The trip is on, the one I thought I’d make last fall, all the way to Keota, Iowa and the hillside cemetery where Crooked Creek runs through the woods. But the marker is finally in place beside her parents’ stone and I can place the urn myself. I’ve hired a grave digger name of Dennis Bean. “Make the check out to Bean and Bean,” my contact emailed. Turns out he’s in business with his cousin. That figures. Everyone I’ve dealt with up there has been open, kind, and helpful. It’s such a relief, so, well, human… I’ve been filled with epic purpose for the task. Still am, but now I see it marks the end of my old life. I still can’t think of her without remembering she isn’t coming back, so this scares me.
Kathy and I visited Keota many times over 44 years. Her father grew up there and played football in a leather helmet. His mother came from England with the sweetest accent. Not far from there is an Amish place called the Stringtown Store where women in bonnets sell bulk foods and treats. If you ask directions in Kalona, they’ll tell you to “turn right at the cheese silo” and don’t act dumb. We often stopped there on our way out of town to buy a few more kitchen knives and snacks or maybe a cherry pie if we were heading north to see her sister in Dubuque. Kathy’s uncle Tom, now deceased, ran the local bank for years but spent World War II as a bombardier in a B-24. He once had to kick a stuck bomb loose over the English Channel while straddling the open bomb bay doors. I can see that in a 20-year-old. If you survived you’d always have that with you. Can you feel the wind blast as the engines roar, hear the muffled shouts, see the glint of sunlight on the whitecaps far below?
It even looks a little like a bomb, too.
That’s Kathy in Wall Lake at the other end of the state in western Iowa—Andy Williams’ birthplace, by the way—at the house where she lived when her father ran the weekly Wall Lake Blade as editor, publisher, and sole employee. You probably ought to read this post from May 16, 2013:
This is the little house in Wall Lake, Iowa where my wife the classical pianist lived until she was three years old. We visited it on the way to Dubuque. Next door on the right is the house where an older woman lived whom she used to visit as a child. According to her, she’d just knock and walk right in. The woman owned a baby grand piano, which fascinated the little girl. One day she walked in, went over to the piano, and started playing the same note over and over. The woman was lying in bed and asked her please to stop because she wasn’t feeling well. The child was disappointed because she’d been imitating the ringing of a church bell and felt so proud: bong, bong, bong, etc. This was also the first time she’d ever touched a piano…
We stood on the sidewalk together looking at the house. As she told me the story, she shook and cried.
The route I’ll take is the same we drove together dozens of times over the years. Eventually I got to know all the towns in Iowa she ever lived: Wall Lake, Harlan, Ottumwa, Des Moines, and Mount Vernon (Cornell College), north of Iowa City. Keota is just southwest of there. After spending the night in Nebraska, I’ll drive east to Washington in Keokuk County where I have a reservation at a former mom-and-pop motel like I swore I”d never fall for any more. (This in preference to the “Belva Deer Inn.”) The next morning I’ll wake up in a strange town, find some yellow roses, and drive 14 miles across the prairie to Keota. For all I know the hole’s already dug. “He will fill in the grave whenever you like and then will leave,” they said. Just me then, with the green grass and the breeze, kneeling at the grave stone I designed myself with both our names.
Isn’t it crazy, though, how I think I have this all worked out? Oh no.
Anything can happen, anywhere. That’s why I really want a miracle. A holy flash. Something that makes sense to me because I can’t believe a smile like that just goes away. She had the key to all the love that fills the universe and poured it out on me. When they brought her to the ED that last time, the doctor said she’d go “within the hour.” Even so, she lasted another whole day and a half with me standing or sitting by the bed the whole time touching, talking, listening to her breathing. When I ask myself why it took so long, I realize she simply didn’t want to leave me.
I used to tell her how much I loved her spirit. Told her that again today, in fact. Maybe something new will happen now that spirit’s all there is. We both deserve it. There’s still so much to do by way of cleaning up the wreckage that I can’t accomplish in my sorry state. I’m so afraid that I’ll forget the way it was, but I need this not to hurt so much. That’s why I’ve been taking the urn for “walks.” The movement is important to remind me that it isn’t rooted here. The urn is going away, John and Kathy’s final road trip. We had so many everywhere and shared a thousand thrills. Yes, it’s riding in the passenger seat. I may be weird but she would like that. I’ll have it in a box, though, strapped in with her red beret on top and a little wooden skeleton from Mexico, and I’ll be dressed to kill. Every door slam will be conscious.
Were you right about me, Katie Jane?
What will I do with the time that’s left?
Who will step out of the car when I get “home”?