ghost Writers do no write about séances and haunted houses, they write other people’s stories. His first assignment: ask my friends if they really wanted to tell their stories. They didn’t, so I set the dream aside and went about my day.
One month later, I received the mysterious email from Scott Headley, a man I didn’t know, about writing his memoir. “How did you even find me?” I asked Scott after our first meeting.
“I just found you on the internet.”
His answer didn’t really give me an answer but I’ve learned not to question the universe. At the time, I didn’t even have a website and yet he still found me on the internet. Call it the universe or call it luck or call it God, but make no mistake, there are things that go unexplained in the world, like how Scott Headley picked me to write his memoir.
We talked, signed a contract, and began to collaborate his story. And, as far as stories go, his was a writer’s dream. It involved gruesome details and terrifying events. It included emotion and depth and grit. And it was spoon-fed to me by a great story teller. Scott’s narrative was not one that was easy for him to tell. He started having panic attacks and privately, I questioned the book’s completion. When he disappeared for several months, I decided to push through. My sole role as a Ghost Writer is to put his thoughts on paper, I would finish his story then he could publish it or lock it away on a shelf.
He resurfaced about five months later, ready to complete our project. He had spent his missing time at a facility for PTSD, addressed his demons, and changed his outlook on life.
Now, one year after signing our agreement, I’m looking at a book cover with my name on it. I might be prejudice, but next to my graduate degree (which is prominently displayed on a wall in my library,) it is the prettiest piece of paper I’ve ever seen. My name is in itty-bitty font, but nonetheless, it’s my name. The universe or luck or God might have directed Scott to find my name on the internet, but it was my hard work that’s allowed this cover to come to fruition. And yes, I might be bragging just a little bit, but I’m damn proud of it.
On December 13, 2007, in the small town of Lake Wales, Florida, Leon Davis, Jr. walked into the Headley Insurance Agency with a gun, duct tape, and gasoline. He demanded money, wrapped two women in duct tape, doused them with fuel, and flicked a lighter.
In what is considered part of the worst killing rampage in Polk County history, Resolve, Courage, Hope tells the true story of how Scott Headley picked up the pieces after one of his long-time clients deliberately and viciously killed two of his employees and the aftershock of Davis’s murderous rampage including court trials, night terrors, and regaining his sense of self.
Available in Hardback, Paperback, and e-book in early Summer 2016.
Preorder @ firstname.lastname@example.org
*Interested in receiving a free copy in exchange for an honest review on Amazon or Goodreads? Contact me at email@example.com