Each day was a little shorter than the previous day. My Brother-in-law, who had helped me get a job at the company he worked for, is originally from Boston. While living there, he had never felt the need to own a car. On days when I made it back to the office in time, I would drive him home before taking the scenic route past a large cemetery next to a lake in the direction of the house where I was staying. I took solace in the scene as I gazed at the staggered gravestones in the fading light of a Minnesota autumn evening.
Two months earlier, I had voluntarily separated from the Air Force after serving two four-year enlistments. Unfortunately, as my military service came to an end, my marriage had also fallen into disarray, my wife indicating through words and actions she no longer wanted to be constrained by the burdensome rules of marriage. I remember it being a devasting time as if someone had sucked the air out of the room, making it hard for me to breathe. Over the following weeks, I could only manage the same two or three thoughts as I tried to understand what was happening around me. My thoughts ran in circular patterns, and I feared they would eventually cause permanent brain damage if allowed to continue. My self-esteem took a beating from subtleties hardly noticed at the time but taking months to recover once removed.
Under these circumstances, I tried to adjust to the civilian world; the military was a different kind of life. With no real prospects for a decent job where I lived, I left my wife and young daughter and returned to my hometown of Minneapolis with a vague promise that she would follow once I found a job and housing.
The job I secured in Minneapolis required a fair amount of travel within the state, with a territory encompassing most of St. Paul, the northern suburbs of Minneapolis, and any town between the cities and the Canadian border big enough to have a hospital. I maintained the patient card-making equipment primarily used in hospital admission offices. That fact was a blessing for a directionally challenged person like myself because of the conveniently placed blue hospital signs when entering towns.
The driving in winter was often treacherous, and I remember returning from Hibbing, a town in the northern part of the state. The blowing snow on the secondary road I traveled obscured the center line and shoulders to the point where I no longer felt confident I could follow the contours of the road — the storm forcing me to find a hotel in the next town to wait it out.
My days were long, and returning home at 9:00 or 10:00 PM was not unusual. As a tech, I carried a trunk inventory, and if I didn’t have the right part, I would spend the night until the office could ship one by Greyhound bus.
I enjoyed the time spent on the road; it gave me time to think. I knew there was a hole in my life without my family, and every day I missed seeing my daughter. Everything else in my life was going well; I had a good job, and I was living in a place I loved and where I had the support of family and friends. But my life and marriage were unresolved and kept me in limbo; even though I believed in my heart, the relationship was over.
Talking with my wife during this time, I could tell she was purposely delaying selling our home and dragging her feet in her previous commitment to reunite our family. Every week it became clearer that she had no intention of moving, and now after establishing myself in the area, I was leading an emotionally draining existence.
Winter turned to Spring, and Spring turned to Summer, and I listened to the smooth guitar work of Dire Straits on Romeo and Juliet driving between calls on summer afternoons. Summer began edging toward fall, and the first anniversary of my return to Minneapolis was fast approaching. It is the subtle things you notice as seasons start to turn and you become aware of the passage of time. Like the way the light has a little more texture in the golden hour near sunset, or how the temperature dips an extra couple of degrees in the morning before sunrise.
It was a typical early September day, and I was taking calls locally. I had completed a call at a downtown St. Paul hospital and made my way along a main artery toward the freeway. There were traffic lights every few blocks as I drove, each turning red before I reached them. A half-block before the next light, a car passing on my left stopped in front of me as the light turned red. I saw an unrestrained girl in the backseat raise her face above the seatback and stare back at me.
There was something in her expression where I could not look away. She was not smiling or making child-like faces; it was an expression conveying a question, the question of why. I watched her for what seemed like minutes, and all the while, she looked directly into my eyes, never wavering. When the light changed, the car turned right, and I continued straight. Looking to the right as I passed through the intersection, I could still see her tiny face staring back at me.
I drove another couple of blocks before the significance of what I had witnessed hit me. The why became crystal clear, I had seen my daughter in the face of that little girl, and she was asking why I had left. Her voice in my mind was as plain as if she was sitting in the passenger seat telling me she needed me back in her life. The decision had never been more apparent. I had to go back. It didn’t matter that I had created a new life in a place I loved or that a whole set of other problems would be waiting for me upon my return. It was no longer a choice; my daughter needed her Dad.