On a fall night in September 2006, my younger brother and I were hurtling west in my little plastic Saturn, laughing and listening to Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban over the speakers. We’d been driving for two days, although “we’d” might more aptly be “I’d” as my brother had been forced to admit that he had no idea how to drive a stick at about hour 10 on the first day. He’d looked at me with a shrug and a smirk when I exited the gas station somewhere outside of Chicago. “Sorry, “ he’d giggled, palms facing outward at me. I’d laughed, and shook my head, reclaiming my spot behind the wheel. He’d spend the rest of the trip, maps in hand, riding shotgun, lighting my cigarettes and making ham sandwiches out of a cooler provided by Mom.
We were on our way to Seattle, WA, and we had to make it in three days. I had a temp job lined up that started on the 4th day. The Old Man and I had moved there the previous December, but left my car in NY, so I’d taken a few weeks at the end of the summer to visit home with the intention of driving it back. It was a last hurrah of sorts for the two of us. I was embarking on a life across the country, and little brother had just joined the Army. A vast history stretched behind us just as the whole of the United States stretched ahead.
That night, as the 12th or 13th hour of driving took it’s toll, we spotted a road sign: Lodging Next Exit 17 Miles. We were somewhere outside of South Dakota, perhaps flitting through Wyoming, but most likely in southeastern Montana. I was tired and a bit dazed by the road stripes flashing past, so I made the decision to stop as soon as we came to that exit.
As we chatted and listened to another chapter, I turned on my blinker and moved from the left lane to the right. I’m not quite sure why. We were miles from the exit still and hadn’t seen another car on the road for hours. Not seconds after I’d changed lanes, we passed something that would make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end and the adrenaline pump through my body at the narrowness of the miss:
There, in the middle of the left lane, taking up the entire space between the mid-lines and the shoulder, was a gigantic dead moose. And I’d missed it by that much. Had I stayed in the left lane, I would have hit it dead on at 85 miles per hour. It is doubtless that the collision would have caused a major accident—the animal was bigger than my car—and we would have been seriously injured.
We looked at each other in disbelief, hearts pounding at how close we’d come. And then, I smelled it. Fumbling a cigarette out of my pack, I inhaled a deep breath in an effort to slow the pace of my heart, and there it was: my entire car smelled like my Grandma Lou. My Grandma Lou whose couch I sit on everyday when I lay back to watch TV. My Grandma Lou who used to label everything from food in the freezer to packages of extra socks in her storage spaces. My Grandma Lou who had been dead for 4 years.
I was born and raised Catholic. I’ve been through my sacraments. Got married in the church. Attend every Ash Wednesday mass because it’s my favorite sermon. But I can’t say that I believe in one God, The Father, The Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. I don’t know that I believe in heaven. I’m not sure that I believe in hell. I have issues with religion, and the things it makes people do. I can’t quite swallow the idea of an all-seeing man sitting up in the clouds keeping a tally of the good and bad things I do. As far as faith goes, my jury is out.
What I do know, what I DO believe, with certainty, is that my Grandma Lou is out there, and she looks out for me. She was there that night, and she’s been around a few other times, mostly during near-miss situations. She rides in on that scent and sticks around only long enough for me to wonder if I’ve really smelled anything at all. I had no other reason to change lanes that night