Chapter One

I feel it…a change is coming.

 

            The last memory I have of Mom – while I was alive – is of her standing in the doorway of our tri-level home.  As usual, Mom was dressed in her jeans and game day attire; it was Friday night football in Walled Lake.  Tonight, however, felt different: our high school football team was playing an away game in Flushing and for the first time that I can remember, Mom would not be in the stands.  Aunt Sonja, Vicki and Jeannette were taking Mom up north for a relaxing weekend in Harbor Springs.  Girl stuff, she told me.  Still, I know my Mom so well – there was no place that she would have rather been than at my football game.  I could read it all over her face.

Mom had not felt good the week before the girl’s getaway and had almost cancelled the trip.  I didn’t want my Mom to be sick, but I wish like hell that she had stayed ill and never left home.  That whole week, I had weird nightmares about something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  Mom asked me about them, because she heard me calling out nonsense words in my sleep and thrashing about, kicking the walls in my bedroom.  It could have been foresight that something was about to drastically change our lives, but my mind was too sleep-muddled for clarity.

I was so pumped for this game against Flushing; our team hadn’t done so well the first few games of the season – we were a new school, and our varsity team was young with big goals.  I wasn’t the biggest, fastest, strongest player on the team, but I loved my teammates.  Our coaches did everything they could to instill team spirit and good sportsmanship with our group of bound and determined boys.  Most of us had known each other since we were in kindergarten; we went from being best friends in elementary school, to being sparring partners in middle school, and back to being best friends in high school.  We had come full circle.  We were there for each other, no matter what.

My football equipment was crammed into my white Sebring convertible.  The speaker system filled the back seat and pumped out Detroit rap music well beyond a normal level.  Our neighbor Dave, Vicki’s husband, would call me “Road Weasel” when I cruised down the street, music blaring, on my way to school or football practice.  He always laughed at me and my younger brother Austin when we drove by.  Just for fun, we would wave and somehow manage to flip him the bird at the same time.  He got a kick out of that…he said we were growing up.

As I was getting ready to pull away from our house, I looked at Mom standing in the doorway.  She seemed like she was listening to someone or something.  It was the look on her face and the way she had her head cocked to the right that made me do a double take.  Before I realized it, she was out of the doorway and running up to the passenger side of my car.  I will never in a million years forget the words that she said to me that day:

“Tyler, I am so proud of you.  You know I never miss a game and won’t be there to watch you tonight.  Just remember, I am always with you in spirit and I am your biggest fan.  I will love you forever, buddy,” she told me with tears in her eyes.  Geez, she is so emotional.

What’s a guy to do?  I looked over at her and gave her my infamous crooked smile.

“I know, Mom.”

Looking back, I wish a thousand times that I had told her how much I loved her.  I pulled away from the curb full of hopes and dreams and left in my wake a woman who would lay down her life for me and my brother.  She didn’t deserve what the universe had in store for her, and neither did the rest of us.

Mom already had her car packed for the weekend.  We constantly teased her about having OCD, but I knew that she just liked order in her life.  She lucked out with both of us; we tested her to her last nerve on everything.  Off she went to pick up the girls and headed north on I-75.  Normally, this is a beautiful drive, especially in mid-September when the color of leaves begin hinting at the cooler weather on the way.

Near the Flushing area, a warning light came on in Mom’s Honda Accord.  This was a sweet car and she loved it.  In Mom’s heart, she saw the engine warning light as a sign: turn the hell around and go home.  But, as always, she couldn’t disappoint her friends by changing plans.  Vicki thumbed through the manual, trying to find the meaning of the warning icon, but she was looking in the wrong place for the meaning to what was going on.

Mom looked into the rearview mirror and caught the worried look on Aunt Sonja’s face.  Approximately five miles past Flushing and right around halftime of our game, the warning light went off.  Poof, just like that.  Coincidence?  A short in the wiring?  A gut feeling?  A sign, perhaps, of things to come?  I felt it – and I know Mom felt it too.

After halftime, I was standing by the fence talking with my friend Cameron’s mom, Mrs. Byram; she was the cheerleading coach. I wasn’t getting any play time, so we were just shooting the shit.  All the guys liked talking to Mrs. Byram; we could tell her anything.  She also missed seeing Mom in the stands.  Their friendship had grown over the previous years and they were quite a pair.

Mrs. B. told me how great my mom was and how hard she worked as the booster club president for our football team.  Anyone always knew where to find my mom: at the top of the stands on the 50 yard line – except when she was selling raffle tickets, getting the crowd fired up, or networking with the other parents.  She was like a mini tornado, here, there, and everywhere.  All she wanted was for us boys to enjoy our season and to make us feel like we were something special.  She did just that.

It’s no coincidence – knowing what I know now – that a chilling wind started blowing right after halftime, at about the same time the warning light on Mom’s car went out.  Mrs. B. went back to the stands and covered up with her cheerleaders while I jumped up and down trying to stay warm.

Finally, the game and the cold night came to an end, but the hair on the back of my neck didn’t stop standing up until Saturday night.

As I see it, the ladies made it safely to Harbor Springs and checked into their room at the Holiday Inn.  Women can be so funny sometimes; they got into their cute little jammies, opened a bottle of wine, laid out the munchies and watched TV, and talked until late into the night.  They all slept well, except for Mom.

Saturday turned out to be a gorgeous day, and a special one for me.  I started my first real job at Six Lakes Party Store, thanks to my friend Mike Murelli; Mike, a teammate and close friend, helped me get the job.  I was excited to start making some cash.  My boss had me straightening the shelves, sweeping the floor, and loading the coolers.

At around 3:30pm, my cell phone rang.  Strange – for a guy who never let his phone out of his sight, I had handed it to Mike to hold while I was in the cooler.  The caller was Mom.  Mike spoke to her for a minute, updated her about the previous night’s game, and told her I was stacking bottles.  He said he would have me call her back.  As Mom always does, she told Mike to tell me that she loved me and that she would talk to me in a little bit.  Of course, I forgot to call her back.  Leaving work, I went to Dad’s house, and he made me cut the grass before I could take off to the annual St. Pat’s Fair.  Pissing and moaning throughout it all, I got it done, cleaned up, and was ready to hit the road.  Again, I forgot about calling Mom back.

Cameron and my other buddy, Mark Ruggles, had been working on my speaker system while I was cutting the grass.  They didn’t think a back seat full of speakers was too cool, and they were scaling it down for me.  My younger cousin, Travis, was giving them a hand.  The plan was for me to drive Travis home to Howell then meet up with Cam, Mark, and some of the other guys at the fair.  Austin was going to go with me, but at the last minute, he decided to go golfing with his friends.

“Meet you guys at St. Pat’s in about an hour,” I told Cam and Mark.

Dad knew where I was going and told me to be careful, as usual.  Before jumping into the car, I gave a little squeeze to my best buddy, Maverick, the greatest dog in the world.  Mavie and I were best friends and had been through thick and thin together.  With a wave, a honk and a definite increase in radio volume, I pulled away from the house.

“See ya Dad…”

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