Morningtime. I am bound for Savannah, riding in our little white utility van. My wife is driving, and I am in the passenger seat writing to you.
We are flying past farmland and cattle, occasionally stopping at side-of-the-road veggie stands, or filling stations, trotting inside to conduct a thorough inspection of the commodes.
On top our dashboard sits a stack of classic country CDs, teetering like a famous tower in Pisa. There are maybe 40 separate albums from the golden days of Nashville twang and fringe. Everything from Ernest, to Acuff, to Loretta, to Willie. The old highway hums beneath my tires as Tammy Wynette reminds her listeners to stand by their male counterparts.
Funny. These CDs used to belong to my mother-in-law. They were her prized album collection. After she passed a few months ago, we were sorting through her belongings when I came across all her beloved LPs, forty-fives, cassettes, eight-tracks, and CDs. Nobody wanted them so I confiscated the lot. She would have wanted it this way. We shared an impeccable taste in music.
Anyway, this morning it’s almost hard to believe that my wife and I are on the road again. We used to go on the road all the time. We used to live on these old highways.
Such is the life of a hack writer.
People are always asking you to speak at events after you write a few books. Usually, it’s Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis meetings, church groups, or the chair yoga class at the senior citizen’s center.
We did it all. No speaking gig was off-limits. No journey was too far. My wife and I visited almost every state in the Union in our little secondhand Labcorp van. We’d wake up in some no-name Montgomery hotel, eat a meager breakfast of Pop Tarts, whereupon I’d deliver a speech in a conference room to a bunch of people playing on phones.
After which, we’d eat lunch at Shoney’s, then drive all day so I could do my little one-man show in Fayetteville, Greenville, Asheville, or Craters of the Moon, Kentucky.
But this past year, my wife and I have strictly been homebodies. We were too busy to travel because we were caring for my elderly mother-in-law. And after my mother-in-law died, it was nuclear winter.
The tedium that follows death is never ending. The paperwork, the estate stuff, the sorting through antiques, the figuring out what you’re going to do with your life. Dying is hard work.
All in all, it changed the way I look at life itself. Death has a way of doing that I guess. I realize this is going to sound painfully corny, but death is unlike any other major event. It reroutes the course of your life. It alters your routine. It changes your brain. And thusly, it makes you into a different person. Suddenly you have different thoughts, different values, different aspirations, and different life goals.
All of a sudden the things that mattered to you don’t. And those little life moments you never paid attention to before become tantamount. Going to the beach with your wife to savor a morning sunrise takes precedence over, say, filing your income taxes.
Either way, we are back on this lone highway for now, together, bound for the Georgia coastline. We are not the same people. We don’t even act the same.
Sometimes while driving my wife and I hold hands for long periods without speaking. Sometimes we just listen to Patsy or Merle sing cheating songs.
Other times, we pull over to the shoulder simply to take in some arresting scenic view—something we never used to do.
Life seems more precious now. No wait. Scratch that. Life is more precious now. And without being too melodramatic here, life to me seems a lot shorter. Lately the remainder of my life seems less like years, and more like mere hours and minutes. Which makes being with my wife all the more special.
When the CD finishes playing, I eject the disc and pick up another. This one is Johnny Cash, singing all his greatest hits. I slide the disc into the slot and turn it up. Johnny is in good voice today.
My wife says, “Mother would love knowing that we’re listening to her country music.”
She pauses to wipe her wet cheek, then she reaches across to squeeze my hand.
Here we come, Savannah.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist, and podcast host, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, he has authored 13 books, and he is creator of the Sean of the South Podcast.