There we were, reaching what was supposed to be the easy part of a meandering drive from Denver to Lubbock. Late July, and we are on our way to reclaim our faithful golden retriever from sleep-away-camp at my step-daughter’s house. He’s spent the last three weeks playing with her black lab and entertaining her family by barking at the animals on tv.
I call the drive meandering because, when our son-in-law told us where to turn to take the direct route, neither of us was paying much attention. Instead, we woke up in Denver, plugged “Lubbock” into my phone, and followed the google over the river and along Ranch to Market Roads and through the woods until at last we found ourselves skirting the southern edge of Amarillo.
A straight shot down I-27 would get us to Lubbock any time now. I put my phone away, try to find a radio station that isn’t telling me to turn my life and money over to Jesus, and look up at the sky.
I wish I hadn’t. It’s that purpley-black color that always makes you think you’re about to see Aunty Em and a mooing cow fly by. We’ve been playing keep away with these clouds all through Texas, and now it looks like the clouds are going to win. Sure enough, we’ve barely merged on to the interstate when rain comes bucketing down. Even before anything goes wrong, Fred is straining to see the car in front of us, and the clouds are so thick that I wonder how we’ll ever fit two of each kind of animal into the Subaru.
Let’s stop here for a thought experiment. Pretend Mary Anderson had never invented windshield wipers. When it rains, you have to catch a crow and use your shoelaces to tie him to the windshield. Then, you roll down your window and toss handfuls of grubs or worms or kernels of corn to entice the pissed off crow to hop back and forth across your windshield, dragging his wings to clear the water.
I don’t expect I’ll win a design award, but that’s exactly what I think when the windshield wiper on my side breaks and starts flapping around like a broken wing. The near-zero visibility we’ve had since the rain started drops even further.
Now, this essay isn’t about how differently my husband and I see the world when we can’t actually see the world, or I’d explain that his response to our life and death crisis was to turn the windshield wipers off so the wiper that was flopping around like a pissed off crow wouldn’t scratch the windshield. At the time, this strikes me as a remarkably bad idea. I start praying the Memorare, certain our flimsy ark is about to go down.
In everyday situations, I wouldn’t describe Fred as calm. In a crisis, though, he’s a rock. He’s driving the car through the blinding deluge as though he’s the only one wearing swim goggles. “Ask Google to find the closest O’Reilly Auto Parts,” he says. I take a break from reminding the blessed virgin Mary that she’s never left anyone who implored her help unaided to ask Google to find me an O’Reilly’s.
Google and Mary both come through, and we finally drive out of the storm into Plainview, Texas, an aptly named town. Young Frank steps away from his computer to verify that our windshield wiper is indeed as useless as a dead crow and snaps on a replacement. $7.00 and five minutes later we’re back on the road, ready to brave the next storm.
“You can always count on O’Reilly’s,” Fred says. He sounds like a radio ad at the end of a Garrison Keillor broadcast. His words feel loaded, like one of those ordinary sentences that ends up meaning more than it meant to. I’m strangely reassured.
I have one of those moments when you realize that even after twenty-five years of living with someone, you can still learn something new, and the rest of the summer passes uneventfully, with lots of live/love and no other close encounters with leave.
Last night I read this essay out loud to Fred as I often do before I post them. “You’ve got too many different stories,” he said. “You should just let it be about the drive.”
He has saved you all from some rambling diversions in the past, so I tried to listen to his advice. I cut the part about Jerry Lewis dying and the memory about the neighborhood carnival where I dressed up as clown and sold popcorn for Jerry’s Kids. Maybe I’ll put that in some other essay. But I keep feeling like this next part belongs here, even if I can’t quite put my finger on why. (If you can’t get past it, write the problem into your work, I tell my students.)
So, summer passed and I’m back at school. The theme for our opening faculty and staff meetings this year is play. Thursday morning while people with very different jobs than mine are performing knee surgery or nailing two-by-fours together, I’m in our black box theater playing rock paper scissors with seventy other adults.
By the time the champions are crowned, the rest of us are lined up in two long chains behind them, our hands resting on each other’s shoulders, chanting the names of the last two people standing. It was another one of those accidentally meaningful/O’Reilly Auto Parts moments.
But that’s not why I don’t want to cut this part of my essay. In the next game, we’re given a notecard. We close our eyes, and the facilitator’s voice guides us on a long, long walk through a beautiful forest. At certain points she tells us to write things on our card: a favorite animal (Rusty, of course), a favorite color (that morning, it feels like yellow).
Then she tells us that we have reached an immense wall. It’s so big there is no way around or over or through it, and we’re too tired to walk back. “What do you do?” she asks. I write my answer on my card, and before long we’ve moved on to the next game. My small group has already started planning how we are going to turn our bodies into three still photos that tell a story when she interrupts us.
“By the way,” she says, “here’s what those things you wrote down mean.” It turns out it was one of those games like the ones you play at bridal showers–someone writes down people’s random comments and later reads them back to the bride as things she’ll say on her wedding night. The animal and the color we chose had something to do with how we see ourselves and how we want the world to see us. But it’s the last phrase, the one about the wall, that I can’t stop thinking about.
“That’s how you feel about dying,” she says.
If this isn’t the first time you’ve read one of my essays, you know I think a lot about that “leave” part. Usually I’m writing about death from a place of grief, or anger, or fear. At best, it feels like a design flaw. “Let’s give them unbearable beauty and the capacity for love,” a generous creator says. “Yes,”a trusted assistant chimes in, laughing, “and expiration dates!” You have to wonder how the idea even made it out of committee.
One time years ago I was telling Sr. Therapist about a dream I’d had. (“You’re still adding stories,” I can imagine Fred saying. He’s in bed, though, so I’m not listening this time.) It was terrifying. I was lying in the grass on a tiny raft when a huge storm came. The raft was tossing in wind and waves, and I was certain it was going to overturn. When drowning seemed imminent, a voice in my dream spoke, calming my fear. “It’s not a raft, it’s an island,” the voice said.
By the time I’d finished explaining the dream, Sister Therapist was beaming. “That’s your subconscious,” she told me. “It’s telling you that you are going to be ok.”
When I unfolded my card to learn what I really think about dying, I felt that same relief I felt in my dream, that same relief I felt when we pulled into the parking lot of O’Reilly’s. When I reach that insurmountable wall, the wrinkled notecard of my subconscious tells me, I’ll “rest against it, letting it support me.”
Sometimes the insight you need is right there waiting for you, in plain view.