I Have a Rendezvous with Death

When I was in seventh grade my mother and I moved. It wasn’t a huge move; just several blocks away. We did the big furniture moving two days before. I was thirteen. The past year I’d been bullied everyday at school. If it wasn’t boys saying how ugly I was, mean girls joined in. I didn’t feel like I was a part of anything. Death haunted me that year. Karen Ann Quinlan several months before. My dog died after being hit by a car. Samantha Smith the little girl who wrote to Yuri Andropov about her concerns of nuclear war died in a plane crash. One of my favorite characters in Guiding Light just died. Everything felt dark. What I didn’t know was something darker was going to take place.

It was Christmastime, so we didn’t have a chance to get a tree or decorate our new place. After we cleaned our old house, Mom took me to the mall. It was two days before Christmas. I visited my favorite bookstores. Back then I was reading the President’s Daughter series by Ellen Emerson White, about a girl named Meg whose mother became president. The first book was great, and I was in the middle of the second when Meg and her mother get into a stupid fight, then Meg goes to school. In class, she is called out to be told that her mother was shot. I remember reading it wanting to know what happened next, but it also scared me. Mothers shouldn’t die. Especially mothers in their forties. That was a rule, wasn’t it? If it wasn’t a rule, it should be a rule.

We walked around the mall. Our mall was called Sunvalley, near where Pleasant Hill ended and Concord began. It was the same decorations every year; open wrapped boxes with lights spilling out of them. Santa was there sitting by Macy’s. Dads were sitting in the smoking area. The piano store was playing Christmas Carols. We made a point of looking at the puppies and kittens at the pet store. We went upstairs and walked past Frederick’s of Hollywood, Leed’s Shoes, and the Sun Valley Information booth. Its top looked like a yellow striped candy. Nearby was a mural of several flowers painted in yellow and red.

I remember it was busy but wasn’t crazy. Going to the mall was a salve. I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to move during Christmas. It had to be done, but I still wasn’t happy about it. My mother was trying to make me happy. Visiting the mall was a treat. We headed back to our new place, singing Christmas carols badly.

Half an hour after we got back, I was taking a bath. It must’ve been around nine. There was a knock on the door. Mom opened the door. She later told me he looked relieved. “What’s the matter with your phone?” he asked. From the bathroom he sounded anxious.

“It hasn’t been hooked up yet. What’s going on? Is Dad all right?”

I felt a chill go through me. Okay, not only moms can’t die but grandfathers can’t die as well. No, I told myself. Granddad is super healthy. He was seventy years old and walked the Lafayette reservoir every other day. He was fine, I knew he was fine. A good thing about moving was we were five minutes away from my grandfather lived with his new wife. Her son and daughter in law helped us move that weekend.

“Dad’s fine. I called him before I came. There was a plane crash at the mall.”

“What? But we were just there!”

“You didn’t see it on the news?”

“No, the cable hasn’t been set up.”

We found out later it happened minutes after we left. One witness told KGO TV at first she thought it was a light show. Then the white bulbs of the chandeliers started exploding. A thick smoke enveloped the mall. We later read in the Contra Costa Times a man named Jerry Graham took off from nearby Buchanan Field. It was a foggy night, typical for the Bay Area in December. The plane crashed right near the Information Booth in front of Macy’s. Seventy-nine people were injured on the ground. Seven people died. On the front page was a plane on the roof. It was dangling there, like it was going to fall off any moment.

My aunt and cousin went to Sunvalley for last minute gifts, but were told to go back by the fire department. It was the days before cell phones, so my aunt came home, tried to call us but the phone wasn’t hooked up, hence my uncle coming to see us. When the television was hooked up, I watched the news. We only had thirteen channels, and Sunvalley was on all the channels. It felt so odd. This type of thing happened elsewhere. Not in my backyard. A week later, Rick Nelson was killed in a plane crash. Nothing felt safe. Not flying, not going to the mall, nothing.

I didn’t know anyone who died. Teachers tried to talk to us about it when we came back to school, but it felt very distant. Months later in my cooking class we had to make cakes. One wanted to do one that looked like a mall, with a plane on top of one of the stores. Our teacher told them no. I bet she was thinking “No way in hell.”

For a long time I couldn’t shake that darkness, the haunting of death. When did it go away? It eventually did. Of course I did wonder what if we stayed longer? What if we were there when it happened? What if something happened to one of us? It didn’t. Eventually the mall was renovated. Gone was the chandeliers and the yellow striped Information booth. It didn’t feel like my mall anymore. It was someone else’s. Not mine.

I Have a Rendezvous with Death

by Alan Seeger

I have a rendezvous with Death
 At some disputed barricade,
 When Spring comes back with rustling shade
 And apple-blossoms fill the air — 
 I have a rendezvous with Death When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
 And lead me into his dark land
 And close my eyes and quench my breath — 
 It may be I shall pass him still. I have a rendezvous with Death
 On some scarred slope of battered hill,
 When Spring comes round again this year
 And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ‘twere better to be deep Pillowed in silk and scented down,
 Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
 Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
 Where hushed awakenings are dear…
 But I’ve a rendezvous with Death At midnight in some flaming town,
 When Spring trips north again this year,
 And I to my pledged word am true,
 I shall not fail that rendezvous.


Originally published at jenniferkathleen.com.