Katie looked at me intently with big blue eyes and her face became very serious. She seemed to be trying to make up her mind about something.
“Run away with me?” she finally asked. “I know it’s crazy, but I need someone and so do you.”
I had met Katie only an hour before, so it really was a crazy offer. In some absurd way, it seemed to make sense, just for a moment. But it wasn’t a real possibility. It was more like a fantasy. Doesn’t everybody dream of running away — at some point — and leaving everything behind?
Katie had actually done it. She wasn’t a child, but rather a 32-year-old woman. And she was asking if I wanted to go with her.
Until a month ago, Katie was a school teacher in a small town near Springfield, Ill. She had gone away to college and then moved to Chicago with a boyfriend — who she planned to marry — after she graduated. When that relationship ended with angry words, she moved back home, where she started teaching middle school.
Her life had been stuck in neutral until six weeks ago — when her father died in an accident.
Katie told me she had been close to her father but she had been estranged from her mother for years. Her family had never been close, but everybody had pretended to get along. As soon as her brother and sister graduated from college, though, they left home. Her parents divorced and her mother moved away, leaving Katie with nobody but her dad.
She had been in her classroom working to get set up for the school year which was about to start when she got the call that her father had been in an accident. Shortly after she arrived at the local hospital, a chaplain met her and took her aside to break the news that her dad hadn’t survived.
The next few days were a blur, she told me. She said she felt like a zombie going through preparations for his funeral. Worst of all, her father’s death triggered a serious crisis of meaning for her. She couldn’t figure out what she was doing in life and why she was living alone in her hometown. Now that her father was gone, she realized her life had no meaning.
Late at night — on the day when her father had been buried — Katie took a lot of pills and tried to kill herself. But a family member who was still in town for the funeral found her and got her to a hospital, the same one where her father had died only days before.
She was sent to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation after her suicide attempt. About a week later, she was released, but she was still deeply depressed and felt as though she had no purpose. Her school let her take a leave of absence so she could get things straightened out and get healthy.
But Katie needed to change her life entirely. She turned in her resignation. She sold everything that she couldn’t pack into her car. And one day last week, she started driving south. Her only goal was to be somewhere warm before the weather turned cold. She didn’t want to face another cold winter.
As she got to Nashville, she had planned to take I-24 to head toward Atlanta, but on a whim, she took I-65 toward Birmingham instead. She’s been here since Friday afternoon and she’s leaving again in the morning.
I met Katie at a McDonald’s near I-20. She had stopped to eat and I was sitting there writing Sunday evening. She noticed my MacBook and we started out talking about Macs, but she was quickly telling me her life story — everything I’ve just told you but even more about unmet hopes and dreams and expectations.
She and I are a lot alike in many ways, so we hit it off quite well. She said she has realized there are so many things she’s felt and wanted all her life — and she’s never told anybody — so she’s eager to talk about everything now.
Her father’s death wasn’t the real cause of her suicide attempt, she said. That was just a trigger. She had been moving forward on autopilot for years. Her life was stuck and he was her only constant. She thought she would be stuck there taking care of him. She loved him and wanted to help, but she also felt trapped.
With him gone, it was as though the cork was pulled out of a highly pressurized bottle. Everything she had felt and repressed for years suddenly needed to come out. It was too much for someone who had repressed feelings for all those years — and it almost killed her.
The more Katie and I talked, the more we realized how many things we had in common — about things we had experienced and things we wanted. She kept saying, “You sound just like me!”
Katie was serious about asking me to come with her. Or, at least, she said she was.
“I never would have said that to a stranger two months ago,” she said. “Now, I’m not willing to lose any chance that my heart says is a good one for me to take.”
She’s not sure where she’s going, although her general direction right now is Florida. She’s thought about going somewhere in the Caribbean, which I’ve considered, too. She doesn’t really have a plan. She’s just doing whatever seems right — each and every day — until she finally finds a place and a situation where she doesn’t feel as though she’s just stuck.
Katie wants children and she seems to want the same thing in a family that I do. When she said I could run away with her and make a family with her, I pointed out that we didn’t really know each other. She laughed and replied that people who got married used to know each other far less than we do today. She said her heart told her we could be good together and she was willing to take a chance.
She might have been right. I’ll never know.
As I watched Katie drive off tonight, I knew I couldn’t really have gone with her, but part of me felt regret. I envied the fact that she was taking the risk of running away and finding a way to start over, building a life she wanted this time, instead of just accepting what happened to fall into her lap.
After she was gone, I stood out in the parking lot for several minutes just looking at the lights and the trees around me. I do want to run away. I don’t like the idea of feeling stuck. There are some ways in which I want to start over.
Mostly, though, I’m tired of traveling alone. I felt cold inside as I thought of that phrase again. Should I have asked Katie to stick around a few days or weeks? Should I have gotten to know her better? Should I have seriously considered taking a chance on her — since I don’t seem to have anyone who wants to take a chance on me?
But she’s gone now and I’m still here — still waiting for change which I haven’t been able to find.
Note: Everything about my conversation with Katie reminded me of a song by Tonio K. from about 20 years ago which is called “Come With Me.” I’ll embed it below.