Tuesday, May 5, 2009
All's Well That Ends Well
Author’s Note: As a literary critic, I truly appreciate tragedy. Hamlet, for instance, is a perfect play…complex, multi-layered, emotionally messy but carefully balanced, the epitome of tragic theater. As a reader, however, I prefer comedy, which really is much more fun because, while bad things often happen along the way, everything turns out fine in the end. Tragedies end with a funeral. Comedies usually end with a wedding. I know which type of play I’d rather end up in.
So when I recounted the following story to a friend last week, she caught my attention when she said, “Well, at least you got a great story out of the experience.” She’s right. What starts out with tragedy becomes comedy. Of course, the fact that this story makes me look like a total idiot is embarrassing, but that’s the price one pays for a good story.
We’ve all had days when every little thing that can go wrong does. For women, these days almost always take place when we have PMS because no-good, horrible, very bad days are as much about how we see what happens to us as what actually happens to us. When we have PMS, our brain chemistry forces us to see every single tiny bad thing that happens as part of an insidious conspiracy perpetrated by a Universe whose sole purpose for existing is to piss us off.
The Tuesday I drove back to Ohio after my grandmother’s funeral was a no-good, horrible, very bad day full of PMS and grief. Nick, Jack, and I expected to be on the road for about nine hours. As we pulled out of my mother’s driveway in Charlotte at 6:30 in the morning, the birds were singing, the azaleas were blooming, and the sun was rising. Nick immediately put a DVD into the player and got an error message. I stopped at a nearby McDonalds to buy a mocha and tried to fix the player. No joy. It was broken, and no amount of percussive maintenance would make it play.
Damn. No DVD player. Nick started to freak out but calmed when I said we would stop at a Target if we saw one and buy a new player. He had hope. We all need hope, don’t we?
I was grieving and tired, so I made a point of paying attention to my driving. I scanned my mirrors constantly, never changed lanes without checking my blind spot, kept a safe following distance, and paid attention to speed limit signs. The rain and wind started about an hour into the trip, which made me even more vigilant. I checked my map periodically and knew I needed to stay on I-77 to Charleston, West Virginia. Around Wytheville, Virginia, however, the wind and rain grew worse, and I focused all my attention on the heavy traffic around me and keeping us safe. There was no attention left over for things like directional signs or interstate exit ramps.
We kept driving and the weather improved a bit. All was well until I saw a mileage sign to Knoxville. This struck me as odd. We weren’t going west to Knoxville. We were going north to Charleston. Weren’t we?
As we passed the next highway marker, I saw we were inexplicably on I-81. Where did I-77 go? My boys really didn’t need to hear the choice words I screamed at the Universe (and myself) at that moment. How far had we come down the WRONG FREAKING HIGHWAY!??!?!
It seemed to take forever to reach the next exit where I could stop and check the atlas. FIFTY-TWO miles we’d come from Wytheville. I started to cry. Nick realized immediately that this meant longer in the car without a DVD player and started to cry, too. I couldn’t take it and did something I vowed never to do as a mother: I laid a guilt trip on my son. My beloved grandmother had died, I was sad, and how dare he add to my suffering with his whining about my lack of situational awareness that just added nearly two hours of misery to his life?
The guilt-trip worked, but I’ll never do it again. It just made me feel worse.
I saw a Kmart and decided to buy a new DVD player because I was the worst mother in the world for cussing in front of my children and guilt-tripping my firstborn son. Kmart was my beacon of hope, which just goes to show how far from good sense I had sunk. We found the electronics department and asked the employee behind the counter where the portable DVD players were. She pointed and said, “Down there. If we have any. I don’t think we do, though.”
She was right. Nick, Jack, and I stared at two completely empty shelves with nothing but labels for portable DVD players. To no one in particular, I loudly stated, “I hate Kmart.”
Aren’t you proud of me for not dropping the F-bomb? For the record, I didn’t drop that particular profanity the whole day. Way to go, me!
When we got back in the car, I started to cry. Hope had died in me while I stared at the empty shelves. My crying stopped Nick’s whining. I took a deep breath, got control of myself again, and headed back east from whence we came.
At Wytheville, or perhaps it was beyond—things got fuzzy for a while—we stopped in pouring rain at a McDonalds that advertised a play land. It turned out to be a pathetic little toddler play area. It figures. We ate lunch, the kids ran around this small, soft-shape space, making the best of the situation in a way I could not. When it was time to go, I ordered a mocha, bottled water, and two apple juice boxes. The employee put the cold drinks in a paper bag. I remember thinking this wasn’t a good idea. Pouring rain and condensation would wet the paper bag…clearly disaster lay ahead. But my brain couldn’t do more than register this inevitable chain of events. Perhaps, I thought, it will hold. It’s not far to the car.
The bag gave way in the middle of the parking lot. I think I swore again when my hot mocha slopped onto my hand. I know I cried. No one noticed because I was dripping wet after dropping the umbrella.
The boys, with full tummies and terminally bored, slept. I drove. I drove through wind and rain. I drove through freaking hail.
We made it through Charleston and eventually over the border into Ohio. It was around 3:30, and we needed gas. We exited, got gas, and tried to return to I-35 westbound. Turns out that exit has one of those weird setups where you have to drive all through town to get westbound again. I was looking for signs but never saw any directing me westbound. Instead, I got trapped in the lane for the eastbound on-ramp and had to drive five miles in the wrong direction to the next exit to turn around.
At this point, the ridiculousness of the day started to dawn on me. All I could think was that we were alive and unhurt. That was a blessing, right? It had also stopped raining. I was almost to the point of seeing how comedic the whole day had been, but not quite. Then the phone rang.
I don’t talk on the phone and drive at the same time, so I pulled to the side of the highway and returned my mother's call. It was now 4:00, past the time I’d told her we would be home, and we still had two hours to go. As I poured out some of the day’s tragic comedy into my mother’s sympathetic ear, a state patrol officer pulled up. My first thought, honestly, was “Someone cares!” I hung up the phone and smiled for the officer, who asked, “Is there a problem, ma’am?”
Don’t you love it when they call you “ma’am”?
I told him all was well, that I’d only stopped to make a call, and he thanked me for not driving and dialing. I felt so much better knowing this strong, competent uniformed officer hadn’t ignored my stopped car. He was watching over things on his beat, my angel with a badge. “I’m glad everything is okay…” he said, but was interrupted by a voice from the back seat.
“Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me.” It was Jack, my second angel of the day.
“What is it?” the officer replied, leaning down to look at the polite boy in the back seat.
“Please don’t take my mommy to jail. She’s not a bad guy. She’s a good guy.”
Oh. My. God. Comedy broke loose everywhere.
After the chuckling officer left, I started back on the road with a prayer: Lord, please let us get home safely. I’d said that prayer all day long, but somehow, I trusted now that it would be answered--that it had, in fact, been answered all day long while I was wallowing in a miserable comedy of errors.
Two hours later, we pulled into our garage. While I unloaded the car, a smiling cherub named Parker delivered a plate of brownies from my third angel of the day, Debra. I downed one morsel of chocolate deliciousness right away, finished unloading, and heated up the yummy meal George—my fourth angel—had left waiting for us. Nick and I plopped in front of the television with dinner and watched Pride and Prejudice. Nick was my fifth angel for letting me pick the only movie he watched all day. And he enjoyed it.
Thus our story ends with Jane Austin, chardonnay, grilled chicken, brownies, and at least two happy weddings.
Isn’t comedy so much better than tragedy?