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Fun, Loss, Death, Love: A Life Along I-95

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I realized the other day that the river of my life has been I-95, the highway that starts in Canada and ends thousands of miles later and a couple of minutes away from where I now live in Miami.

At night, from my condo's 22nd floor window, I-95 is an endlessly moving artery, creeping drivers and macho weavers cutting it too close. I drive it all the time: from South Beach to see my sister, and to Hollywood and Ft. Lauderdale and up the coast to see friends. I take it to both Miami and Hollywood airports. I start toward my hospital in Weston using the express lane.

Long before the eight lanes and sound baffles were built, my brother and I drove with our parents from Miami to a cousin's wedding up north, in 1950, on secondary roads. I remember that we stopped at a rooming house in Georgia and the water tasted like rotten eggs. No expressways = no chain motels. Slow going, saggy beds, endless red lights: another era.

The country's expressway system was a product of President Eisenhower's vision of a roadway with no lights and sustained speeds connecting the cities of America. Much of I-95 was started in the 1950s and some southern parts weren't finished until forty years later. Today, much of it needs reworking, in a time of needed work.

When I was a senior in high school the first section in Miami opened to much fanfare, and my friend Helene Zablow with a lisp and a ponytail, 17 years old, was the first fatality on this segment of I-95, her name splashed all over the Miami Herald. How many deaths have followed in the many years since, I wonder.

Many times I've driven back and forth up the east coast, to see friends and family, and for many of those years with no seat belts, no aircon, and 50 mile speed limits. The jewel cities of Savannah and Charleston have been fun stops. I've seen South of the Border grow from a motel on the South Carolina border, to a destination with rides, restaurants and punny road signs for miles that still make me laugh.

Traffic around DC is predictable. So are the cheap motels off most exits, the monotonous pines, the exits for starchy road food and quick rests. And if you drive from Miami to New York there are usually a few accidents to rubberneck, reminding you of life's precariousness.

My first big I-95 memory: driving from Gainesville Florida to Washington with first hubby to visit Congressman Claude Pepper to present him with an award from the University of Florida. (Pepper had been a great senator, but lost a race to George Smathers, a cagey pol whom my new husband Bill worked for as a lawyer years ago.)

We often drove to Miami Beach from New York without stopping overnight, during the Christmas holidays, a happy, young family with two young sons rushing to visit eager grandparents. One time we interrupted the drive, placed our car on the autotrain in Virginia, sat in a reclining seat and emerged in Sanford Florida, near the middle of the state. I found the whole thing a bit confusing and just preferred to get into the car and drive the whole way.

I drove alone on 95 from New York to Cape Canaveral with my sons when I knew my marriage was going south, too. (It was 1980: The Americans beat the Russians in Olympic hockey during that trip.) Years later, I drove 95 to Philly from Westchester alone to visit my son at Penn.

Seven years later, divorced, I'd drive to DC from NY to meet my long-distance lover, before I moved in with him a year later. Sometimes we'd meet halfway, in Delaware. I got lots of speeding tickets on those I-95 trysts. Once I wore a fur coat and nothing underneath, and the cop probably knew it and gave me a pass.

Later, from NYC to Washington with another man I drove to the blockbuster Vermeer exhibit, a hard ticket we managed to get. I was nuts about this guy and wanted the drive to go on endlessly, and didn't mind the traffic.

I drove to work at corporations, where I taught writing workshops for 10 years along the I-95 corridor in New York and Connecticut. And in 1998 I drove my little black Miata up to New England starting on 95, to research my book on B&Bs. Driving next to the trucks was always a challenge.

In late July 2001 my second husband and I drove down I-95, full of excitement. A new car, a new life with his retirement. I had just said "we're so lucky" maybe 10 minutes before. Chaim was poring over a New Yorker. He looked upset. By the time we got into the motel in Brunswick Georgia, he had a pained look on his face. "I can't read."

I thought he had a stroke and hired an ambulance to take him to the hospital. There, the next day, the doctor told us he had a brain tumor, a glioblastoma. Chaim asked what that meant. The doctor said maybe six months to a year, just like that.

"Do we want to go north or south on 95?" I asked. "South," he said. "Ahead."

Chaim never drove again, I sped him along 95 to Miami in a blur, a syringe beside me in case he had a seizure on the way. Medical papers, flew out an open window, and we locked ourselves out of the car at a Pompano gas station and had to wait for a locksmith.

Our friends met us, off 95. When we got to the emergency room at Jackson Memorial in Miami, neither of us had food or water for 12 hours, and Chaim had an awful headache. I was numb and looked so bad that the ER aides grabbed me first and tried to put me in a wheelchair.

And there was the drive a few months later, up 95 from Westchester to the cabin on the cliff on Grand Manan island in New Brunswick, Canada. I was now alone. And then to visit my Canadian friend Valerie, in Fredericton, the start of 95, to home, at its end.

***

I'm cruising the express lane at 75 mph, Sirius playing, belted, air-conned, GPSed. I'm on 95, going to dinner with my new husband. We smile and hold hands. Miles to go, I hope, before we sleep .....

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