Leaving Alabama

Delta Winds cover 2011Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


Leaving Alabama

Cara Rappuhn

My life can be broken down into two parts-the part before the accident and the part after. The accident set into motion the major changes that have occurred in my life. It has changed me. In one moment of carelessness, my life as I had come to know it was destroyed. I wasn't the one who got hurt that day, but I was the one who lost myself in the months following. Little did I know that the hardships I would face over the next three years would lead me to a much better place, and best of all, that I would come to discover myself in the process.

I grew up a Southern belle. I said y'all. I ate corn bread cooked with bacon grease, fried okra, collard greens, and veggies soaked in butter. Boiling crawfish and corn or tearing through wooded trails on a 4-wheeler in the rain were the perfect weekend activities, especially with family and friends. I liked sweet tea and baseball, Bud Light, country music, and NASCAR races. I was also a die-hard Roll Tide fan-The Iron Bowl, my favorite game of the year. In Alabama, blood runs red for the University of Alabama or it runs blue, for Auburn University; mine will always run red.

I also liked the slow pace of living in the South. There is something there that makes people laid back and in a hurry to go nowhere. I lived a short drive from the beautiful, white sandy beaches of the emerald Gulf Coast, and I loved the serenity of listening to the crashing of the waves and the begging of the seagulls. My family and I would go camping on the river and fishing all night, and I would revel in the breathtaking reflections of the rising sun in the water and the cool morning breeze against my face. I lived in the country, away from the city noises and lights, near an old plantation farmhouse with two-story wrap-around porches, magnificent pecan trees, and oaks of historic proportions. I was enthralled by the beauty of the intertwining Spanish moss and seemingly endless rows of orchards along the back-county roads. When I got married, we bought our house in a small country township with the hopes of raising our kids there, keeping the family traditions, and creating deep family roots of our own. I was living in the heart of Dixie. And if home is where the heart is, then Alabama was my home. However, what I didn't know was that sometimes fate has different plans for us, and dreams don't always come true.

While I was outside playing with my kids, I answered a phone call that would be the catalyst of life-altering change. My husband had been hurt; he was in the hospital. I remember for a brief moment I was relieved because he was still alive. However, he had extensive damage to his knee and wouldn't be able to walk normally for quite some time. After suffering from an inverted patella, torn ligaments, and more, my husband could not work for over a year. Watching him struggle was heartbreaking enough, but the worst part about the accident was the uncertainty. After he was released to go back to work, the job market was non-existent. Our region was hit first by Katrina and then by the oil spill, so he couldn't find work. I knew I would eventually have to sever ties with the familiar; I couldn't keep up with the house payments on only my income. Eventually, we decided to leave the area. I had family who lived in Stockton, so we prepared to embark on a new adventure without knowing what opportunities might lie ahead. But the thought of leaving my home was worse than words can describe.

The few weeks following the decision to move have become a blur. I quit my job and started the long process of packing up the house. What can go wrong usually will. We were caught moving in the summer heat and the thick sweltering humidity of the South. It was July, and a heat wave came through Mobile. While we were packing, the air-conditioner went out in our house. It was already a miserable task to load the truck in the one-hundred-plus temperatures, but now we had nowhere to escape. After a torturous week, we said good-bye to the only home my children had ever known. We headed to California.

To an outsider, California is almost like a separate country within America. It is one of the leaders in new innovations, and it regulates new laws with a democratic government and liberal citizens willing to adopt anything outlandish enough to muster opposition from the conservative states. California was the polar opposite of Alabama. And I was afraid. I was leaving behind everything that I knew, everything that made me who I was.

The first day of the trip was exhausting; we drove straight through the night. The next day, with Mississippi behind us and Texas not far ahead, I followed our U-Haul in a mirage of summer heat. I had a lot on my mind, and soon realized that I had missed the turn off-and the truck was on its way without me. Now lost somewhere in the middle of Louisiana, I pulled into the parking lot at a Waffle House. It was there that I panicked and called 911. The highway patrol calmed me down and talked me back to the right road, where the U-Haul was pulled over waiting for me. I was emotionally drained and ready to turn around and go back home. The trip was proving to be too much.

After several more mishaps, we finally arrived at the border of California; I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. However, it was still an entire day's drive from the border to Stockton. Among my few remaining possessions were my prized houseplants; unfortunately, these were now confiscated by the border patrol. The officer told us he feared the possibility of fire ants from Alabama moving in and taking over the Mojave. And so, we continued driving through the impossibly hot desert without them.

In Alabama we had thunderstorms almost every day. In California, there wasn't a single cloud in the sky to shield us from the intense heat of the summer sun. There was zero humidity, but the heat was more searing than I had ever thought possible. Without a working air-conditioner, I felt my skin cooking onto the bones of my arm. We could hardly wait to end our ordeal and reach our new house.

Thirty minutes from our destination, after five full days of driving with the kids, two dogs, and a cat in the car, a final catastrophe awaited us. The headlight on the U-Haul had dimmed, giving cause for the CHP to pull us into a weigh station, where the officer made us sit overnight until AAA could fix the problem. The next day when we finally pulled into the driveway of our little rental house, I knew it was time to embrace the unfamiliar surroundings-our new home.

The end of my family's traumatic trip was just the beginning of an even more challenging personal journey for me. My life had taken a drastic turn; I was a Southern Girl suddenly trying to fit in with the Valley Girls. I suffered from culture shock and personality whiplash. My accent was part of who I had always been, but it was also what tied me to the South, so it was the first thing I thought I needed to mask. When in social settings, instead of saying "ya'll," I tried to say "you guys" and "totally." But I found myself laughing each time I tried to say "hecka." Gone were the good ole days of fried chicken and cornbread, traded in for sushi and wine tastings. Plantation houses were exchanged for stucco homes, and the slow pace gave way to cars full of people hurrying to go everywhere. My beloved pecan trees were replaced by palms, my giant hurricanes by devouring earthquakes. I learned to enjoy astronomy nights in the park, art museums and classical Broadway concerts. And since I've been here, I haven't thought much about football or four-wheelers. Instead of eating deep-fried Southern foods I took charge of my health, adopted a more healthful diet, started running, and lost more than forty pounds. But this still wasn't enough; I was longing for something more. I no longer felt satisfied watching my displaced life go by, so I started taking steps to do more than just fit in; I really needed a more substantial change.

Education wasn't always important to me. From the time I was seventeen, I was a busy working mother, so I didn't think a degree was a realistic dream to have, but as I grew older I began to feel the desire to go to college. I wanted to set a better example for my children, and I wanted them to know that it was possible, in the face of adversity, to still achieve anything they wanted to with hard work and determination. Had I remained in Alabama, I don't think I would have ever adopted that dream. I probably would have remained a housewife working a dead-end job, but it was the thought of something better for my life and for my children that kept urging and pushing me forward to pursue a degree. So I enrolled in Delta College.

Unlike the circumstances that pushed me to move to California, the decision to go back to school was a deliberate one that I made for my family and for me. It was twenty years since I had graduated from high school, and although I was excited, I was also terrified. The only two classes I could get were an online English 1A and Interior Design. As a student, I had never done very well in English class, and an interior designer I was not, but I took what I could get, and I decided to do my best. I can still remember the panic I felt when a few days before class started, I received an email from my online professor to remind me of our face-to-face meetings; it wasn't an internet class after all, but a hybrid, and my presence was required. I read through all of my paperwork, and nowhere could I find where this class would meet. I emailed the professor, and he informed me that class was held in Locke 302. I had never heard of Locke before, and I wasn't sure what that even meant. I felt so unprepared. It was at that moment I was certain that college was not for me, and I thought about withdrawing. But I'm not a quitter, and again, it was the desire for something better that kept me from going through with the drop. On the first day of class, I showed up early, found the building and stopped in the stairwell for a deep breath of air so I wouldn't throw up. I didn't give up. I faced my fears that day. I was going to college, and I was on the road to something better.

I am now in my final two semesters at Delta College; I will have my degree that I have worked so hard for, but more than that I will have the satisfaction of accomplishing what I set out to do. My children are proud of me, and I am proud of myself. More important than the good grades I earned or the publication of my essay in the campus literary magazine was that I became comfortable and confident in the classroom. I shared my personal history with my classmates and made friends with other women who were facing similar circumstances, and we have helped each other along the way. Through all of the obstacles I faced, I found a way not just to "fit in" but also to flourish in the academic setting, and as I get ready to transfer, I see a completely different person in the mirror from the one I saw just three years ago. California was an unlikely place for me to find anything, much less myself, but I have realized that sometimes it takes losing everything and starting over to find what you didn't know was missing in the first place. I will always be from Alabama, and it will always be a part of who I was, but it no longer defines me or provides my identity.

This concludes my story for now, the remaining chapters not yet written-the story of how one careless mistake caused an injury that took my life from where it was to where it is now. I went through hell, and it looked like there was no way out, but I have found myself in a much better place than I ever thought possible. I am following my dreams by going to college to become anything I choose to be. The part of my life before the accident is in the past; it's the part of my life after the accident that made me stronger, and it is the following chapters that will decide what comes next. It's a journey on the road to self-discovery. It's not been without many tears, and a lot of heartache, but it has been worth the trip: leaving Alabama-and uncovering a new, improved version of me.