I hadn’t set out to climb the Port Isabel lighthouse so why was I gripping the cold rail on its highest landing, trying to slow down my breathing so I wouldn’t pass out and tumble down the 75 iron steps? Ted was to blame. And it was getting worse. This last landing was too small for more than one person to stand on. There were two people up in the light chamber above me who needed to come down and I was blocking their way. It would be humiliating to climb back down the stairs when it was obvious I had come all this way and decided not to climb the short ladder to the chamber. “We’ll stand back against the glass so you can on climb up. Then we can climb down,” the couple said. They were waiting. In a fog, I let go of the landing railing and reached up to grab the last ladder. My strappy sandals made my feet wobble on the rungs. Pulling myself up over the lip of the chamber floor, I faced the friendly couple. They loved this lofty view of South Padre Island across the Laguna Madre. They pointed out their family five stories below on the lighthouse hill. I faked enthusiasm until they climbed back down one by one. Then I exhaled and walked quickly around the circumference of the light chamber, looking out and across but never down.
Of the 16 lighthouse structures still around, the Port Isabel Lighthouse was the only one open to the public. Built in the early 1850’s, it had been manned by both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. I walked over to the lighthouse just to get an inside view of it. My 90-year-old mother was “at work” that Tuesday at the dog resale shop on the island. I had just been let go after 36 years in Houston media and was visiting my mom for a few days to reboot. Walking around old Port Isabel was a chore for her, so I took advantage of her work schedule to drive across the Queen Isabella causeway and meander.
“It is $2.50 to climb the lighthouse and there are just two people ahead of you so you can go right up,” said a young woman sitting at a desk partially hidden by the first spiral of the stairs. I was ready with an excuse when Ted caught me unaware. “Pay the lady and get your ass up those steps.” “Can I climb in these shoes?” I asked the woman, hoping not. “Sure,” she said as she reached out for the money.
The cool concrete walls hugged the spiral stair structure. As I counted off the first few dozen stairs, I was surprisingly calm in this cocoon. “Maybe I’ve outgrown this height thing,” I thought. “No,” panic answered, “Just waiting for the halfway point, right about …now!” I went from bounding up the steps with one hand on the railing to carefully placing my foot on each step and gripping on to the support with both hands in an uncomfortable sideways position. Upward progress almost stopped as I mimicked the slow, halting way my mom handled the stairs of her beach house. When I got to that last landing, the friendly couple took over from Ted to get me up that last ladder.
I was still shaky on the way down and while walking over to the little beer garden in the shade of the lighthouse. After a glass of wine to settle down, I pulled out my phone and sent a text to Ted’s mom, Katie. “Happy Ted Tuesday. In true Ted fashion, I faced my fear of heights and climbed the Port Isabel Lighthouse by myself. I was scared to death but I did it. Grab life, face fear!”
I had not heard from Katie in many years but now we had been in regular contact since two weeks before Christmas. I got a text early that Saturday morning to call her. “Ted was killed last night,” she said when she answered my call. I did not think I’d heard her right. Ted was a recent graduate of the A&M maritime college in Galveston and was working on tugboats out of Corpus Christi. He worked one week on and one week off. He was at home in Galveston and died in a one-car accident near Jamaica beach the night before.
“I need you to break it to Molly so she can tell Clark,” said Katie. Clark was Ted’s best friend. Clark and his wife had had just had a baby and Ted was to be baby Everett’s godparent. My daughter Molly was part of this foursome that hung around together. They had reconnected when Molly returned from five years in southern California.
“Call me,” I texted Molly. She immediately called back. “Is it Earl?” Earl was our very old terrier that defies the years. There was no way to make this news any better. “No, It’s Ted Harrison. He was killed last night. Katie would like you to break it to Clark.” The silence was her brain seizing up before it had to turn in a new direction. “No Mom. No, not Ted, It can’t be Ted,” Molly was crying.
The next few days are still out of focus. A gathering happened at Katie’s house. George, a family friend from the Cleburne Cafeteria showed up and filled the small kitchen with pans of fried chicken, squash casserole, macaroni and cheese, green beans and other comfort food. After all, this was Greek gathering and there is always lots of food.
Ted’s little sister worshiped her big brother and took videos of him. Here was one of Ted screaming at Nia to “MAKE COOKIES” like piratical cookie monster. At Christmas, he had been surprised with a Yeti cooler and could not stop shouting the f-word in delight. “It’s a f—- Yeti!” he roared.
Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Montrose was filled to capacity with people up in the balconies and leaning against the walls across the back and down each side of the church. Ted’s mother, father, brother, sister and yaya all stood on the altar before the service for over two hours as we all lined up to hug them and pass by Ted in his open casket, dressed in his maritime dress whites.
That crazy Zach Galifanakis beard was gone. He still had that beard in the last photos from the night he died. Three priests presided over the ceremony. A bus took Galveston friends to the cemetery and back to the church for a reception. I had known Ted as a little boy. That day, through his friends and family I was meeting Ted the man, who lived life full out.
“Tuesdays are going to be the hardest,” Katie said when we had a moment to hug. “He’d call me each week as he shipped out or came back.”
A few days later, my son, Shane and I went to Galveston to spend some of the Christmas vacation. I was conscious of how lucky I was to have my son healthy and here with me.
Most nights, something in me triggers a period of wakefulness around 3 am. Tonight it was thinking about Katie and how hard Tuesdays would be from now on. I reached for my phone and set a recurring reminder for every Tuesday at 8a. Since then, every Tuesday, Katie and I exchange a text about what each “Ted Tuesday” holds for us. It has become a mid-week mediation on how life is to be lived, dreams acted on, and fears faced. Ted was to blame for trek to the top of the lighthouse. May he curse me with many more motivations.