Dear Heart,
Dear Texas

By Dalton LaFerney

From left: Suzanne Bardwell, Austin Jordan, and Austin McFarland. Photos by D. Christian Allen and courtesy Jim Bardwell; illustration by Tyson Bird

At the funeral in January for my high school journalism adviser Suzanne Bardwell, a minister read letters written by her family. In his letter, Jim, Bard’s husband and partner since their teens, left us with an image of her on the back of his motorcycle. Her arms were stretched wide, Bard taking in the magnitude of her life.

The image has replayed in my head as a source of courage in these abysmal past few months of grieving. In a flicker, I see Bard, that glowing smile, and I see open road. The image transforms Bard from someone we lost to someone whose contributions overtake the sky and reach every stretch of Texas. Grief turns suddenly to appreciation of someone who put their whole soul into loving the people and places she encountered.

On Jan. 7, Bard was killed in a car crash in Longview. Her funeral was about a week later. Since then, I have talked to former classmates and teachers, and everyone agrees: We will probably never meet somebody like her again. Bard was deeply empathetic, and she tried to lift up everyone around her. Without ever having taught me in class, Bard stopped me in the hallway my junior year. She told me, “You look like a writer.” The next year, she invited me onto the journalism staff, and put me to work on newspaper and yearbook stories. It became a grind that quickly caught hold of my life. “Dear heart,” she would address us, in class or in letters, and I would feel so safe just from knowing her.

I was lucky enough to travel with Bard just before graduating in May 2013. Four classmates and I, from our class of less than 100, packed up a White Oak Independent School District-issued SUV and set out for the University of Texas for a student journalism conference. We all had photos, stories, and layouts entered in a contest, and Bard, who drove us there, wanted us to soak in as much wisdom as possible from the professionals on-site giving talks. The expanse of roadway between the Longview area and Austin has few scenic vistas, save for wildflowers in the spring. A patchwork of construction and speed trap towns await unweary drivers. For most, it’s a drive to be endured, something to get through on the way to the capital. But, much like her teaching style, the way Bard guided us through state highways and county roads provoked questions and guided us toward answers.

Life was about to change for all of us—not just us five seniors. Bard was set to retire that year to work full-time with Jim at the Gladewater Mirror, which they had just bought. We still had an unfinished yearbook hanging over our heads, so the trip felt like a break from it all. We were in no rush, so near Corsicana, we took a detour toward Dawson. Bard parked the SUV in the driveway of a ranch home on the side of Farm-to-Market Road 709. As we got out, pausing our music and stretching, the cattle pastures and surrounding acres on the property made it feel like we were in the most distant corner of the world. In adulthood, I have traveled across this country, pulled over to take in scenes of snowy mountains, redwoods, glaciers, the Pacific Ocean, webs of swamps and rivers in South Louisiana. But this single stop transcends it all. In this moment, we saw where a woman so giant to us grew up. Bard moved in this world like no other I have ever met.

Much like her teaching style, the way Bard guided us through state highways and county roads provoked questions and guided us toward answers.

She knew how to move people, but even better than that, she knew how to get people to move themselves. Bard taught, wrote, protested, read, and prayed. Her presence was a ministry. Seeing her at a game with a camera was like seeing your favorite aunt. She showed us how to learn, how to take notes, how to read like scholars. Her teaching and writing process, it seemed, was to ask questions rather than feed information. Jim told me recently that she saw the joy in life through the smallest of details, and she could have traveled to a place a dozen times but was still thrilled to see it again, the way she seemed on our trip.

Inside the ranch house, Bard introduced us to her mother, who outlived her. (Her mother died on June 12 at the age of 94.) Bard drove to check on her often, and she was likely just stopping by while we were already in the area. She gave us a tour. The home and the ranch has been in her family for five generations. When we got to her childhood bedroom, I remember being unable to turn away for a moment from a window. It struck me that Bard might have looked out this window as a girl. She might have searched for meaning here, the way my classmates and I were in those tender days before graduation. The way we search for meaning in her loss today.

As a writer and traveler, I think in moments. That is what Bard taught us. She taught us how to grab and hold on to a moment. They happen once but play out over time, replaying, reappearing, ends as well as beginnings. To start each new school year, Bard took seniors in her psychology classes on small tours across campus, to places we passed by each day. We took in the smells, the lighting, who was there with us. At the end of the year, we went on the same tour, taking it all in again, reinforcing to me that to experience a place is to breathe it in, to listen to it, to feel it.

When I retrace my path so far in life, I am taken back to the moments on the road with her. I have the confidence to pitch and write these words because of her. Whenever I want to give up, I think of her and keep going.

She saw the joy in life through the smallest of details, and she could have traveled to a place a dozen times but was still thrilled to see it again.

We eased out of Navarro County and stopped for sweets at a Collin Street Bakery and stopped to try the orange dip at her favorite restaurant growing up, the Old Mexican Inn. I can hear the breaking of tortilla chips, spoons stirring iced teas, and Bard’s laugh. When we reached Austin, we checked into our hotel. She took us across the street to the Texas Chili Parlor, where we sat at a table in a tight corner and ate, talked, and sank into the weekend.

All of us had been to Austin several times that spring. That semester was an endless shuffle between school and towns across Texas for extracurricular tournaments and games. Earlier in the season, at the state basketball tournament, I stood and goofed with her on the court of the Frank Erwin Center before the game, her joyous laugh capable of hitting the rafters. We were all tired, but Bard still made our weekend unforgettable with how much care she put into showing us around, in the details she was excited to point out. We didn’t have any competitions or events to cover. We lazed around campus, attended sessions at the Interscholastic League Press Conference, listening to journalists in old lecture halls tell us of far-away scenes. We toured the Capitol building, and with Bard it felt more significant than visits past. She gave us the space to wander and find our own routes to sessions on the pebble sidewalks through campus. We chilled by the hotel’s rooftop pool, the rotunda at eye level.

To end the weekend, our school’s administrators and Bard’s family joined us the LBJ Presidential Library for the conference’s award ceremony. Bard was named the Max R. Haddock Teacher of the Year, the highest honor the University Interscholastic League awards journalism teachers in Texas. She walked down to the front in her standard getup: blue jeans, a button up shirt, sneakers, a white ribbon holding back her hair. We wrapped her in hugs and celebrated her.

I always envisioned a return to the table with Bard,  where friends and classmates would tell her about where we’ve been, tell her thank you, hold her hand and say, “I love you.” The dream always carries me back to that ranch home. Seeing Bard take care of her mother felt like inheriting generational love—some of us, for the first time—because Bard took care of us, too.

After the ceremony, we went shopping, poked around at antiques stores, then left Austin. We had to swing through College Station to drop off one of our classmates for state tennis. The rest of us toured the campus of Texas A&M, where another classmate had been accepted. We snapped a photo beneath the Aggie Ring statue.

On the way home, I pointed our camera out the window and captured roadside scenes. Storm clouds the color of battleships over green fields escorted us until the sun started to go down. White clouds took on shades of pink, the silhouettes of towns growing darker against the sky with each one we passed. I have no memory of how I slept that night or what I dreamt about, but because of that trip—because of Bard—I will always take the long way, I will travel this world and take the winding path, and I will look out and feel tremendous love.

 

The September 2022 cover of Texas Highways: Visual Wonders


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