In a repeated day dream, I load my few remaining possessions into the back of my Mazda CX5, turn up the radio, and drive away from post-Harvey Houston with the wind in my hair, destination TBD and a return unlikely. In my head, the music plays, “Here I go again on my own, going down the only road I’ve ever known. Like a drifter I was born to walk alone,” as if I’m thirty years younger, thirty pounds lighter, and the star of a cheesy 80s hard-rock video. I know this fantasy reeks of selfishness. I can smell the stench. Don’t get me wrong. I love Kody, and together we share the responsibility of parenting our adult son Drew with a disabling brain disorder. I can’t think of anything more rotten than leaving my people behind at the La Quinta and disappearing forever. The make-believe melodrama playing out inside my head is simply an escape from my reality.
Solo, I’ve hit the open road twice now since Hurricane Harvey. Each time I feel untethered, as if I’m literally running away, at least until I arrive at my planned and temporary destinations. For the past month, as my nephew Gant and his girlfriend Kennie planned a trip to Oklahoma City for family and football, I planned the same, minus the football. My trip included more Mom time for me, with a healthy dose of Dad, Sis, Bro, and the outlaws (that’s what we call the in-laws, or maybe that’s what they call Kody—I’m not sure).
On Thursday after school, I planned a much-needed first day off from my new job. Hurricane aftermath plus learning the systems of a new job has been a test and a driving force behind my escape fantasy. With Kody’s job transfer, the school I left behind was a few years new and beautiful, where suburbs meet country and students say, “Yes, ma’am.” That school ran like a Swiss timepiece. Technology outstanding. Copy machines abundant. A staff of friends. I taught honors English and creative writing. Those students wanted to be there. I rarely raised my voice in class. Frisco ISD spoiled me. I know I must stop making comparisons, at least until the end of May. With nineteen years of teaching experience, I know I have options.
But I digress. On Thursday after school, I planned to drive with my waggedy-tailed, little buddy Rain and spend the night in Dallas with my friend since 1975—Denise. Denise planned to keep Rain as a foster dog while the real work begins on our gutted Houston home. Until now, Kody has dropped Rain off each morning at the empty house, where she roams free in the back yard, breathes the fresh air, and naps in the sun. I pick her up after work. However, with workers at the house, that routine must come to an end, so my overnight with Denise would be a long-term stay for Rain.
From Dallas, I planned an early Friday drive to OKC for a hair appointment with my cousin Kaylee before spending the afternoon with Mom and Dad, Liz and Mike, Gant and Kennie. Next, I planned to round out my day with one more, short jaunt to Stillwater for courtside seats at an OSU basketball game and an overnight stay with Scott and Gerri and Dad. What I DID NOT PLAN that day was that moment of divine intervention.
As I paid for my new hair, my phone rang, and I absorbed the tension in Denise’s voice on the other end of the line. During my trip to OKC last month, Rain stayed with Denise—a trial run and a visitation success. But—one thing had changed since the last time: Denise adopted a Goldendoodle puppy named Piper. Rain is ten, a Chihuahua/Terrier mix, territorial and feisty. In her maturity, my pooch has mellowed, socialized with other dogs, and acted like a surrogate mother to our two cats who’ve passed over the rainbow. I didn’t foresee any issues with a puppy. When we arrived at Denise’s house on Thursday night, Rain tucked tail between her legs and sought safety. Piper wanted to befriend and chase. Rain returned Piper’s playfulness with spite, growling through bared teeth, snapping at the poor puppy as fair warning. I figured in time Rain and Piper would fall into a rhythm, but before leaving Denise’s house that morning, I said, “If it doesn’t work out, Pamela and my friend Misti both offered to help out. Just let me know. It’s no big deal.” At the time of the call, I had been gone six hours, and Denise needed a Plan B.
With Denise on the phone, I left the salon, found my car, and drove to the Qdoba on the other side of the parking lot. Talking and walking into the restaurant, I said, “I texted with Misti earlier, and she is out of town, but she will be back tomorrow. Let me call her and see what we can do, and I’ll reach out to Martha and see if she can help out.” And with these words, a man leaving Qdoba opened the door for me. His face took me by surprise as did mine for him. With eyes wide and jaw dropped, I said, “Denise, you will never believe who I just ran into to. It’s—it’s—”
“Robert Gibson,” he said.
“I know!” I drawled the vowels, shocked to see Robert after at least twenty years. “I just thought it was a possibility you were Timmy.” Robert and Tim are twins and two of the nicest guys I know. They graduated with Denise and me. We all grew up together in the Oklahoma panhandle, and their dad was my dentist. With phone in hand, held to ear, I said, “Denise, it’s Robert Gibson!” Then to Robert, I said, “I’m talking to Denise Watson.” Then back to Denise, “Okay, I’m going to let you go, but I’m working on a Plan B. I’ll be in touch. I love you.”
“Do you live here now?” Robert asked.
“No, I’m living in Houston and just drove into town. I’m headed to see my mom. She’s at Epworth.” Robert’s eyes stared into mine with disbelief and empathy. “We moved her here in July. She has Alzheimer’s.”
He shook his head back and forth, a sort-of non-verbal I’m so sorry. “And how are you?”
“Well, I’m okay. Our house flooded in Hurricane Harvey, and we are living in a hotel for now, so it’s good to get away.”
“Just you and Kody?”
“Yes, and our son Drew. He was diagnosed seven years ago with paranoid schizophrenia, so he lives with us and probably always will. He’s twenty-eight.”
At these revelations, Robert gave me a hug and said, “I’m so sorry. That sounds like a lot to deal with.” He pulled out his phone, showed me photos of his kids, much younger than mine, and updated me on his wife and his life as well as his brother. “Tim is a pastor in Pennsylvania. I’m going to call him and text you his number. We’ll be praying for you. Are you sure you’re okay?”
I tried my best to nod my head and fake it, but Robert saw right through my cracked façade. The floodgates of my truth opened, and tears streamed forth. “You know,” I said, taking a second to fight for my composure in the middle of the Qdoba, “I’m one of those people who will be okay as long as you don’t ask.”
“You’re not okay,” he confirmed.
“Well, my house flooded, I live in a hotel and will for a while, my son has schizophrenia, and my mom has Alzheimer’s.” With a wet face splotched crimson, my response seemed sufficient. The details from this point to the next blur in my memory.
You can call my run-in with Robert random or fate, but I know God intervened that day. I had carried some extra pressure in my heart and soul all week long that culminated with a seven-hour drive and a separation from my service dog. Robert connected me to his twin-brother Tim, also my friend and a now a pastor, at a time when I needed a pastor. In recent months, I keep hearing from God. Just when I forget to lean on Him, the voice returns saying things like, “Crystal, I am God, and I have the plan. I know it’s all you’ve got to just be strong, and it’s a fight just to keep it together, but hope is never lost. Just put one foot in front of the other. You’ll get through this. You’re stronger than you know. You’re gonna be okay.”