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Evenings with Bill Paxton

It was the first time we watched “Twister” that I think my little heart knew you’d get sucked into a tornado eventually. Not actually. But I could hear something rumbling in the distance – the familiar sound of a locomotive that cannot be stopped.

I did not know that, occasionally, that’s what time sounds like passing.

We were 38 and 12. We arrived at the video store to grab the last copy of the previous summer’s blockbuster. Except it wasn’t a Blockbuster, but rather one of those mom-and-pop video stores. It had a separate room for the porn and smelled vaguely of burnt skin and tanning lotion. When we got home, Mom made that caramel popcorn – the kind with the silver package of real caramel. I can’t find it in the grocery store these days and I don’t know why. Probably caused cancer or something.

The opening scene was a catastrophe, thanks in part to a young, not-the-Helen-Hunt-version of Jo and her tiny dog, Toby. A monster, F5 tornado chases her family down into what has to be the most rickety-ass storm cellar ever. It was the start of the movie, so I knew someone had to survive this terrible scene. But I was raised on early 90s Disney, so I rather suspected the dad was going to get it. Disney trains your brain in that dark way.

Cause perhaps more traumatizing than watching your dad’s mangey brother murder him, wouldn’t it be horrifying to watch your tall, skinny father as he made a futile attempt to hold a latch closed? To watch him grimace and struggle, and to stand there helplessly as the twister yanks the entire door – with your dad – off the hinges and into the sky? That would be awful. I don’t know. At least with Scar and Mufasa, Simba has a shot at vengeance later. There can be no vengeance against acts of God.

We were both squirming because Jo’s mom walked painfully slow, with a 50% urgency that belied the monster twister about to gobble her and her kid right up. It made your butthole clench as you sensed the tornado getting closer. Also because we cannot stand slow walkers, you and I. We would regularly serpentine past old, slow-walking ladies in the Conway Walmart. The memory of it tastes like a Coca-Cola slush. It was an old Walmart that had the snack bar at the front and no groceries, and if you and I were there, we raced through aisles and around meandering schleps with a sense of intention. We can’t stand a slow walker.

You leaned over.

“Maybe he shoulda grabbed the daughter, cause his wife isn’t gonna be in a rush anytime soon,” you murmured sarcastically, gesturing with your “airhead” face where your eyes roll all over like little blue-green marbles. We laughed cause you said what I was already thinking.

They finally made it to the shelter. The door closed right as the tornado arrived, but it didn’t matter because Jo’s dad – bless his heart – didn’t understand the basics of physics and decided to hold the door closed. Amidst seismic shaking and horrible noise, the tornado sucked the door off the hinges with Jo’s dad still clinging to the handle.

You leaned over again.

“See, if he’d just have gotten back to the back wall of the shelter, he’d have made it. That’s why you don’t stand near a door or window during a tornado, you get down and in a central room or underground space,” you instructed dutifully. I felt ready for whatever tornado was coming. Conway didn’t have many tornados, but it felt like useful information nonetheless.

I toyed with the idea of becoming a storm chaser before I realized how much math is involved.

Over the years, I grew up and you grew older and anytime we were together and “Twister” was on, the rule was that we must watch it. This was also true for “Forrest Gump,” but we love to “Comfort Watch” a movie for the 50th time, you and I. It’s partially for the campy entertainment value and partially to see family members roll their eyes. Bonus: I can nail the Forrest Gump trivia on any episode of Jeopardy or group table at Bubba Gump Shrimp and I have you to thank for that.

So we have watched Twister quite a few times and, over the years, it infiltrated our communication.

“Cows!” you’d yell during big storms on the lake. You’d bound out of the house and down the dock, always at the apex of the storm. This ensured mom’s maximum annoyance and became a predictable rhythm I could look forward to during summer storms.

“I wanna see it!” I’d yell maniacally as my husband warned me about lightning striking just down the creek. I should add: this is usually when you’d be on the end of the dock retying knots from the boat. You danced with lightning more than a few times.

“You better run!” I’d warn like Aunt Meg as someone heads out the door late. We’re both habitually running, habitually late. Bless her heart, Mom hardly ever said a word when we were late comers to school (always school, cause school schmool, you’d sometimes tisk). We both lucked out in that way. Now, my husband dutifully, kindly tolerates my time blindness.

Bless his heart, too.

And bless Bill Paxton’s heart. It gives out six years before yours and I feel silly now that I was shocked. I knew nothing then about the little tornadoes that chase us all. We cannot even hear them sometimes until they’re bearing down on us like a freight train.

Your tornado pops up on the radar one cold January day when we are 63 and 36. For two and a half years, you run and run – carrying us all. And unlike little Jo, we’re all blissfully unaware just how close the beast is. Before I know it, I realize that when you call or text, you’re saying “Hurry, hurry, RUN.” The silence is a debris field that peppers the space between us while sipping coffee on the porch when I visit. One day, you stop walking out to wave goodbye when I leave, because it is too much for your broken body. It gets quieter and quieter until we are in the cone of silence. I think that’s what Phillip Seymour Hoffman (also dead) says. Or maybe some other guy.

At the hospital, you look over at me as I work on my laptop and check your O2 levels. The numbers chill my soul. 57. 71. 82. 63. I glare at the monitor, occasionally breaking the stare down to glance at the pulmonologist giving us options to alleviate the pressure around your lungs.

You’ve stopped taking life seriously because you know you have days. You’re just not telling the rest of us that.

“Don’t I just look fabulous today?” you say, blue-green marbles rolling all over again, hands flopping around sarcastically.

“Yes, like death warmed over.” We laugh, because I said what you were thinking. You are gone five days later. I feel like an asshole because I thought we had more time when I made that joke, and it actually wasn’t a joke, and we didn’t have any time at all. People always need more time to climb in the bunker, you know.

Cancer is a rumble in the distance, the F5 demon that hits other peoples’ houses.

“You’ve never seen it miss this house and miss that house and come after you,” Jo screams at Bill Paxton.

Oh, but now I’ve seen it.

Now I’ve stood there, pulling my inner child against the back wall of the cellar, just far enough away that I felt none of the pain. I felt the whoosh of God as he pulled you up into heaven, and what’s more, I stayed put. I didn’t try to chase you, only to have my poor mother pull me back.

I let the twister have you. I let God take you and I didn’t chase you. You didn’t warn me how hard that would be.

The dust settles. All the flowers die and the cards get crumpled. The casseroles spoil and the days turn into months. Influencers on TikTok hawk anti-cancer supplements that combat free radicals. Sometimes they prescribe a strict regimen of intermittent fasting and keto to ward off the dreaded “c word.”

No, Dad, not that one.

On a Saturday afternoon, my body aches and my eyes flutter with sleepiness, so I’m thumbing through channels. Perhaps I could work out like the influencers say. But “Twister,” it advertises, is available as a “Last Chance” option before it’s off to another app or platform.

“Last Chance” is what decides it for me. So I’m watching Bill Paxton again as the evening rolls around, remembering how you totally called it in the final scene.

“They should find something anchored deep in the ground and hold on for dear life,” you muttered again between mouthfuls of drippy caramel popcorn. I thought you were a genius when that’s exactly what they did and – oh my God – it worked.

Maybe the caramel popcorn does cause cancer. I’m honestly not sure I care anymore.

“It’s already here,” Bill Paxton says. Your cancer was hiding for years before it was finally revealed. I think about all the times you could run 7 minute miles and how you’d maintain roughly the same weight you were at when you left West Point and I scoff at all of it. The Greens Powder Whores make me laugh these days. Who do these damn influencers think they’re fooling? The storm always gets you, eventually.

One day, my storm will arrive, too. I rather expect you’ll roll in like Bill Paxton on that day.

We’ll fly past the cows and the debris and go off to eat our popcorn and catch up on all the stuff I got done while you were off doing whatever it is you do now. And we won’t have to have any silly platitudes or momentous speeches. There will be no need to anchor our souls here any longer.

“I’ve got some folks I need you to meet,” you’ll say.

“Hold on.”

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