"Have you ever seen the Atchafalaya at daybreak?" I asked my dispatcher, who had called to check on me. She had gotten me home to Louisiana for some much needed down time after a couple of months spent in the northeast, which sentencing followed kidney stone surgery in Maryland. "You sound like you're in a good mood today," my now angelic dispatcher observed. And why shouldn't that be the case? Only a loving God could take some cypress and Spanish moss, mix it with murky water and a film of light fog and create such singular, haunting beauty. Exotic to some, home to me, it's a welcome signal to friendly territory where the accents are as warm and embracing as the air itself.
A short time earlier I had crossed the majestic Mississippi River at Baton Rouge, and seen the capitol building on my right and Tiger Stadium rising like the Roman Coliseum from the LSU campus on my left. After making my appointed delivery in Opelousas, I pointed the truck home, tuned in my favorite Cajun music station and played killer percussion on the steering wheel. Did you know that an air horn, blasted on the 2nd and 4th beat of each measure, adds a completely new dynamic to the music?
"You ain't been here in awhile," one of the waitresses at my favorite truck stop said after taking a few seconds to recognize me. I look a bit different these days, my goatee and mustache having come in mostly white since the most recent hospitalization. I recounted the experiences of the last few months for her and her smile seemed to grow as wide as the Mississippi itself when she said, "Well welcome home, Hon!" The gumbo flows as freely as the humor here, warming the spirit and delighting the senses. But I had to be moving along after all, because the family was waiting and I was so very anxious to see them.
It's been too long since the last visit, leaving me fairly elated when my Mom, Sister, and little Niece picked me up at the truck stop. Mom had been pretty concerned about her young'n hospitalized up in Maryland, though I assured her that the people taking care of me were as good as gold. Not wanting to miss a chance to have some fun, my sister gave me a hug and said, "Hey there, Father Time!" In short order, we were enjoying supper at her house while her and I began reciting the crazy songs of our youth from They're Coming To Take Me Away (ha ha), to My Friend The Witch Doctor, and My Boomerang Won't Come Back. How quickly the years fall away and we revel in mischief again.
Yesterday, Mom and I attended services at my home church in Lake Charles. As a newborn, I spent time in the nursery here. As a teenager, I leaped from the roof of the Education Building over to the roof of the Sanctuary before climbing to the tip of the steeple extending over the street.
How tranquil and bittersweet it is to sit in the sanctuary I've known all my life. It seemed that any second, my grandfather might walk in with the other deacons. I looked back to the foyer and half expected to see my other grandfather, an usher, greeting friends as they entered the sanctuary. How odd, I thought, that my grandmother (who so reminded me of Katherine Hepburn) wasn't dashing through the door in a whirlwind of energy and grace to take her seat with the rest of us. How the place seems to shine less brightly without the gentle smile of "Chief" Shawa, and so many of the other wonderful souls whose effusive presence stood as confirmation of The Savior's love. They've all passed on, leaving a hole in our hearts even as their memory enriches our spirits.
Even as a teenager peering down on the congregation through the stained glass ceiling, tempting fate and my parent's chastisement, I basked in the warm knowledge that I was surrounded by friends and family, a feeling that sustained through decades of travel across the globe.
But not everyone I knew then has departed this world. Take the ageless Mr. Platt, for example, who on this day extended a warm handshake and asked, "When are we leaving?" He wants me to know that he's packed and ready to go on the road with me, though I've been warned that he secretly intends to put me in the passenger seat so he can drive my 18 wheeler. Mr. Thompson greeted me kindly and asked, "How's your health?" I quickly explained about the kidney stone issues of the last year, and he said, "I hear that really hurts." "It made my voice go up," I answered, and we had a good laugh.
In a few days I'll be back on the road. But for now, to be back home where the music is as sweet as praline candy, where humor is as bountiful as iced tea, where a smile and a friendly greeting aren't impositions, the loving embrace of family and friends becomes the antidote to life as a perpetual stranger elsewhere. You see, my heart never really leaves home, and it's so gratifying indeed to have the rest of me here too, even if only for a short time.