Several years ago I fled Houston’s degenerate sushi bars for the more honest chicken-fried steak joints of Heartbreak, Texas. My only passenger was my then-teenaged daughter, Janey. I drove through the long dark night of my soul to a place 50 or 500 miles west of Houston and I found true love in Heartbreak. Sally Rae and I fell in love, married, acquired a cast-off child named Li’l’ Billy, and my Janey grew up and went away to college — a beautiful, happy young woman on her own.
Nice story, huh? Life is never that neat.
Late one night I got the phone call every parent dreads.
“This is Officer McGregor calling from Houston PD. Are you the father of a 23-year-old woman named, ah, Janey …?”
Panic does not start to cover the response I felt. For a wild moment I wanted to deny everything, just make it go away!
Well, to cut to the chase, Janey was alive, but just barely. On the expressway, she’d hit the rear end of an F-350 pickup truck and she was suffering severe facial and upper-body injuries. She was in St. Humanitas’ Emergency Care — alive but a real mess. In under two hours I was on the road, once more into the night, begging God for a “special deal” as I cursed every driver I passed.
I’d stuffed a random selection of clothes into an “earth-friendly” shopping bag. Sally Rae calls this my “redneck luggage.”
Before I left Heartbreak, I popped into Janey’s room. It was a little musty, having been shut up from her last visit. I smelled a scent of her awful clove cigarettes, talc, spilled perfume and something underlying that was pure Janey. I almost gave way to tears wondering if this was the last of her essence I might inhale
I saw the little pink ditty bag she had left behind on the last visit home, and I hastily added to it toothpaste, a hair brush and whatever looked promising on her counter. I have been in enough hospital rooms to have no real belief in happy endings. All endings are random and it is only us, the survivors, who decide if it is happy or a tragedy.
My last words to Sally Rae were, “Looks like you and Lil’l’ Billy will have to do Thanksgiving without me. I’ll call.”
It is the raw truth of humans that when our family is hurt, a father must rush to the bedside of the injured. Rationally, I knew that in Houston she could get some of the best care on the planet. As a dad, I did not really care about that; I had to be there.
So it was that I traveled in reverse the dark night of my soul.
I was heading down I-10 when the sun began to burn off the mist and haze. I had made fairly good time, but about 45 miles out, traffic jammed to a halt. Nobody on earth does traffic jams better than Houston. I wish I could say my survival skills came back to me in a flash, but they didn’t.
At most I had a second-rate premonition of things once learned. I drove through the ditch to the access road. In less than a mile we backed up again. I switched around and drove back to the last bridge, trying the opposite access road. After two miles, I again had to stop. A dozen drivers honked at me as I backed around and returned to the bridge. I simply could NOT spend half a day waiting for things to move again.
I chose a country lane to the right. It led me into the Lazy River area. I guess in earlier times it must have had a humble charm, sort of like Heartbreak. Now it was a destroyed landscape of huge trees uprooted by too much rain and too much wind. The relative wealth of each home could be judged by the size of ruined Sheetrock and furniture stacked in their front yards.
Scrawny chickens wandered freely, half their feathers blown off. Like a cruel joke, the whole setting was as green as Ireland, freshly watered and bursting forth with every sort of plant.
I finally found a route past Stephen F. Austin State Park and traffic was moving on I-90. Half an hour later, I was lost in Meyerland, a ritzy subdivision full of million-dollar McMansions. That day the biggest difference between Lazy River and Meyerland was the size of the waste, the Sheetrock and belongings in the front yard. The sheer scale of the loss was simply mind-boggling. Half a million cars ruined. Some 180,000 homes destroyed. That worked out to about 1-in-5 homes were gutted.
That day I found it was as easy to pity a wealthy man as a poor one. When you lose your home, well, darn! It’s everything. A sort of fetid funk hung over the entire city.
After an eternity, I arrived at St. Humanitas’ Hospital. Even in my partially deranged state of panic and exhaustion, it did not escape me that the token I took from the parking garage was actually a pawn ticket for retrieving my car. I just hoped that parking prices weren’t scaled like medical costs.
I went to the information booth up front, painfully aware that my stained jeans and smelly shirt marked me as suspect. I stood in line, I took my number, I sat quietly, I fumed and fretted and prayed. Nearby, a man blew up, shouting obscenities at the top of his voice.
“You m!@#$%f!@#$%’s take your hand off me! @# $%^& it!” Well-trained security guards quickly hustled him away. As much as I disapprove of such behavior, emotionally I felt closer to that man than anyone else around me.
Finally I heard my number. A receptionist demanded identification, actual proof that I was Janey’s father. Houston may have taken a trillion-dollar lick from Hurricane Harvey, but HIPAA laws were just as strong as ever. Once I was certified as a “actual family member of direct relation or legal spouse (whether informal or formal, regardless of gender preference)” I was admitted into the inner sanctum.
An overworked nurse finally called my name. Another round of identification and I was “in the system.”
I finally exclaimed, “Will someone PLEASE tell me about Janey? Is my daughter alive or dead? Where is she?”
“Follow me,” she said.
We walked through more endless corridors and finally into a semi-private room. There lay my beautiful Janey; battered, bruised, but alive.
“We have to keep her sedated for another 12 hours. Please don’t try to wake her. Come back tomorrow and she will be awake.”
I became aware that I stank to high heaven, that I probably looked like an infection on two legs just hunting for a victim. Still, I sat with her for a little while, careful not to hug or touch. My own breathing soon fell in sync with hers; without hers I didn’t want to breathe anyway.
I have old friends in Houston; old friends of more than 40 years, old friends I could call out of the thin air. Bob and Naze are these friends. I called, and Naze said, “Sure, come on over. Stay until you have it sorted.”
That’s what friends do, and these were the best.
I traveled the five miles over to their house in less than an hour, good time in this post-apocalyptic Houston.
Naze met me at the door with a hug.
“Stay in your old room, if you can stand it here.” Bob and Naze lived on the border of the severe flooding. The bottom two feet of every wall was stripped away, studs and wiring showing. But they had air conditioning and indoor plumbing, and most of all they had warm and welcoming hearts.
A night of fitful sleep followed, but I awoke partially restored. For the first time I noticed something besides the awful devastation. True, people were lined up outside Walmart, a block away, vying for admittance, but they were orderly. Most were smiling. The bedrock kindness of Houston, the raw energy that built the city, was chipping away at the destruction. Energy and goodwill would beat the devastation.
The next day I went to Janey’s room. A nurse walked out, sort of huffy but still professional.
“Your daughter is NOT a model patient,” she managed to convey without saying something that might be used against her later in a court of law.
I walked in holding a small, battered-looking angel I had guiltily purchased in the gift shop below, and her pink ditty bag from home.
Janey was sitting up, fully awake. One eye was puffed up and turning black. One arm was immobilized, but not actually in a cast. She was texting furiously.
“Hi, baby,” I said, suddenly shy.
“B with u soonest, Dad.”
I waited a minute or two, then I understood. I texted her.
She looked up at me, her electronic trance broken.
I expected tears, a hug and a kiss, a story... instead I got a surprise.
Janey shifted both legs out of bed and grabbed my hand, no, she grabbed her pink ditty bag. On her feet, she marched for the door.
Daddy followed. I kicked my speed up to “fast waddle,” my top speed these days.
In the giant parking garage next to the hospital she paused, and dug out one of her disgusting clove cigarettes.
“Got a light?” she asked.
She was battered, she had attitude — but she also had resilience and spirit. As much as I despised her clove cigarettes, I was more relieved than I could imagine seeing my Janey back.
“Sure,” I said.