A funny thing happened on my way home from the in-laws’.
I crossed the front yard like I normally do. I tossed my pack in the side seat like I normally do. I hopped in on the driver’s side, kicked the emergency break, fired up the ignition, corrected my wheels, and started home like I normally do. But today was different. Today, I was free.
I graduated this morning, and all the burdens that had been weighing me down–the coursework, the office politics, the last minute emergencies–all seemed suddenly small. And as I gripped the steering wheel, I exhaled and choked back an urge to cry. To tell the truth, I’ve been crying a lot lately. I cried when A— was accepted to grad school; I cried when I read my work acceptance email; and I cried when Dad escorted A— down the aisle at our wedding. I would have burst into tears then, too, if I hadn’t been listening to the radio.
Like the ending of a B-movie, Lynyrd Skynyrd started playing. Free Bird, of all things. The song startled me. It seemed almost too perfect for the moment, a sort of cheesy cosmic irony. If I had, say, been writing my life as a screenplay, and I had written ‘Skynyrd plays as the sun sets’ in a draft, I would have tossed that phrase, no, burned it, long before principal photography. Besides, when was the last time I’d heard Free Bird on the radio? Had it been months? Years? A decade?
I shifted the truck into drive and embraced the absurd serendipity. I rolled down the windows and cranked up the volume. I began to sing along, quietly at first; I didn’t want the kids in the neighborhood ogling at me, thinking I was some crazy, crooning redneck. But the longer the song dragged on, the more comfortable I felt, and the louder I crowed.
By the time I hit the county road near Skyland, I was doing my best Ronnie Van Zant. An old, red pick up pulled up next to me at the light near the gas station, and the old man inside shook his head, lipped “stupid kid” (or something like it), and turned away so he wouldn’t have to listen to me anymore. When the light turned green, I tilted my head out the window and let the wind ruffle my hair as I drove.
“I’m as free as a bird now…” I wonder if that’s how Van Zant felt when he was writing the song? Untethered, ruffled, mussing the wind through his hair. I imagine not. If you listen closely, the lyrics aren’t much different from “What’s your Name?”: a rock and roll star skirting away from last night’s lay. But for the moment there, as the sun started sinking, that line felt all-too perfect, an odd mixture of sentiment and nostalgia. Instead of crying, I laughed a little. I embraced my own silliness. For the first time in years, I felt happy.