Road Trip

st joseph's hospitalI had to drive 100 miles on that cold short day and already it was 3pm.

I stopped first at my local gas station where the attendant always speaks to me in such a friendly manner.

“How was that funeral you went to?” he asked.  “It was in your home town, you said.”

“The funeral was really beautiful, but it was sad seeing the changes there. I went past a hospital that they’re tearing down now. I had to drive by twice to get it through my head that it would soon be gone.” As I spoke my thoughts strayed to the times we visited my mother there when she broke her hip, and our cheery aunts and uncles kept coming with sherry and little crystal glasses to drink it from, talk about your vanished world!

“The whole building was laid open,” I told him, “like a dollhouse, only with the roof gone too. It’s hard to see change like that, you know?”

“I know,” he said. “Oh, I know!”

He did know. Of course he knew. We are all refugees from the past.

I began my long drive then, and noticed after just the first few miles that the large box I had dropped on my foot just before leaving home was still ‘with’ me. Though it hadn’t hurt much at the time, a sharp pain was now radiating up my leg and into my hip..

I saw I had no choice. I would have to use the last of the fading light to get off the highway and buy some sort of analgesic.

This I did, literally limping into the first discount drug store I passed. I grabbed some Tylenol gel caps from the ‘pain’ aisle and limped out again, heading for the fast food joint next door in search of water to wash it down.

“What can I get you?” said the young woman behind the counter. “Oh, what’s wrong?” she added, reading the look on my face.

I told her. She gave me a big cup of water, no charge, and just as I was tipping back the two capsules she stopped me.  “That’s Tylenol PM!” she cried, half a second before it had gone down my throat, thus saving untold numbers of motorists from sharing the road with a seeming narcoleptic.

I thanked her and got back on the highway.

There was traffic by then and it had begun to rain.

An hour passed. Two hours. Finally, just ten miles from my destination, I stopped to gather myself a bit and elevate my foot.

I chose the 99, a chain restaurant. I love all chain restaurants, for so many reasons: The breezy manner of the wait staff, the speediness of the  service, the way they know right away that yes, you would like some popcorn while  you’re looking over the menu and so they just bring it to you.

I ate and looked around and slowly my stress level ebbed.

And when I saw the little girl gently leading her blind grandpa by the hand to the booth their family had chosen, the stress went away completely. It went away because there,  near the end of my long day, I realized what its lesson had been: That we are not alone in this life. That we too are led, escorted in a way, both by those we love and by kindly strangers.

This all happened last week. It was a good lesson to end the year on.

the tylenol pm

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Learn Something

A weird thing, fear: it’s what we knew as children, alone in our beds, terrified that the monster beneath would jump out and eat us up. It’s what we courted as older kids, on roller coasters and in speeding cars, or at scary or violent movies.  Even as adults, fear made us feel more fully ‘alive’ in a way we didn’t often feel in our safe American lives.

We love this manufactured fear, the way it keeps real fear at bay, but tell ya what: It does nothing for sadness, in whose dark kingdom we seem to have been dwelling for this whole last decade.

There’s a great passage in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, a coming-of-age story of the legendary King Arthur, once an ordinary boy called Wart. That Wart is the rightful heir to the throne of England nobody knows, except the wise old wizard Merlin, who appears one day, with his pointy hat and his moon-and-stars cloak, to walk him toward adulthood.

Later in the story, he comes upon his young charge in a state of sadness and tells him this:

The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then: to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting… 

Me I’d like to learn  Italian, like my friend Bobbie is doing. Or Physics, since I somehow missed Physics in high school.  Or maybe embroidery which I haven’t done since I tried stitching my 5th grade teacher’s initials onto a pretty handkerchief for her and ended up sewing them tightly to the lap of my skirt. 

But I love the idea that learning focuses you outward – not inward toward your own small self, but outward, toward the intricate beauty of this world, and all those other worlds beyond it.

How many were there did Carl Sagan used to say?  “Billions?” We made fun of him but he was a cool guy who died too young and Cosmos was a really wonderful show. Remember it?