We could have taken a much more direct route to Fargo heading back down U.S. Highway 85 to Belfield and heading east on Interstate 94, but we’d left time for taking a more leisurely, scenic route, so we turned onto North Dakota Road 200 just south of Grassy Butte. Taking the long way to Fargo wouldn’t have been possible, however, were it not for the recent addition of a Level 3 charger in Totten Trail on Lake Audubon. Even so, there were a number of sites we would have liked to have visited, such as Little Missouri State Park, but the additional driving would have pushed the envelope and quite possibly left us stranded in the middle of nowhere. We therefore limited our route to the most direct possible, stopping only at sites and viewpoints that were directly off the road.
Our first stop was Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge, which was literally right off ND 200 at Dunn Center. It was a true wetland, right in the midst of farm and ranch country. Without a natural outlet, I would’ve thought the brackish lake would be heavily polluted with farm runoff, yet we spotted a surprising variety of waterfowl. From there, we drove up ND 8 to ND 1806, which we took until we picked up ND 200 once again and then took U.S. Highway 83 north to the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge complex. Lake Audubon was another wetland, but a large one that formed an offshoot of the Missouri River. The scenic beauty and variety of wildlife were exceptional to the point that we spent much more time there than we’d planned and didn’t stop for lunch until it was nearly 2:00 PM.
Driving across the Lake Audubon causeway, we plugged in the Tesla and grabbed a hearty lunch at the Totten Trail Bar & Grill. After sharing an appetizer of deep-fried pickles, which were surprisingly good, I had the grilled-chicken-breast sandwich on a Kaiser roll with Swiss cheese, grilled onions and mushrooms, and of course I ordered a side of sweet-potato fries and iced tea. Henry had the Mac and Cheese Burger, which was a burger smothered with mac and cheese, Velveeta and bacon crumbles, to which he added a side of onion rings and iced tea. Although I rarely ate red meat, I had to try Henry’s burger, and it was truly amazing. Everything was delicious.
We were taking the scenic route along the left bank of the Missouri River, roughly halfway between Washburn, a ‘city’ of twelve hundred, and Bismarck. We intended to spend the night in Fargo, plugging the car into a Tesla Supercharger and grabbing dinner at a restaurant nearby. After recharging the car and our stomachs, we’d re-provision at Costco, where Henry’s military dependency would grant us free admission.
Tomorrow, we’d planned to drive the four hours to Duluth, do some sightseeing and stay overnight. After spending the morning in Duluth, we’d present our COVID paperwork at the border and cross into Canada, where we’d spend most of the rest of the trip.
That all changed when we got the phone call. Since I was driving and the call came in on my phone, the music we were listening to paused, and Alesia announced the call via the car’s Bluetooth. “Call from Roberto Gonzalez.”
Of course, I accepted the call and responded, “Hey, Rob. What’s up, man?”
“Listen, where are you guys right now?” Rob asked. Curious. He knew our itinerary.
“We’re in the middle of North Dakota on our way to Fargo,” I answered. “We just had lunch and we’re headed to Bismarck for a recharge.”
“Can you pull off the road safely?” he asked. That didn’t sound good.
Pulling to the side of the road, right by the river, and pulling to a stop, I responded, “We’re on a scenic road next to the Missouri River, so I just pulled over. Go ahead, boss.”
“OK, here goes,” Rob continued. “I won’t beat around the bush. Dad had a stroke, a really bad one.”
“Jesus,” Henry responded, then asked, “Was it an ischemic stroke or a hemorrhagic one?” Leave it to Henry to ask for a diagnosis first, before even asking how Jerry was.
“You mean a clot or a bleed?” Rob asked, but then answered without waiting for Henry’s response, “It was a bleed and a massive one. He’s in surgery right now at University Hospital and will be going to Neurosurgical Intensive Care.”
“Fuck, he must have ruptured an aneurysm,” Henry replied. “Which side was paralyzed?” he asked.
“He was paralyzed on the left side,” Rob answered.
“Shit, we’ll be right there, bro.” Henry responded.
“Take your time and drive safe,” Rob admonished us. “I don’t want to have three people I love in the hospital at the same time. By the way, how long will it take for you to get here?”
“I’ll have an answer in a minute,” I replied. I then asked the navigation system to plot the fastest course to Bellevue, including charging stops. Not unsurprisingly, the fastest route took us through Fargo anyway, thanks to the need to take a route with fast chargers, and then we’d pick up Interstate 29 and head south from there. “We have nine hours of driving ahead of us if we stick to the speed limit —”
“It’s not worth it to speed!” Rob admonished us. “The speed limit on the interstates is 75, isn’t it? That’s fast enough.”
“Except in South Dakota, where it’s 80,” I added. “We need to add time for a couple of charging stops, not to mention restroom breaks. We’ll stop at Fargo and then in Sioux Falls, so figure ten or eleven hours; we’ll probably get there around two or three in the morning.”
“I’d suggest you should stop and get some sleep along the way, but I know well enough how I’d handle it. Please promise me you’ll stop every couple of hours to get out and stretch your legs, though. The last thing we want is for one of you to get a blood clot or something. I’ll be waiting for you at the house,” Rob confirmed. “And drive careful, okay?”
“You know I will,” I replied. “Your brother’s life means more to me than my own.”
“I know just what you mean,” Rob replied. “I’ll see you soon. Love you both.”
I pulled back onto the road and drove as fast as I dared down the Lewis and Clark Trail, also known as River Road, which I took right into Bismarck. In the meantime, Henry phoned the place where we were supposed to stay in Fargo and cancelled the reservation. When he explained why, they waived the cancellation notice.
“I don’t know why, but I feel like I should cry, but I can’t,” Henry said.
“You’re in shock, Henry. We both are You won’t know what hits you when the flood suddenly comes.”
“You know what’s the worst?” Henry continued. “I’m scared as fuck that Dad’ll die but even more scared he won’t. I’d like to think he’ll recover fully and be just like he was, but we both know that’s not realistic. In the best-case scenario, he’ll have a severe disability the rest of his life. He’ll never go back to work. The VA’ll take good care of him. With a 100% service-connected disability, he’ll get the help he needs, but he may not even be able to feed himself. He may need an aide to wipe his butt.”
“He may recover enough to return to work with little more than stiffness on his left side,” I pointed out a bit more optimistically.
Shaking his head, “People think it’s worse to be paralyzed on the right, because it affects speech,” Henry began.
“We both know better,” I replied. “Intact speech does little good if you lose short-term memory.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Henry replied. “He might not even remember who we are, and even if he does, he might not remember to go to the bathroom before he soils himself. He wouldn’t want to live like that. I wouldn’t want to live like that.”
“None of us can know what it’s like until we’re in a particular situation,” I countered.
“Yeah, I know that,” Henry responded, “but what kind of life would that be? I kind of wish I believed in God ’cause then I could be doing something, but prayer is only good for helping the one doing the praying. It would be useless to me.”
If I hadn’t been driving, I would’ve hugged my boyfriend tightly, but instead I said, “We’ll get through this together. So will the family. So will your dad.”
“Shit, we’re all gonna hafta be tested,” Henry suddenly realized.
“You mean for aneurysms?” I asked.
Nodding his head, Henry said, “If Dad hemorrhaged from a ruptured aneurysm, there’s as much as a twenty percent chance that each of us has aneurysms, too.”
“At least you’ll know, and the treatment is a simple matter of inserting a little coil into each aneurysm with a catheter, from what I’ve read,” I observed. “Except for having periodic follow-up scans, your life will hardly be affected at all.”
“Yeah, I know, but if only Dad had known he had a ticking time bomb in his brain, he might have been okay.”
“Life is full of ‘what-might-have-beens’,” I said. “My whole life has been one huge, fucking, what-might-have-been.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but you’re right,” Henry responded.
Sighing, I challenged, “We have a fucking long drive ahead of us. Why don’t we try to talk about something more pleasant, like climate change and global ecosystem collapse?”
“Well, that should keep us occupied until we get to Omaha,” Henry replied, and we both laughed. Actually, it did indeed keep us occupied the rest of the way, even as we stopped in Fargo to recharge the car and recharge ourselves at Firehouse Subs, where we shared the Engineer, a hot turkey sub with Swiss cheese and sautéed mushrooms. I had my half with a side order of the five-cheese mac and cheese, and Henry had his with the loaded-baked-potato soup. We both ordered the largest size of coffee with the meal as well as coffee to go. Knowing that we wouldn’t likely find anything open when we stopped for our final charge in Sioux Falls, we ordered a veggie sub to-go with a couple bags of chips and a couple orders of cookies. It turned out there was a Papa John’s open until midnight, but with the miserable Yelp reviews it had, it was just as well we picked up decent food back in Fargo.
We pulled up to the house at quarter of two in the fuckin’ morning, and lo and behold, most of the family was up waiting for us. Even Rob and Sam were there instead of at their own house. Fran was preoccupied with Jerry and probably spending most of her time at the hospital. The moment we walked in the door and saw all the red eyes, however, I feared the news wouldn’t be good. Henry took one look and let out a loud sob, and then he was in Sammy’s arms, hugging his brother tightly. Turning to Rob, I asked, “I take it the surgery didn’t go well?”
“The surgery didn’t even finish until an hour ago. Mom’s still at the hospital and refuses to leave. Uncle Juan and Aunt Lucy are with her. In the meantime, he’s in an induced coma, so we won’t know if he’ll even wake up for at least a week,” Rob answered. “His neurosurgeon cautioned us he would likely remain in a coma and may never wake up. He has an advanced directive, and Mom signed an in-hospital DNR. If his heart stops, they won’t attempt to revive him.”
“Henry said something on the way back here,” I related. “He said he almost fears your father will survive, that Jerry will never be the same again and that he wouldn’t want to live with such a profound disability if he can’t even care for himself.”
“How many of us would?” Rob concurred. “I know Henry’s an atheist and you don’t believe in organized religion, but our faith is important to us. We pray that God’s will be fulfilled, which is different from praying that Dad survive. We pray that whatever the outcome, it’ll be what’s best for him, that it’ll be based on God’s will and not ours.”
“Regardless of my own beliefs, I can’t argue with that. What can I do to help?” I asked. “Fran shouldn’t have to deal with the particulars of whatever happens next. Let me handle them.”
“J.J., I know you’re as much a part of the family as any of us,” Rob countered, “but there are more than enough adults here to take care of things, and you and Henry are going to have enough to do until you finally leave for New York. You already shipped all your things to your new place. You left a few things behind you no longer needed, but the only clothes you have are what you have in the Tesla. You’re both gonna hafta buy a wardrobe of more decent clothes, aren’t you?”
“Shit, I didn’t think about that. We’ll need to get stuff right away,” I agreed. “We each have a bunch of crappy t-shirts, a few pairs of shorts, a ratty pair of jeans, a few sweatshirts and hoodies, and that’s pretty much it. I wouldn’t even want to go to the hospital in anything we have with us.”
“I’d offer you guys some of my stuff or Sammy’s, but the two of you are way taller than either of us. Dad’s stuff might fit if you gained maybe fifty pounds each, and most of his clothes are military anyway. Jeez, I hate to see you have to buy a bunch of things you’ll never need again. And if Dad dies —”
“We won’t plan on buying any suits or even think about it for now,” I replied. “At least I’m in a position to afford to buy new clothes for Henry and me. I can afford to help out with Dad and with the family if it comes down to it.”
Shaking his head, Rob replied, “I appreciate the sentiment, and I do realize that you feel like a part of the family now, even if not legally, but we’re proud people, and the military does take care of their own. Dad’ll collect nearly his full salary as a disability pension, and the VA’ll take care of all of his medical needs. The benefits suffered under Obama and even more under Trump, but they still take care of those with service-connected disabilities, and this will be considered one-hundred-percent service connected even though it didn’t result from combat. And if he passes… well, let’s just say that Mom’s survivor benefits will be enough to live on and for everyone to go to college, too.”
“Does everyone know about your father that needs to know?” I asked.
“There’s a lot of family to notify all over the country and even in Mexico, and we have friends all over the world. We’re a military family, and we’ve been all over the place. It all happened so fast, and he was in surgery for so much time, so nothing’s been done yet. No one feels like sleeping now, so we’ll probably start by making a list of people to notify and figuring out time zones and the like.”
“I’d better notify Jitendra Moorthy; he’d want to know that my plans have changed, and the date of my return to New York may change in either direction. Obviously, I’ll wait until morning for that.”
“It is morning,” Rob pointed out.
“Speaking of which, is there any coffee?” I asked.
Pointing, to the kitchen, Rob replied, “We’re keeping the pot full.”
“Hey, J.J.,” Sam said as she came up to me and hugged me tightly. “Would you like something to eat? You guys must be starved after your long trip.”
Laughing, I responded, “Hardly. We had to stop every couple or few hundred miles to recharge the car, and that meant recharging ourselves, too. We had plenty to eat along the way.”
“My car’s a hybrid, so we still can go anywhere without thinking about it,” Sam remarked. “Rob only drives his Mach-E around town. I can imagine how driving an electric requires a lot of planning on a road trip.”
“You’ve no idea until you’ve tried it,” I said. “It’s a huge leap from the theoretical to the real when sightseeing in places where the infrastructure doesn’t exist. We should’ve been home an hour ago and made the trip with only one recharge along the way, but there just weren’t any chargers at the halfway point. In an all-electric society, recharging stations would be as common as gas stations, but we won’t get to being all-electric until the charging stations are built.”
Laughing, Sam responded, “As much as it’s critical to our survival, change comes slowly to the Midwest. Biden can throw all the money he can muster at it, but people will resist buying electric until the cost of gas becomes prohibitive again. Even then, it’ll take ten years to replace just half the gas-powered cars on the road.”
Henry came back up to me along with Sammy, Hillary and Lindsey. Of course, I gave the three of them a hug, as well as Camilla and Celia a moment later when they approached the group of us. Henry snuggled up to me, and instinctively I put my arm around him and pulled him close as his arm went around me in return. My boy was hurting even more than I was, and I held him tightly as if, in doing so, I could take away the pain.
“You two look really good together,” Sammy commented.
“I’ve never seen Henry so content as he is in your arms,” Hillary agreed.
“I don’t think I could do this if it weren’t for J.J.,” Henry added. “He’s my life now.”
“I think the two of you have bonded on this trip,” Celia commented. “You two were close, and it was evident you’d fallen in love, but you’ve become a true couple in the last couple of weeks.”
“Yeah, I really think we have,” I agreed, and Henry nodded his head.
“So, tell us all about your trip,” Sam asked.
“I think we’d all like to hear about it,” Rob suggested. “Why don’t we go sit in the Great Room and you can tell us about it?”
There was a lot that needed to be done, and there were a lot of calls that needed to be made, but for a short while it was a chance to take our minds off what was going on, so we sat down, and for a couple of hours Henry and I related our experiences of the past couple of weeks and then backtracked to talk about the trip to New York. With all the trip preparations, we’d not yet had a chance to talk about it, nor about the place we’d bought. They’d not realized just how much I’d made from my server designs and were truly shocked when I described the apartment in Chelsea.
“I’m the same kid you’ve always known, you know,” I explained. “I’m still getting used to being able to afford to buy nice things, but other than buying our dream place and spending money on nice camera gear, it hasn’t changed me at all, I don’t think. I really like the Tesla and have no intention of going out and buying a Jag, a Mercedes, or Ferrari now that I can afford one. I’ll probably replace it with something similar when it starts to lose driving range in a decade or so. Some people like to show off their money. That’s just not me. We bought the apartment because we wanted a place we could grow into with a view and outdoor space, and that sort of thing is pretty rare in Manhattan – and far from cheap. I would like to do more to help out the family, though. You’ve all done so much for me. You gave me my life and the best boyfriend I could ever have.” I pulled Henry close.
“Just help us with our education,” Rob suggested. “That would be something that could make a real difference. Otherwise, I think we’re happy with things the way they are.”
“Speak for yourself, Rob,” Sammy interjected. “I want a Corvette – or better still, a Ferrari.”
“I’ll give you a choice, Sammy,” I responded. “Granted, you guys could all use newer cars, but you can have your choice of an Ivy League education or a Ferrari. Unless you want an SF90 Stradale. Those can cost over a million, depending on options.”
“You’re serious about paying for college?” Celia asked.
“Yes, including medical school in your case,” I replied, “in any public or private institution in the world, including the Ivy League. I should’ve thought of it myself. You guys gave me a roof over my head and a real opportunity to do something with my life when I needed it the most. More importantly, you gave me love. Helping you guys out with your education would be my pleasure.”
Because a landline is a necessity for military officers just in case the cell network goes down, it was the landline that rang as I was talking about funding everyone’s college education. While Rob got up to answer the phone, I went on to talk about Chelsea, which was rapidly gentrifying, and more specifically about the neighborhood around the Walker Tower. I wasn’t really paying much attention to his conversation, although in the back of my mind I realized that phone calls at 3:30 AM are seldom good news. I couldn’t help but notice when he said, “Sam and I’ll be right there.” My voice trailed off as he continued. “We’ll take care of making the arrangements later, when things start to open up. In the meantime, you guys need your rest. Give Mom and Aunt Lucy our love. The rest of us will start making phone calls.”
When he hung up the phone, I think we all knew from the look on his face. Rob had to say it anyway, though. “Dad passed away a half hour ago. There’s a lot to take care of, but the hospital won’t release the body to McDougal’s until they do an autopsy, and that’ll be a couple of days at least.”
“Why do they need to do an autopsy?” Hillary asked.
It wasn’t Rob that answered but Henry. “Because they need to determine if the bleeding came from a ruptured aneurysm or something else. If it was from an aneurysm, then we all need to be checked out ’cause there’s a 20% chance each of us could have aneurysms, too. There wasn’t time to figure it out before the surgery, and there was too much blood for them to see during the surgery. It’s necessary for our sake.”
“You and I are going to the hospital?” Sam asked.
Shaking his head, Rob answered, “Uncle Juan and Aunt Lucy will bring Mom home, and Aunt Lucy will stay with her tonight so she won’t hafta face sleeping in an empty bed just yet. We’ll help out with making the funeral arrangements in the morning once things are open.”
Everyone began making lists of people that needed to be notified. It was kind of strange, how everyone was calm. It seemed as if they’d all cried themselves out in the immediate aftermath of Jerry’s stroke and had shut down emotionally while they went about planning for the funeral. I was certain there would be more tears to come, including some of my own.
Disclaimer: This story is purely fictional and any resemblance of characters to real individuals is unintentional. Although it takes place in actual locations, in no way are any official policies, opinions or events inferred. Some characters may be underage and at times engage in homosexual acts. Anyone uncomfortable with this should not be reading the story, and the reader assumes responsibility for the legality of reading this type of material where they live. The author retains full copyright and permission must be obtained prior to duplication in any form.