Gretchen, the joyrider


Gretchen had a stubborn fierceness about her.  She was diagnosed with a rare degenerative muscular disease at a very young age, but always made the most of it.  Growing up we were best friends.  Once, she snuck of her house in the middle of the night to throw pebbles at my window, saying, “Knox, I just got some new red shoes—let’s ruin ’em!” We broke into the golf course to joy ride golf carts and crash them into the clubhouse.

By the time she was 17 she couldn’t walk anymore.  By 20, she couldn’t sit up without help. She never lost her sense for adventure though.  We still played practical jokes on strangers; we drank bourbon on her porch and took out street lamps with her potato cannon; we even hitchhiked, wheelchair and all, to Knoxville to see Tom Waits.
As her condition worsened, I wasn’t able to take care of her on my own.  She required assistance to breathe and this made it difficult to go on our adventures.  One day, I went to visit her at her assisted living facility and the nurse told me that Gretchen didn’t want to see me anymore.

Every day I’d come to visit, but was turned away.  So I instead wrote letters.  I never got replies, but I kept writing them.

Later, I heard that she had taken a turn for the worse.  I demanded they let me see her, passing security and the doctors and nurses.  When I got to her room, I saw that she had wallpapered it with my letters.  Seeing her there with all the tubes going in and out of her body broke something within me that will never heal.

“Hey, stranger,” she said weakly. “Come here.  I need to tell you something.”  I leaned in close and she whispered, “Don’t let me die here, Knox.”

That night I devised a plan.  I set fire to the back office at the assisted living facility. During the commotion, I broke Gretchen out and we wheeled off into the night.  Standing atop a hill, looking down on the city, we told each we were sorry for everything, even those things we could never understand or have words for. Then she said, “Let’s go for a joy ride.”

I stood on the back of her chair and aimed it down a massive hill toward the bay, then gave a push.  Flying down that hill, feeling the wind in our ears, I could hear her laughing.  We rolled safely to a stop on the docks at the marina just as the sun was rising.  There she and I stayed, watching the ships come in, listening to the seagulls and lapping waves until her oxygen ran out.  Part of me never left that dock.  Part of me died with her.

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