It’s the year 2000. We’ve all survived the Y2K freak-out. The TV still works just like it did before and my 20-year old body is laying on the couch in my childhood home after I had just completed my sophomore year of college. I’m watching Everybody Loves Raymond, hoping to sneak in a nap before dinner when my older brother walks by the den. He’s wearing his signature plaid flannel shirt, worn out jeans, that beautiful brown leather belt, and his boots, a half-smile on his face. My mom prompted him to acknowledge me: “Chad – you gonna say something to your sister?”
"Hi Mandi, Bye Mandi.” He walked across the grungy white linoleum out the side door and that was the last time I would see him upright and talking. Barely 22 years old, his body was found hours later in the middle of Big Island Highway. He had hit a deer on his way home from his night out. He pulled his old red F-150 over to do what you’re supposed to do when you hit a deer: Move it out of the way.
His last conscious act in the world was one of protection: He protected drivers behind him from a crash, and protected the deer from further undignified, bloody tire-beatings. And as his body stood unprotected in the road, the two friends he had just been out with hit him with their truck. The kind with the giant wheels. The kind that isn’t gentle. The kind that didn’t slow down first. He spent a week in the intensive care unit before his body let us know it could not fix the damage that had been done to his legs, his hips, his ribs, his lungs, his brain.
On the eighth day he rested.
And in those eight days, I experienced what would be the most hopeful reunion of my life.
Scott had been my brother’s doubles partner on the tennis team in high school. One of Chad's higher-quality friends, Scott was the one who drove him home when he'd had too much to drink, or called him out on his foolishness when he was, well, being foolish. He was a nice guy: not so kind that he wasn’t cool, and not so cool that he wasn’t kind. But I had never paid him much attention. A mainstay in the background of my high school years, on the edges of my periphery, I was drawn to those who more obviously chased after me.
But in the small and crowded waiting room of the neurological ICU at Lynchburg General Hospital, I was drawn to the one who kept showing up, who I had not seen in years because I had moved away for school. Here we sat together, every day, working a puzzle on a fake-wood table, our legs cramped into the green wipeable chairs. This was our reunion. We paid attention to one another like we never had before. I didn’t even know I had been without him.
There were no plates of burgers here, no hot dogs. We ate only from the vending machine, never even venturing to the cafeteria one floor below for fear we’d miss a crucial update about my brother while on the elevator. We barely went to the bathroom. Nor were there any games – no horseshoe or cornhole. There was family, of course. Aunts and uncles and cousins had driven from all over to check on us, to sit vigil, to pray. But the young adults? They popped in like they had arrived on bungee cords, out almost as soon as they saw the our tired and anxious faces in the foreground of the outdated wallpaper. This wasn’t a reunion they could bear to join. But Scott stayed for the whole thing.
And Scott carried the casket at the next reunion, the kind that happens in the church sanctuary and the old graveyard on the side of the mountain; the one that continues back home where the fridge is stuffed with casseroles, ham sandwiches, four varieties of pies, macaroni and cheese, and those mayonnaise-based salads we all love but never admit to loving. He kept coming. After all the people with their to-go plates covered in plastic wrap and decaf coffee in the Updike funeral home branded styrofoam cups had walked away, Scott kept his seat. On Mother’s day, the first day we all woke up without my big brother, Scott showed up at the front door with homemade peach ice cream for my mom.
The proper reunion - the kind with volleyball and croquet - didn’t come until much later (spoiler alert: without volleyball and croquet). Time passed painfully slow in the aftermath of this loss as we figured out what it was we were supposed to be doing now that our family had been reshaped by a deer. A deer. But months later, after I had returned to school, after Scott and I passed handwritten letters in the mail to one another each week, he took me on our first date: the Stanley-Wood family reunion at his granddad’s house on Lankford Mill Road.
His words to me in the front seat of his blue-green stick-shift Ford Contour were as precise as they were compassionate: "Mandi, this is not the family reunion you are used to. We don’t do volleyball. We do four-wheelers. And I need to let you know that you’ll meet a guy who is my uncle - and he is also my cousin. I’ll explain later.” Those were the only warnings I needed for an afternoon that turned out to be delightful because four-wheelers are fun and because everyone was wondering in the most conspicuous whisper-talk if Scott and I were an item.
We would become an item slowly over time, and we would get married. The announcement in the local paper made the most accurate typo that could be made: Switching the T and the I, the Bedford Bulletin reported that Scott and I had been untied in marriage.
But beyond all the ways marriage has untied what had been bound in me for so long, it also made Scott Stanley an official part of the Noell family reunions where my aunt would comment on how cute he was, and how kind. And it would make my name a permanent part of the type-writer produced pages in the Stanley-Wood family reunion book.
We came together when my world was coming apart, a puzzle in the waiting room our only tablecloth for the feast we didn’t know would be ours.
Photograph by Dave Elmore
This story was shared out loud for the first time in April 2021 at the fabulous Hoot & Holler, a Roanoke-based live storytelling event modeled after the Moth. Thanks to Lee Hunsaker, event organizer and story doula for the prompt, and for choosing my story for the stage.
Puzzle photo by Gabriel Crismariu, courtesy of Unsplash