The teal green 1992 Pontiac Grand Am my dad gave me for high school graduation instead of the boob job I asked for flew down I-40, but it wasn’t fast enough. We hit every hole and bump on the road, and as we did, a dozen white roses bouncing on my lap brushed against my chin. My high school sweetheart, Tim,* held his composure behind the wheel of my car while I sat in the passenger seat quietly contemplating thoughts and emotions I felt about the mystery news he was hiding. He drove east past my dad’s swimming pool showroom, Johnny Burnett Pools & Spas, which was more visible to westbound traffic. I worked for my dad back then, and Tim had sent flowers to me to celebrate five months of teenage love. It was a hot July afternoon, and I didn’t want to keep the roses at the pool store overnight again.
Roses and tomatoes were the only plants my dad knew how to grow. He planted rose bushes in our backyard on the north side of the swimming pool, which he’d built to launch his own swimming pool construction business. They were always there, year after year, until he sold the house in 1991 to build his dream house on the Arkansas River. I wonder if the new owners still have those rose bushes in Starburst colors of light pink, hot pink, orange and coral. I loved the big peach roses, my favorites. Daddy showed me how to mix Miracle Grow with water and, according to his method, you just toss the mixture on the bush like you’re throwing a drink in someone’s face. I thought it was weird, but there was no Google to fact check his method back then. He was my father, and this was my trusted source of information.
Tim and I were minutes away from receiving the answer to a question people had been asking for the last 36 hours: where was Johnny Burnett?
Screeching into the driveway at my mom’s house (where I lived), we saw two cars parked in front of the garage. One belonged to my mother, which she normally parked in the garage. The other car belonged to my father’s assistant, Beth, who had never been to our house before. I couldn’t make sense of it, but I had a horrible feeling that something was very wrong.
Here’s where my photographic memory fails me because I don’t remember if I closed the car door. I’m not sure what happened to the roses, either. But I’ll never forget what happened when I walked into the house through the back door to the garage, pushed open the swinging saloon doors of the laundry room and into the kitchen with the western sun behind me.
Getting the News
My mother met me at the door. I could see she had been crying as she hung up the yellow wall phone receiver. Her expression scared me, and at first, I wanted to run away and not have to hear her words.
“They found your father, Heather, and he’s dead,” she said, struggling to push the words out. Her brown eyes staring hard into mine to look for some acknowledgment that I heard what she said. I held my breath and fell into my mother’s open embrace. She was ready for me, knowing her daughter was about to walk in the door and she was going to break her heart.
Mom’s words rang in my ears as my legs nearly gave out under me. I shifted my weight onto her and buried my face in her shoulder. Holding my breath still, I felt the redness and heat rising through my neck and cheeks, until finally exploding into tears and spit and snot right there in the kitchen. My tears flowed into the curve of her neck on her shoulder, holding me the way she would cradle a baby. I lifted my limp arms around her to rest and hold myself up, trying not to pass out from utter shock. Oh, what she must have felt, too! The tears came. Big, warm tears that felt like a watercolor artist was painting my face. I wanted to say words. I opened my mouth, but no recognizable sound came out, just a faint dog-whistle wheeze. I wanted to pass out. Just let me sit down, I thought. My neck, my tears were getting warmer.
As we were hugging, I felt another pair of arms around my mother and me, and a very selfish feeling came over me. With my eyes still closed, I thought, “Who is hugging us at a time like this? Who could be intruding in this personal moment?” I opened my eyes to see Jason, my 14-year-old brother, with his arms around us. I lifted my head and pointed my drenched face at him. Our eyes met. I realized daddy would never see him graduate from high school, never teach him how to drive, never meet his prom date. He would never walk me down the aisle at my wedding, see me earn a college degree or see his grandchildren one day. I cried harder and we hugged longer. We all arrived at this turning point without choice, and there was no going back.
We let our arms fall away from the hug, releasing and feeling drained. This memory will never leave my conscious mind for as long as I live. I can close my eyes and remember shuffling across the brown shag carpet into the den. I felt sad, hurt, devastated, confused, cheated and angry, all at the same time. What. What. What now. There is no question mark. It is too much of an emotional lift to even consider punctuating that feeling. The shock was already thick and deafening. My ears rang. Sitting on the couch, I rested my gaze on that shit brown carpet during my first moments of processing this trauma.
Denial, Bargaining and What I Wore
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief had yet to be introduced to me, but I immediately conformed to textbook denial and bargaining. You see at first, we didn’t know what happened. We received news of Johnny Burnett’s death intermittently. First, we only knew he was dead but didn’t know the cause. I’d assumed he’d had a heart attack or a stroke.
I popped my head up, looking as if I had solved a problem and the answer had been so obvious the whole time. I turned around to announce my epiphany to everyone in the kitchen.
“This isn’t true,” I said matter-of-factly. “He’s not dead. You’re wrong.”
I bargained with them: “The doctors can revive him. They can put a new heart in him. They do it all the time.” Everyone stared at me with pity.
“They can’t, Heather. He’s really dead,” someone said.
“No, he’s not!” I exclaimed, burning mad, my cheeks still flushing red with rage. I didn’t understand why no one was calling a doctor to tell him or her what to do. I was starting to get furious.
“Has someone called a doctor yet? They can put a new heart in him,” I cried out in delirium. No one answered. It felt crazy. Why wasn’t anyone calling the doctors to tell them what to do? I needed Hollywood magic.
Eventually, I slid onto the floor and got on my hands and knees and crawled in the clothes I’d carefully picked out to wear that morning – a long denim skirt, red and white striped knit sleeveless top and a woven belt I’d brought back from my summer vacation with Tim and his family. It was as if my motor skills shut down and my brain couldn’t tell my body what to do. I didn’t care if I was crawling in a pile of sewage. I was so mad that nothing could be done to bring daddy back, I beat my fists on the carpet in both anger and denial about the news. I couldn’t accept the fact that this was permanent and out of anyone’s control. Overcome with swirling emotions, I’d reached the boundary between real innocence and learned adulthood.
I pounded the floor again before rolling on to my back, letting tears roll down the sides of my temples, into my hair line, tingling the hair follicles. On the floor with the ceiling fan whirling on high speed and drying my tears as fast as they rolled out, I calmed myself the way I came into this world: I held my breath. I wanted it quiet and to stop hearing myself heave air in and out of my lungs. I hoisted myself upright to stare, numb, mouth agape, facing the window into the screened porch and the backyard beyond. Someone came to pick me up, pulling me up at my armpits, and I started to cry again. A pitiful sight I imagine.
As I lay flat on the floor, someone lifted me, and I started to cry again. This person carried me to my room and helped me call my best friend, Natalie. I kept thinking, “This cannot be true. This cannot happen to me.” I asked, “Why me? Why daddy?” We had so much left to share. I didn’t understand. It was truly a nightmare.
Thus began the gutting of my reality as I had known it for 18 years to form what I know now.
*Some names are changed to respect privacy.