If anybody had told Prissy, a Southern housewife, she would one day be driving around town with a stoned, drunk black man named Willie in her backseat while she begged –no, ordered –him into her house for the night, she would have told them they were nuts. But it happened. An emotionally honest account of unexpected love far outside the ordinary.
Chapter 1, 2, 3
Angel of Death, I Don't Recall, A Wing of Protection
I apologize in advance–this would not format PROPERLY in your space for some reason.
The distinguished man of color standing on my front porch was a sight to behold. Debonair and slim, he was a conspicuous presence. He wore a fitted silk suit. A point of pink handkerchief peaked from his jacket pocket, matching the bright pink socks that crested above his black, pointed shoes. This gentleman was the very model of cultivated elegance and charm, looking as if he had been created in Hollywood.
Somehow my tragicomedy of a story had drifted from my little panhandle town in Florida all the way west to the coast of California, where he lived. Mary Barley, my friend and personal trainer, told a friend, and that friend told this man, who now wanted to meet me. He wanted to hear the firsthand version directly from me.
Mary came along with him, and after formal introductions, we all sat on my pink chintz couches. I was distracted by his socks, which matched the color of my couches perfectly.
“I write for a television series called Dawson’s Creek,” he told me. “Perhaps you’ve seen it.”
I hadn’t and told him. Television hadn’t been on my radar for some time.
He continued. “My position, as one of their creative writers, is to create stories and story lines. Your story intrigued me. I’d sure like to hear more about it.”
It was difficult to summarize the dramatic, unimaginable, and often unbelievable events that swirled around my attempt to save my dying husband after I moved two colorful, compassionate, black caregivers into my home. There had been a constant competition between tragedy and comedy, but I found myself relaxing as I spoke to this writer. It felt good, and I was astonished to discover I could tell someone—a stranger, no less—about those dark days.
As I began to wind down my narrative, I could sense what was coming next.
“Would you consider selling your story? I think it needs to be told,” Mr. Dawson’s Creek said. “You tell it, we’ll write it, you get paid.”
Before he even asked, I knew my answer would be no. What I said, however, was, “Thank you so much for the offer. I’ll get back to you.”
Of course, I never did get back to him. I was afraid those I cared about might be exploited in some way. I would have no control over their reputations. Even as a bruised magnolia from the South, I cared deeply for those who cared for me.
And so, I chose to tell my own story in my own way, thirteen years after the gentleman with the wonderful pink socks came to town. The why was so simple. In the words of Carl Hiaasen, one of my favorite Florida authors, “You just can’t make this stuff up.” Mr. Dawson’s Creek was right. My story really did need to be told.
There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.
—R. Buckminster Fuller
Angel of Death
It was some time after November 8 but before Thanksgiving. I know this because November 8 was Boone’s fifty-first birthday, and I was still trying to save him. By Thanksgiving, I knew I couldn’t.
The references listed for the man who was to meet me were outstanding, including names I recognized: most impressive, the late governor of Florida, LeRoy Collins, whom he cared for. This man had been described personally by the late governor’s daughter, Mary Call, as one of twenty-eight brothers and sisters. He was said to be a gentle, kind, nurturing being.
He had schooled himself in the counsel of pain and suffering and the process of grief and bereavement. I would say he had a master’s, if not his PhD, in the field of comforting and caring for others.
Wearing nicely pressed navy dress pants, shiny black shoes, and a starched white shirt, he looked as though he was interviewing for an office job rather than savior to a lost soul who was caregiver to a losing soul. His skin was marked with scars and the color of black tar. I studied his eyes, oval in shape, large and chocolate brown, the whites blemished with small red capillaries, glistening as though moisture was being blinked away. Are they tears? I wondered.
“My name’s Cornelius, Cornelius Duhart. You can call me Du. I can help if you let me.”
He knew why he was summoned and waited with quiet patience for me to speak. I remained silent. We watched each other across the room, my Southern manners absent.
Tears streamed down my face, and I began to cry. He rose from his chair and walked over and sat close. His large black arms reached out and wrapped around me. Though we were strangers, this black man held and rocked me, a fragile, scared, once fearless white woman, going through an experience so few would, or could, understand. I had yet to speak a single word.
So it went the day we met. He became known to my daughters and me as Duhart, later just Du. I was Christy, though he knew my real name was Prissy. From that day on, I saw the world differently. Sometimes seemingly unanswered prayers are answered, only in an unexpected way. The Angel of Death took residence in our home.
I Don’t Recall
If you want something bad enough, there is always a way to get it. At least that was what I always thought, until that something became unattainable.
The day everything started, I was enjoying the smell of pot roast drifting downstairs from the kitchen to the room where I worked. Tired of the same old thing, I had tried a new recipe I found in Southern Living the day before.
I was finishing up the laundry, stacking the folded blue towels inside the empty basket. I had flunked Folding 101 but had repeated the course and become an honor’s graduate: match each corner exactly, fold lengthwise in thirds, fold top to bottom once again, then stack with folded side out. Okay, I got it.
Stack. Stack. Stack.
Align said stacked towels inside the basket.
It wouldn’t matter, though. I knew my husband would straighten them once I parked them in the linen closet; his eye was keener than mine.
In the background on television, Oprah was laughing with her featured guest when Boone walked in our side entrance door and startled me.
I glanced at the clock sitting on the mantel below the heirloom Daniel Boone rifle. It was only 4:15 p.m.
On any given day, Boone seldom arrived home before 11:00 p.m., and usually much later. His perfect business hours as an environmental attorney were fifteen-hour days, starting late and ending late, Monday through Friday. His guiding principle: absolutely no business on weekends, making his weekdays long, grueling, and exhausting.
I knew something was wrong when I looked up. His color was strange and ashen, his eyes large and dilated.
“What are you doing home?” I asked.
He looked confused, standing still, fixated, and staring through me. Pausing midway in folding another towel, I asked again. He still didn’t answer, just stood staring.
“Why won’t you answer me?”
“I don’t recall.”
“You don’t recall what?”
“I don’t recall how I got here. I couldn’t find my way. There was a tall building.”
“What are you talking about? Where’s your car?”
“I don’t recall.”
I swept past him through the side door and saw his black Suburban sitting in our driveway, parked at an angle, the front fender lurching over the manicured boxwoods. The driver’s door was open; the engine was still running.
Stunned, I turned off the ignition and left the car parked crooked. Too worried to care, I ran back inside. Boone was still standing, but now swaying. He didn’t drink, so I knew he wasn’t drunk.
I eased him down on our worn, slipcovered sofa. I’d dressed that sofa in so many different covers it could have been my Barbie doll. Today it was wearing red and white ticking, the contrast making Boone look whiter than a ghost.
I left him sitting and sprinted upstairs to the kitchen—thinking, hypoglycemia.
As a physician’s daughter, I’d spent years preaching my opinions to others, whether they were interested or not, endorsing homeopathic treatments and alternative medicine. It was as though I had actual training and confirmed knowledge in every field of medicine. Most times, I even believed myself. “Those Landrum girls are the last living authority on everything they know nothing about,” my brother-in-law regularly gibed, referring to my mother, my sisters, and me as well.
I grabbed a Coke and some crackers and hurried back to Boone. I handed him the crackers, urging him to eat. In between his nibbles and sips I questioned him.
“What’s my name?” I asked.
“I’m not sure.”
I swallowed. It felt as though something was stuck in my throat. “How many children do we have?”
He guessed wrong. My heart was barely a beat from tachycardia when I began considering my own diagnosis for him: embolism or stroke.
“I’m calling an ambulance.”
“No ambulance. Just give me a minute.”
At least he knows what an ambulance is, I thought. His color seemed to be returning, maybe because he’d ingested some calories.
“You must be dehydrated. Have you eaten anything today?” I began dialing Alex, Boone’s best friend and a doctor. Alex was an obstetrician, but I still thought he’d know what to do.
“Hang up the phone. Don’t call anyone,” Boone yelled from the sofa.
When Alex answered, I whispered into the receiver. “Something’s wrong with Boone,” I said. “Something weird, a stroke maybe.”
“What? Call an ambulance, Prissy. I’m on my way.” He hung up before I could say another word. I tried dialing 911.
Boone watched, stumbled over, grabbed the receiver, then tossed it to the floor. “No ambulance.”
Alex arrived within fifteen minutes, but the ambulance never did. No coercion from either one of us could persuade Boone to let us call for one.
Alex checked him over, and Boone seemed better. Still, Alex called and talked to the neurologist on call at the hospital. The neurologist suggested we transport Boone to the ER right away. Boone argued, adamantly refused, and finally we gave up.
Boone was like that. When he dug his heels in, there was no changing his mind. Thirty minutes later he seemed normal, or himself, I should say. The three of us sat around eating boiled peanuts as though nothing had happened.
In retrospect, everything that happened that day was so uncharacteristic of Boone, but I was blind to the red flags.
He was a man who worried about everything, even a benign mole. Our children’s delicate skin is still scarred from the needless removal of suspicious moles spotted by Boone’s watchful eyes. He wanted them safe. “No moles on my children,” he told the plastic surgeon.
It was October. The first crisp air of fall had stretched its toes down from Canada to Florida, brushing the leaves, their color transformed from a kaleidoscope of summer greens to a fall palette of persimmon, ochre, and sienna. It was my favorite season, and I am a Pollyanna by nature. Maybe that was why I convinced myself this incident was a one-time thing. He should avoid skipping meals and chewing his nasty tobacco, I thought. A vice inherited along with his love of hunting, the connection unexplainable but regularly accepted in the South.
The holidays of November and December came and went. I gave little thought to that autumn day when my husband, after twenty-four years of marriage, didn’t even recall my name.
A Wing of Protection
I put the incident behind me and became preoccupied as we moved through the holidays. We were a few days into January, and our nineteen-year-old daughter, Garrett, was still home for Christmas break from the University of Alabama. She planned to head back the next day for the second semester. Her car was already packed full to the brim.
She and I spent most of that afternoon dismantling the Christmas tree. We wrapped, boxed, and stored all the cherished ornaments we’d collected over the years. Both of us exhausted, we lounged on the couch watching television, her head resting on my lap, our poodles nestled on each side of her. Boone and our sixteen-year-old daughter, Sara Britton, had gone to a horse show in the nearby city, Gainesville.
“Mom, I don’t want to go back,” she whispered, barely audible.
“Back where?” I asked, engrossed in Law and Order.
“Alabama. I think I’m going to stay here, go to FSU.”
“What?” I lifted her head off my lap and punched off the remote. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. I just want to stay here and go to FSU. I can’t explain why. I don’t even know why. I just do. It feels right.”
“Then okay. That’s what you should do.”
I had been urging her to transfer for the last seven months. I had wanted her to enroll at Florida State University in our hometown ever since the end of her freshman year at Alabama, a day that had etched a memory in my brain I would never forget.
On a day beautiful day in May, just before the start of summer, I called Garrett. Her last exam was over, the sorority house closed, and most of her friends had gone home. She was more than ready to vacate Tuscaloosa, having spent half of her first year there homesick. She planned to empty her dorm room, load everything into her Jeep, and drive home the next day. I always worried about her driving alone on the lone country roads between the two cities of Tuscaloosa and Tallahassee.
“You think everything will fit in your car?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. Probably—I think so. It’ll be packed pretty tight, though.”
“Maybe I should come up and help you empty the room. We could load some of it in my Jeep. I could follow you home.”
“That’s a great idea. Would you want to do that?” She sounded happy and offered to make dinner reservations for our night in Tuscaloosa.
And so it was planned. I took my sister Deborah with me the next day, and we drove to Alabama. As soon as we arrived, we emptied what was left inside Garrett’s dorm room and packed both cars. Later, we shared a meal at a local restaurant and piled together in one room at the local motel, all of us exhausted, for a good night’s sleep.
Early the next day, the weather perfect, we began our caravan toward Tallahassee. Garrett took the lead, and we followed close behind: two Jeep Cherokees, a two-lane highway, little traffic, and very few houses spotting the landscape.
It happened in an instant, only two hours into the trip.
I watched a Jeep run off the road, swerve back, and go airborne. There was one summersault, and another summersault. The contrast—a black object spinning, centered in blue sky—momentarily confused me.
“Look, Deborah. That car is flipping,” I said, not comprehending it was my own daughter in the air as I drove fifty-five miles per hour, stupefied.
“Oh my God, it’s Garrett!” she screamed.
I watched the car land upside down on the other side of the road, across from the oncoming traffic. As my brain registered the horror, I tried to get out of my seat belt and open the door even though my Jeep was still traveling forty to fifty miles per hour.
Deborah screamed again. “Stop the car! Stop the car!” She grabbed the steering wheel and helped me pull off the road.
I bolted from the car and ran toward the Jeep, screaming, “Garrett, please God. Where are you, Garrett?”
I was praying for mercy as I looked at the crumbled wreckage. The car didn’t even look familiar—upside down, the four wheels still spinning in the air. Where was the driver’s side? I couldn’t find it.
I was crawling on my hands and knees, disoriented. The sandspurs pierced my bare knees as the overgrown weeds slapped my face, wet from snot and tears. I was crawling in circles, trying to find my child, screaming her name. In the background, I heard sirens.
I thought I heard a whisper, a faint voice. I listened again, holding my breath.
“Mom, help me.”
I crawled toward the sound and found her dangling upside down in her seat belt, hanging from her seat. I climbed into the crushed steel and through the broken window, moved toward her and unclasped the seat belt, then pulled her out through the absent window. I was sobbing, clinging, and still praying out loud.
“I’m okay, Mama. I’m okay.” She was talking. She was moving. She was alive. She cried as I held her. She hadn’t called me “Mama” in years.
The first responders and “Jaws of Life” arrived, along with three fire trucks and an ambulance. A firefighters’ cookout was in progress down the road, so they were all there in minutes. The sheriff’s deputies arrived soon afterward.
“Holy crap, where’s the victim?” I heard a deputy ask one of the first responders, who pointed to Garrett still wrapped in my arms.
“No damn way. I can’t believe that, man.”
It was unfathomable to everyone staring at the black pile, its top crushed into the front leather seats. By then, reality had sunk in for me. I was put into the ambulance while the officials tried to piece together what happened. I heard someone mention a house up the road.
“Let me see if anyone saw what happened,” one of the deputies said over his shoulder as he walked away.
Garrett explained her recollection to the other deputy as he scribbled on a pad. I listened, still mute in the ambulance with a blood pressure cuff around my arm.
“I was changing my CD and looked down, but just for a second,” Garrett explained. “I ran off the road then tried to get back on, but I turned the wheel too hard, maybe because it scared me. Anyway, then it started to flip. I dropped my head and shut my eyes and let go of the wheel, I think. My head was down, but I saw blue sky, so I must have opened my eyes.”
“You overcompensated,” I heard him say.
Twenty minutes later the other deputy came back from his visit to the house where he’d gone looking for a witness. He found one—an old black man sitting on his front porch. He’d told the sheriff he sat there all day, almost every day. He liked to watch the cars go by. He saw the whole thing, just how it happened.
“I see that car yonder.” He pointed toward the pile of crushed metal. “It coming down the road. I seen this white thing, look to me like a wing, hanged out the other side. I believe I seen an angel wing. Sho do. It sho was.”
“Did you ask where he kept his moonshine?” I heard one of the first responders say, laughing.
But I believed him, I did. How else could one explain her survival without even a scratch? It was a miracle.
The firemen transferred all the stuff from Garrett’s Jeep to mine. Garrett climbed in the passenger seat, and Deborah volunteered to drive. We left the scene three hours after impact. Inside Garrett’s Vera Bradley duffel bag on the backseat floor, I found a bottle of unopened bourbon. I drank it straight from the bottle the minute we were out of the deputies’ sight.
The insurance company considered the car destroyed and issued a check for the current value. When they issued the check the next week, we bought her the same exact car. If it wasn’t an angel that saved her, I believed her model had to be the safest car on the planet.
I changed after that day. My faith, already strong, was more profound. I had a gratifying belief in the impossible. It wasn’t really a spiritual awakening but more a blind trust in miracles.
So, no matter her reasons, when Garrett said she didn’t want to go back to Alabama, I was ecstatic. I just needed to figure out how to tell her dad, especially since he had already paid the nonrefundable tuition.
I never told Garret there was a moment in time only a few weeks earlier when her father didn’t even remember he had a daughter, much less one who attended the University of Alabama and wanted to transfer home for reasons unknown to even her.