When the phone rang at 3 a.m. on Monday, August 14, 2000, I knew what it meant. Things had been going badly from the start and we were now at the end. It was my brother on the other end of the line.
"Mark, she's gone."
"Okay. We'll be there later today."
There wasn't a lot more to say. I'd had a few days to steel myself for what was coming. I'd driven nearly 600 miles round trip by myself two days earlier, hoping to see something better than what I'd seen. It was a forlorn hope. Now it was time to return. This time it was time to say goodbye. My mother had passed away.
My mother was 67 years old. She needed oxygen because of her emphysema and had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had gone into the hospital for a mastectomy six days earlier and complications set in almost immediately. She never made it out of the hospital. I'd gone home on Saturday for a quick visit, returning home the same day. Mom was tired, angry and somewhat incoherent. The attending doctors and nurses seemed concerned but optimistic and I thought that I would see her again. I thought wrong.
We started getting ready. We had to make some phone calls — let the office know I wouldn't be around for a while, let my wife's parents know, all the calls you have to make when a life-changing event needs to be explained. These days you might be able to put a post up on Facebook or a blog, but in 2000 those things weren't around yet.
Since we'd been on vacation the previous week, I'd driven well nearly 1,500 miles and was pretty much exhausted. We were still recovering from our vacation and we couldn't leave right away; there was laundry to do and arrangements to make. My son, then 4 years old, couldn't understand why we had to make another long trip in the car. I understood what he felt -- the last thing I wanted was another 289 mile trip. The trip from the Twin Cities to Appleton was about 5½ hours under the best circumstances; you had to take a somewhat convoluted path back then, driving through the back end of Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls before heading east on Highway 29. We also had a highly cranky infant daughter in the car and we had to make a number of stops along the way. As the light of the day began to fade, we pulled into Appleton and checked into the Microtel, a new but pretty spartan place out by the highway. We just wanted to get some sleep.
It didn't work out. The disruptions in schedule were a little too much for our daughter and she spent most of the evening crying. Eventually I had to try the old trick of driving her around to lull her to sleep. I put her in the car seat and began to drive around town. By then it was deep into the night, almost 3 a.m. the next morning. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I noticed the lightning flashing in the western sky. I turned on the radio and tried to find out what was happening; there was a severe thunderstorm warning and the potential of a tornado. Travel was not recommended.
Still, I continued to drive. The rain came down in sheets and the lightning crackled across the sky in weird horizontal patterns. My daughter, who had finally started to fall asleep, was awakened by a clap of thunder and began to cry again. I made another loop through the west side of town, down Mason Street toward my old neighborhood. I turned right on Cedar, then left on Outagamie, stopping briefly in front of my boyhood home. At that moment, the rain began to slow and my daughter started to fall back to sleep. As I wound through the streets of my youth – Reid Drive, Douglas Street, Prospect Avenue, past my high school, past St. Mary's cemetery, back to the highway, I craved sleep most of all. Sleep would come soon enough. The only good news was that the longest day of my life was coming to an end.