Monday, July 5, 2010

Facing it

The 91-year-old widow lived by herself in a tumbledown house on a desolate country road. But she wasn't alone, not really, not as long as she could visit her husband and twin sister.

No matter they were already dead. Jean Stevens simply had their embalmed corpses dug up and stored them at her house _ in the case of her late husband, for more than a decade _ tending to the remains as best she could until police were finally tipped off last month.

Much to her dismay.

"Death is very hard for me to take," Stevens told an interviewer. --Associated Press

That which you avoid will confront you again and again, whether it's grief or love or fear of heights. That's what I'm learning. Avoidance doesn't make the emotions go away. It just makes fear stronger.

I'm also learning that the best way to conquer fear is when you have no choice. Give me the option, and I'll say, Nah, I can't do that. I don't want that. I can't deal with that. But what about when you have no options?

I stopped driving a car when I was nineteen and got into a fender-bender in the White Street parking lot in Red Bank, NJ. I had just been Christmas shopping and among my purchases was a little something for me from Jack's Music--a Ned's Atomic Dustbin CD with free t-shirt. I can space out pretty easily and as I backed out of my parking space thinking about my cool CD and tee, I saw another car behind me also backing out of his spot. I blanked for a second before placing my foot on the gas. I hit him, of course. When he came out of his car, I couldn't believe my bad luck. It was my assistant principle from Thorne.

I was sure he would recognize me. Despite my geek status in junior high or maybe because of it I had been asked to deliver a speech to my eighth grade class at our graduation. That same week my best friend Heather and I were the winners of the lip sync contest at our graduation party at the Tradewinds beach club in Sea Bright. While the pretty, popular girls phoned in their performance of The Go-Go's "Vacation" Heather and I appeared in our matching pink miniskirts and long faux pearl earrings and sang "You Keep Me Hangin' On" as if we were singing our broken hearts out thinking of all the boys we loved who never noticed us. Our dance moves were primitive--pantomime, really--but our enthusiasm was undeniable, our pain the pain of all young girls who never got to shine while they were in school. We took first place. The asst. principal congratulated us and said to me, Wow, you're everywhere. I guess he meant I was not even a dot on his graph until the last week of school.

Maybe he didn't want to embarrass me that day in the Red Bank parking lot. Or maybe he genuinely didn't remember me. How many kids does a junior high school assistant principal meet in a lifetime? He probably only remembered the bad kids, the truants and greaseballs, which seemed unfair but that's life.

It was my mother's Toyota I had been driving and when she decided to get a new car with some extra money she had just inherited, she wouldn't let me drive it. I worked part-time in a bookstore in the mall, so I had no chance of affording a car on my own. So I got rides. And eventually I moved closer to the city where a car was actually a liability.

I decided I liked being carless. It was a convenient way to excuse myself from learning how to read a map or having to take over the wheel on a long car trip or navigate roads filled with everyone's rage. There were times I missed that brief window when I did drive, and I'd blast 106.3FM (once a great alternative station when the word "alternative" actually meant something, back when Matt Pinfield was a DJ not an MTV/VH1 talking head.) But who wanted car payments when I had restaurant meals with friends, unlimited boutiques and bargains, and a student loan to pay off? I was a city girl--no car required.

Which takes us to the present. I had talked for a long time about learning to drive again, but I had no real intention of following through. It sounded like the good, responsible thing to say, but inside the thought terrified me. I feared dying in a fiery car accident because I was, say, daydreaming about ice cream cake. Or worse, I'd survive a crash but my face would melt off. I had seen a woman on TV once who had her face melted off in a car fire and I thought, if that were me I wouldn't be appearing on TV. No way. I'd probably spend the rest of my life indoors, getting fatter and fatter from all the shut-in, emotional eating and I'd eventually die of heart failure.

The first time I realized I had no choice and had to re-learn to drive was when my husband was in a bike accident. He was riding his bike to work as he always does, but this time he was going down a hill too fast and he flew off the bike and onto a grassy patch of sidewalk. Among other things he had a broken pelvis and was taken to a hospital in Newton, many towns away from me. I didn't drive so in order to get to the hospital I had to be picked up by my brother-in-law who lives AN HOUR AWAY.

What would I do if another emergency like this occurred? Could I always rely on public transportation? And what about all the car trips my husband and I take? Mike ends up doing all the driving, and I get to do all the snoozing. Yes, it's an excellent deal for me, but hardly equitable.

The first step to re-entering the driving world was renewing my expired New Jersey license and get a new one for Massachusetts. Because my license had been expired for several years, I had to take the written driver's test again. I beamed with pride when I got a perfect score. I was disappointed that my 100 wasn't noted on my new license, but still it was a confidence-booster that I knew what the penalty was for a teen with two offenses and what to do if confronted by a large animal crossing the road (try as much as possible to avoid the animal without causing a serious accident.)

But even after I had my valid license and Mike had put me on the insurance, I still wasn't driving. Maybe a spin in the country now and then, one-lane roads where a car passed about once an hour. But no more than that.

Until the night when we were driving to Vermont for the weekend and Mike, behind the wheel, suddenly doubled over in pain. We pulled into a rest stop and he turned off the ignition to take a break and wait it out. But the pain was only getting worse. He feared he had a kidney stone. He had one once before and the feeling could only be described as labor pains (except other people get a baby for their troubles but all you get is a rock.)

I had no choice but to drive us the rest of the way to the motel. Once he was able to diagnose himself and knew that no ER visit was necessary, we switched places and suddenly I was in the driver's seat. I steered white-knuckled down the dark roads to Manchester, my hands firmly at 10 and 3 o'clock. When we arrived in one piece an hour later, my anxiety slowly turned to pride. I had driven us here! I had saved our trip! That feeling was way better than dozing.

Recently I was given another test I could not avoid. Once again, we were driving back from a weekend trip when Mike's mild headache morphed into a blinding migraine. It was eleven at night and we still had a ways to go to get back to Brookline--including the stretch over the Zakim bridge and through the tunnels of Boston. I didn't want to drive. I had avoided any major highways thusfar and never had to cross a bridge. I was terrified. But what other option did we have? We had brought one of the cats with us so we couldn't exactly check into a motel for the night. Plus we both had to work in the morning. Someone had to drive us home and it wasn't going to be the person with his eyes squeezed tight, moaning.

So there I was again, a reluctant driver about to face one of my worst fears. Yet by virtue of the fact that I had no choice I suddenly felt more focused, more confident, calmer. I would get this done. I had to.

And I did. Except for that one incident when I almost crashed into a truck cutting into my lane, I drove competently, if not smoothly. I pretended I was in a dream, but not the kind where you stop paying attention because you're thinking of eating ice cream cake. The one where you aren't scared because it all seems surreal and nothing can touch you.

It's sometimes a gift when we are faced with just one choice--to move forward. Last example: If you're afraid of heights and find yourself climbing a church tower with your Swedish relatives, you can't just disappoint them and scurry down to safety like a mouse. You must move forward, forward, each step in darkness bringing you closer to your goal. Your eyes are focused and your mind suspends fear until you're at the top and finally you can exhale.

1 comment:

Jomon said...

I was struck in a similar way by that story about the widow who kept her husband's and sister's bodies in her home. We also recently had a woman in the area found dead in her home, having hoarded dozens and dozens of animals. But the real practice is turning that light of curiosity inward, and finding the places we don't want to let go either. Well done, and congratulations on the driving practice!