“On August 4, 1986, my little sisters (ages 7 and 5) and I (10 years old) went to bed anticipating the big annual event, Watermelon Day, which our little hometown of Stanhope, Iowa, hosted each August. My dad was in the truck and headed home so we could all enjoy the day together. My dad had a semi and drove for my grandparents’ business, Davis Truck Line. He was planning on working in the office and hiring someone to drive his truck so he would be home with us instead of on the road.
We LOVED Watermelon Day. The parade route went by my grandparents’ house, and we had the best seats in town. We always had sacks full of candy after the parade, then we would head over to the park for the train, airplane, and swing rides we had grown up riding every August. We would ride the rides and play the games all day long. Our favorite was the ‘Ring Toss.’ We would come home with enough bottles of Pepsi and Mountain Dew to last weeks, little trinkets from the Duck Pond, and watermelon that tasted better that day than any other all summer long.
1986 was not the same Watermelon Day for us…I awoke to the sounds of people talking in the middle of the night. Half asleep, I pulled myself out of my room to see what was going on. I remember seeing my mom, grandparents, and a few others all there. My mom and grandparents immediately brought me back to my parents’ bedroom, and my grandpa said, ‘Your dad has been in a bad accident.’
I could tell by the looks on their faces it was bad. I muttered, ‘Did he die?’ I’m not even sure why that’s what came out, as I didn’t even know what death was at that age. ‘Yes, honey, he did,’ he responded. I was completely numb…my dad was dead? What was happening?? I remember curling up on the couch with tears on my cheeks and the worst stomachache of my entire life. I wanted to scream, I wanted to throw up, but I just sat there…NUMB!!
My sisters were still asleep, and I stayed up that entire night not knowing what to do as people filled our house when they heard the news. I really thought I was living a nightmare I would eventually wake up from…I never did wake up, it was reality. My mom, my sisters, and I had our lives flipped upside down!! We were without our dad and husband.
The months that followed were a blur…missed vacations, lots of tears, and starting a new school year. We were the little girls without a dad, and some little kids were so cruel. A few girls told one of my sisters they didn’t want to play with her because she didn’t have a dad!! I seriously don’t know how my mom did it…she is the BEST and strongest mom in the whole world as she stepped into the role of single mom at 33 all while being a grieving widow herself.
The years have been tough, but we all have had wonderful lives. My mom went on to remarry, and even though my 13-year-old bratty self definitely thought Mike was the worst man in the world, I quickly realized he wasn’t. We all love him so much, and he has been a great husband to my Mom, and our children love their goofy Grandpa Mike. I know my dad would be happy for all of us and proud of his wife, 3 girls, and 8 grandchildren.
It never really gets easier as we miss him every day, it just became our reality. Almost 35 years after his death, I had an experience that reminded me there are still really really good people out there when my dad connected me to a complete stranger. Although, I will never be able to fully describe what happened that Sunday in May, here it goes.
Wisconsin…a place I vowed to never step foot, a place that gave me anxiety just thinking about, a place full of sadness and tragedy that somehow turned into a place of peace and healing…all because of a man named Paul. Wisconsin was the place of my dad’s accident, the place where he took his last breath, the place I was completely scared of for far too long. What started as a little weekend getaway, ended with one of the most pivotal moments in all of my 45 years.
Being a farmer’s wife, May is a BUSY month. I don’t do or plan anything in May: it all revolves around getting the beans and corn planted. This May was different. Great weather allowed my hubby, Trent, to get the crops in early, and we decided to take a well-deserved weekend off. We started the first few days in Dubuque, Iowa, then headed to Galena, Illinois, on Sunday.
Little did I know, that fateful Wisconsin highway intersection was only 25 miles away. ‘Do you realize your dad’s intersection is only 25 miles away?’ Trent asked on our drive. ‘Are you kidding me?’ I responded as I was flooded with so many emotions. Could I break my vow to NEVER enter the evil state of Wisconsin? I was so close, could I really go home without seeing the place where my life changed forever? My stomach was in knots, and I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go. I needed a little time to digest how close I was to that very spot.
After lunch and a little shopping, I decided I had to do it. We got in the car, and I put directions into the Piggly Wiggly. I had decided to go for it, but I couldn’t go to the spot of his death without a red rose for my Dad!! I just so happened to have one of Davis Truck Lines’ business cards in my car, so I used part of a disposable mask to attach the card to my beautiful red rose. We made our way towards Darlington, Wisconsin.
Each mile that passed, my heart pounded a little bit harder and faster. And, then we were there…the intersection. It looked different than I imagined. It wasn’t an evil, scary place, it was just a country highway with a cheese mart. By then, I was sweating, and my heart was racing. I couldn’t believe I was there! Trent parked at the cheese mart, and we went in. He asked the lady working if she had been in the area for a while and explained this was where I lost my dad almost 35 years ago. She knew!! She remembered it, but she told us ‘Paul’ would know more, and she was going to call him.
I stood in that little shop trembling with tears in my eyes. Then came the waterworks. I was certain my heart was going to pound right out of my chest. It hit me HARD. Then, the lady handed the phone to Trent. He talked to Paul a bit, then urged me to talk to him too. Paul lived on that corner years ago, Paul was the one to call in the accident, Paul was the first one to arrive on the scene, Paul was the man who stayed with my dad and held his hand. It was Paul who was on the last page of my dad’s story.
Still in shock, we talked for a bit. I can’t recall the exact conversation, but after my shaky ‘hello,’ Paul started out by giving me his sympathy and telling me how sorry he was for my loss…34+ years later. While looking out the store’s window, he told me how my dad’s semi drove right through the trailer of the semi that ran the stop sign. He said the noise of the crash and what he saw when he went outside was etched in his brain forever and could still see it.
We talked a little more, and I kept thanking him for being there. We said goodbye and drove over to the southwest side of the intersection where Paul told us my dad’s truck had come to rest. I was standing in the spot where my dad had died. What an indescribable feeling. I placed the rose and called my mom and sisters to tell them about the surreal moment I was in. We cried together as I tried to bring them into the moment with me.
In all that was happening, I hadn’t even asked what Paul’s last name was, so we headed back to the cheese mart. Come to find out, his last name is Roelli, and this was his family’s cheese empire (started in the 1800s by his grandfather who came from Switzerland). I was blown away by all of the emotions and info I was trying to take in, but at the same time, a feeling of peace washed over me. I was okay!!! (And, we had some delicious squeaky cheese curds to take home) You can check out their award-winning cheese on Facebook.
We headed back out on the road towards home, still trying to fathom what had just happened. I texted Paul and thanked him once again for being with my Dad. He texted right back and said he wished he would have come down to meet me and wondered if I would like to come back? Ummmm…YES! Without hesitation, we turned around and headed the 35 miles back to the Roelli Cheese Haus.
We pulled up and a slender older man appeared from behind his vehicle. We got out of the car, Trent shook his hand, and I gave him a big old hug. We both cried. Paul (now 72 years old) said he thought about my dad all the time. He remembered that night well and
how my Dad had his girls’ names painted on the side of his truck.
We talked about my Dad, my family, his history with the cheese-making business, and life. I showed him pictures of my Dad so he could really know what he looked like. You could feel the relief in the air when he knew my mom, my sisters, and I were okay. We made it through this tragedy. I couldn’t even think as my mind was like a browser with 50 million tabs open, so Trent asked questions about my dad, the other driver, and the condition of the semi. Paul was very respectful, and I could tell he did not want to make me feel uncomfortable.
He is calm, he is gentle, he is kind…the exact kind of person you would have hand-picked to be with your loved one if you weren’t. He opened his car and grabbed a bag out of the backseat for me. It was 4 Mason jar mugs with the Roelli Cheese Haus logo (1 for me, 1 for my mom, and 1 for each of my sisters). It was the most perfect thoughtful gift (I love all Mason jar things since it’s my last name). We hugged again and agreed this chance meeting had healed a part of us and it was definitely a day to never forget.
So, 34 years, 9 months, and 19 days later, I have a new phone number and email saved in my phone…the man who stayed with my dad that night has a face, and that face belongs to my new friend, Paul. All of these years, I didn’t even realize how much I needed it, but somehow Trent knew. Thank you, Trent…for taking me, for knowing just what to say and do, for picking up the pieces when I fell apart, and for loving me and my Dad.
It’s now been almost 2 months since that Sunday afternoon, and I still tear up thinking about that day. I’ve been in contact with Paul several times since. We text and email. I know he was there for a reason on August 4, 1986, and we were meant to cross paths 34+ years later. It’s absolutely amazing how we were able to help each other with a little bit of closure.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Angie Mason of Duncombe, Iowa. You can follow her on Facebook. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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