We moved to Texas seeking medical treatment for my wife. I found the people friendly and honest, the streets clean and free from potholes, and the weather devoid of snow. We were renting our home in Spring, about 30 minutes north of downtown Houston. We arrived in town just in time for Hurricane Ike to hit; fortunately, we didn’t suffer any damage. Treatment at M. D. Anderson was going well and my wife was responding to the chemotherapy. Her surgery had been a success and she was enduring the radiation as best she could. The kids were freshmen in high school and adapting well to the new “normal” in our lives. Their grades remained high and they immersed themselves in extracurricular activities such as theater and debate.
Following Lisa’s successful treatment and a declaration that the doctors could find no further trace of cancer, we packed up our belongings and made the long ride back to Rhode Island, our home, and the friends and neighbors we had known forever. Nine months passed and we were readjusting to our life in Rhode Island when the news came, following her third follow-up appointment, that the cancer had returned. We determined that we were too far from the hospital and all of the medical expertise and technology that M. D. Anderson could bring to bear so we put our beloved house on the market and moved to Texas permanently. We bought a house, again in Spring, and re-enrolled the kids in the same high school. However, this time, the glossy varnish of southern hospitality wore thin to show an ugly side of Texas. Say what you will about northerners, but we have a thick skin and a good sense of humor when it comes to handling adversity. The same cannot be said about Southerners, or perhaps some Texans in particular.
The ugliness appeared after the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December of 2012. Driven to action, I began reading and reaching out. What I found was a gun culture enmeshed with religious self-righteousness that defied understanding or explanation. Rather than agreeing that something needed to be done to prevent another mass shooting I found a society determined to double down on protecting the guns instead of the children and then watched as the Texas legislature passed several pro-gun laws, including open carry and campus carry. As I spoke before democratic groups, I found tepid approval of my message or blank silence. I felt as though I had been transported back to the Wild West of the 1850’s. Fortunately, I met the most wonderful mothers from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. They began speaking at the same meetings I was being asked to speak at, and they were kindred spirits in gun-crazy Texas. Together, we made the rounds speaking out and protesting easy access to guns, including protesting outside the NRA Annual Paranoia Jamboree held in Houston several years ago.
Now, perhaps my initial illusion of southern hospitality was misplaced. Perhaps I saw what I wanted to see, perhaps I had bought into the travel brochure’s salesmanship and had assigned characteristics to all of the people here before they had earned them. However, the fact remained that I was seeing people all over who flared with road rage at the slightest infraction (even though they were usually at fault!) and the initial kindness I saw displayed was revealed to be a thin veneer beyond which an angry populace lived. Again, perhaps it was my fault that I expected kindness to go along with their initial genteel hello. However, the initial hello was shallow and provided no shelter to the storm of their real feelings, especially to someone from “up north.” The least informed tend to have the firmest convictions, and here the stupid were downright rigid in their unexamined beliefs.
As Lisa continued to fight against the ravenous cancer, we came to an understanding of the culture in which we found ourselves and tried to make the best of it. I attempted to let go of the mixed up anger I had at both the people and our situation, especially as it became evident that the cancer was killing my wife. When she died, part of my world became frozen in time. I cannot convey in words what telling my kids was like. The pain is too real.
And yet, as we close in on our moving date to move back to Rhode Island, less my wife and my dog who cancer finally took over the past nine months, I have a soft spot in my heart for Texas and the medical center here that brought us seven years together we would otherwise not have enjoyed. Granted, it’s not a big soft spot. Along the way, I have met good friends at work. My job has been fantastic to me, and their kindness, compassion, and comfort have made this situation a little more bearable. Nothing can break the pain I have associated with Texas as the place where Lisa drew her last, labored breaths and where we had to put our beloved dog down because of his cancer pain. Nothing can change the past nine months and the grief we have endured. My heart is shattered, but we are going home where we belong. We will be going to a new town for us, but back to a culture we understand.
The last chapter of our Texas odyssey is being written, and the kids and I are in a mad packing frenzy right now as the truck is soon to be on its way to pack all of our belongings and take them to our new home. The kids have graduated from college (with honors), a true testament to their work ethic and determination and are scheduled to apply to graduate school in the fall. Samantha has been challenged to apply the design lessons she learned from Lisa and school to the new house. God knows I don’t have a clue! We will make the most of our home while the kids research the grad schools and work on their portfolios. I’ll be working out of the house and trying to balance a new social life. A new chapter is beginning, and we will do our best to live up to the expectations Lisa set for us. Texas will soon be behind us, home to immeasurable pain. The pain will travel with us to Rhode Island, but a new beginning carries with it the hope of better days ahead. Goodbye, Texas.