on the death of Harper Lee

I just heard that Harper Lee died. As soon as I saw the headline, my first thought was, we never went to meet her.

My mom always swore we were related to Harper Lee. It’s possible it was true. My maternal grandfather, also a Lee, and the legendary author grew up a decade and sixty miles apart, in parallel tiny towns in rural south Alabama. In a time before interstate systems and online dating, I would imagine most everyone in rural areas shared the same roots. My mother, the poet, whose head was more deeply into the book she was teaching at the moment than it ever was in meals or carpool lines, often daydreamed of meeting her. “Someday we’re going to ring Harper Lee’s doorbell,” she would tell me. “We’re family! She’d let us in! We need to meet our cousin. We’re going to do it, Stephanie. Someday.”

We lived less than two hours from Monroeville. It would have been a great adventure. But there was always something else on our calendar that Saturday. Rehearsals, papers, laundry. When we did get a free day, we were all so exhausted from all the other Saturdays we never wanted to make the drive. Plus, what if she didn’t just throw open her door to every Lee from south Alabama who knocked? My mom suggested it with such certainty, but what if she was wrong about the whole thing?

Now my mom is gone, and so is Harper Lee. Today, in glory, my mother finally met her possibly-distant literary cousin. But that doesn’t bring much comfort to me. Here on Earth, I missed the whole thing. We should have made the drive.

I can add not meeting Harper Lee to my list of regrets. Another big one? Waiting to move to Colorado.

In 2003 we spent two weekends out here for a job interview. We didn’t take the job, but the area captivated us. The mountain views, the fresh arid climate, the live-and-let-live culture. This was our place. These were our people. We were in love.

But it was so far from home, and the cost of living was higher, and what if we couldn’t make it work? If it all fell apart, could we even afford to move back? So we stayed in the South. In time we had our babies, bought a home, built a life for our family. But we always daydreamed of Colorado.

Then, in January 2011, we sensed a change was on our horizon. We looked into Georgia, DC, Baltimore … but as soon as I walked out of the Denver Airport and back into that crisp, gorgeous air, I knew where our new home would be. Next stop: Colorado.

Unfortunately, we didn’t trust our gut. We went back home and listened to the voices that said, “God wouldn’t call you away from grandparents,” and, “If you’re supposed to move, why can’t you find a job?” Our house sat on the market for one full year. Every passing day mocked us. We felt trapped. We called our fear “wisdom” and our second-guessing “discernment.” And we waited for the day when we could move without taking a risk.

We remained in the cage of our own making until 2013. We were losing our souls and our marriage, it was time to do something drastic. Something every bit as foolish and gutsy as ringing the doorbell of a reclusive famous author.

So we loaded the moving van, pointed our cars west, and went for it. My husband could literally hear my voice downshift 20 miles down the road. It was the sound of relief, and the shivery glimmer of hope. I could finally breathe again.

Eight weeks later, a rock on a bike path slammed itself against the trajectory of our lives.

Over time, several have asked, “If you had known, would you still have moved to Colorado?” My answer: YES. My only regret is that we didn’t move sooner.

If I had known in 2011 I had two years left of my marriage, I would have walked away from affordable insurance and mortgage obligations. I would have called fear by its God-given name, told the naysayers to shut up, and grabbed a hold of the adventure that was always within my grasp. I don’t regret the risk. I regret the two years I spent in dysfunction and confusion instead of the clear mountain air.

In my mind, over and again I go back the foyer where I hugged my mom good-bye two days before she died. Had I known, I would have asked more questions. Like, did your father grow up in Garland or Georgiana, Alabama? Where is the draft of the other book you started? And the all important, What is the passcode on your phone? But if I could go back and have just one more day with my mom, my first question would be, “Do you want to meet Harper Lee today?”