My toes uncurl slowly under the warmth of a spotlessly white duvet. Oxygen finds its way down into my churning stomach continuing onward into my clenched calves. My shoulders gradually melt, freeing my neck for the first time in hours.
It’s been a long day.
The day began well and according to plan: write, pack, eat, hug boys, issue last-minute reminders, pick up rental car, drive to St. Paul, Minnesota. The first five list items checked off, Ricky chauffeurs me to the rental car place. More snow on the road than expected or wanted. My maternal instincts clash with Ricky’s manhood as I ask him to slow down. Once alone in my car chill seeps into every crevice while snow streaks across the highway under an overcast, lonely, Winter sky.
Bundled up in layers, I feel warm though. Emotionally strong again. Yet still a bit shaky. Or perhaps just stronger than the days leading up to this trip. You see the moment I announce to anyone–my therapist, friends, family, radome readers, God–I feel better, then I am guaranteed almost one hundred percent of a set back. And boy, did I get one after writing about my suitcase dream.
Well it took three friends to convince me to not back out of going up to seminary for a week-long intensive class. Part of an entire group of extended people supporting me on this trip. Including Ricky delaying his return to campus for a night, my niece flying in to stay with my younger son, a friend at the ready for an airport run, my tuition and books paid for by an assortment of sources, and my sons willing to triple up on their chore lists. Yet my bed seemed so much safer. With its early morning green tea and dark chocolate and computer and flow of words from my head to the screen. More enjoyable and predictable than learning about post-modern Christian mission.
Reading a sermon by the wonderful Barbara Brown Taylor*, I heard change is difficult. The blind don’t always enjoy seeing. The lame sometimes resent walking. And in my case, the grieving may feel internal emotional collapse safer than living. I identified with the blind man of Mark 10:46-52, one of the many Jesus restored from separation to life. Joyous in my healing as this man was. Yet fearful in my unknown future.
Clasping my healing more than clutching my fear, I drove Northwest through Iowa. Winter weather, evident across my adopted home state, not such a big deal. But also not fully comfortable either. Slower speed for sure because as the weather experts like to say the day was one of “normal winter driving conditions.” Which out here means blowing snow, patches of ice, packed snow on the road, and often only one open lane. After a few hours of highway driving I was grateful to finally reach the interstate with its state troopers and salt trucks and rest areas.
The interstate’s pavement almost immediately caused me to maintain my slower speed. It’s wet surface cautioning us travelers like an electronic billboard. Pre-treatment, salt, and sand no longer evident. Washed away by wind, tires, and vehicle spray.
The touch of the tires to pavement felt odd as my car wiggled in a wind bent on mopping the prairie clean. Forcing me to right the tires again and again and again. Before I could slow down even more the treads lost their grip. The car skidded this way and that. My hands tightened on the wheel fighting reality for control. Finally I gave into the pull of the ice. The other lane of parallel traffic not a safe option. My car headed for the shoulder. Landing me a half-mile south of exit 197 on northbound I-35. Facing the large, interstate green sign announcing the upcoming exit to Mason City, Iowa. Into a deep ditch. Next to acres of dormant farm fields. Into a foot of snow, the top layer blowing hard and steady. Below zero, wind chill factor weather surrounding me. Tires spinning with the whine of a leashed and whimpering dog. Too jammed into the snow to rock the car. Stuck now. Gasping for air. Tears freezing on my cheeks.
A black pick-up truck pulled over almost immediately just ahead of me. Sat there, idling. Hazards flashing. Finally backing up just above me on the shoulder. A man got out. Oh crap, I thought, Friend? Possibly not.
He approached the car. My window came done, the startling cold jolting me out of my shock. Tear-filled words spewed out of my mouth uncontrollably. Stuff like, I can’t die. I’m the only parent now. My husband died seventeen months ago. I have a child still at home. I’m going to be a pastor if I ever get to seminary. My words covering my other truths: I’m scared. I’m overwhelmed. I want to hide. Run home.
Unruffled, my stranger nodded reminding me of Tony’s calm in the face of my many messes. His clear thinking when mine muddled with fear or fatigue. His voice at the other end of the wireless waves. There for me.
Terry from a small town nearby tells me he’s calling a tow and the trooper. Taking charge because obviously I am not in a good space. Needing help, reassurance, and hope, he steps into my glaring vacancy. I allow it.
He trudges back up the ditch to his truck. I call the car rental company. Give up because the wait is forever. Call my friend, already at seminary, who tells me to call 911. Reminding me I don’t know this guy. So I do. Talk to Nancy who thinks my car has been called in but will check and call me back. She does, reporting Frank’s Towing is on its way. By this time I’m cold, tired, hungry, and lonely. So I plod, sinking deep into the snow with every step, up the shoulder to Terry’s car and get in. “What towing company did you call?”
“Frank’s,” he replies.
“Yah, that’s what 911 said,” I say.
Then we “shoot the breeze” as people do in these parts. We look like we could be related but he doesn’t know his ancestry. He’s Baptist. An NIV Bible sits on his dashboard. Four kids. A wife who teaches special ed. Does something in finance. “I get the Gospel reason why you are sitting here,” I eventually say, “But don’t you have a job or someplace to be?” He’s off today he tells me since its MLK day.
The trooper shows up. Checks on us. Leaves. Frank’s arrives and does their stuff. Terry oversees the work telling me there’s no need for me to be out in the cold. He then follows me to Frank’s shop in Hanlontown, Iowa. Right on Iowa 9 a few minutes from the interstate. Snow blowing steady through the surrounding frozen fields and over the road like swirling stars.
The car isn’t running well. Bumped along the entire five-minute drive. Frank, who I find out isn’t Frank, thinks the snow needs to be cleaned off from underneath the chassis. I wander into the waiting area seeking warmth. The resident dog kisses me. The owner’s wife says, “You’re not pissed as hell! You’re just all smiles.”
I am smiling at this point. I am not hurt. My immediate needs are outsourced to others. Responsibility resting elsewhere while I recuperate for the rest of my journey.
The wind roars hard outside. Winter light wanes a bit. Inside the shop however life bubbles creating a coziness of sorts. Complete now with a snoozing dog. Terry and Frank’s wife share where they live in this neck of the woods by who used to live on their property. Relationships defined by people but also by land out here. Terry of course seems to know the former owners of every acre. The northern Iowa rural parlance batting about the place wraps me in memories of my own kin now mostly gone.
Three mechanics scrape off a lot of snow from underneath my car. They figure out the all-wheel drive is not engaged which explains a lot. Scares me further in an after-the-event way. “After-nerves” I used to call these feelings in my previous performing life. Then they continue to fuss with the car filling it up with windshield wiper fluid, explaining my all-wheel drive system to me, offering to back the car out, and then sending me on my way. Meanwhile the rental car company assures me over the phone they will pay for the tow. Eventually they decide to not charge me for the car.
The twenty-eight mile drive from Frank’s to the gas station right off the interstate at Albert Lea, Minnesota is dicey. Dusk further inhibits visibility as the wind blows harder sending more and more snow across the lanes and cars into the ditch. The truck drivers loading up on snacks at the gas station say its bad and will only get worse with night fall. Men and women, years on the road showing in their wrinkled skin and missing teeth, share their hard truth which I accept. If I were you, Ma’am, I’d find a hotel room for the night.
The hotel down the way has a room. The manager says, “You’ve been here before. I remember you.” As if January retreats in Albert Lea, Minnesota are now part of my year. One year ago, still a complete mess from Tony’s death, I holed up here while facing similar weather. Alone and afraid.
I unload slowly. The cold, wind, and my haphazard packing make the process difficult. Eventually I settle in. Eat, finally eliminating some of my shaking. Call the boys carefully avoiding the truth of my day. Crawl into bed. Write because it’s the only thing I know how to do when things get really bad.
And today was bad. Could have been worse. If I hide in denial, my body reminds me of this truth as it contracts. Balling my insides up. Squeezing my stomach up through my esophagus landing in my throat once again.
Yet the emotions bubbling up through my heart into strings of words embrace not fear and tragedy, but goodness. For a few hours in this divisive world we now all inhabit, it did not matter who we voted for or which version of the Bible we read or even if we all believe in God or what level of education we obtained or where we are heading and why. What mattered was a bunch of people willingly helped me, a stranger in their midst. A vulnerable, sobbing, scared, middle-aged widow woman shaking with adrenalin again. Wondering why the hell she ever thought going to Minnesota in January was a good idea. Or attend seminary. Or do anything outside of her seemingly safe, small box of life. Let alone provocatively become a pastor!
I cry into my pillow for a good two hours before sleep finds me. Wordless emotions flow out finding a warm nest in my rented bedding. Sleep, when it comes, is fitful and intermittent. I wake every few hours to the rumble of diesel engines left to run in neutral through the freezing night. Their drumbeat piercing the air keeping company with my heart.
In the morning, we the stranded stand at the lobby windows wondering what to do. I wait. Watch. Wonder. Pray. But eventually, I get back in the car. Drive like a granny, slow and shaky. My chest clenching, welling up for a grand and explosive anxiety attack. I tell the universe all I really need right now are dry roads, safety, and my frozen finger tips to warm up.
My requests granted, I arrive at seminary safe and somewhat sound. Finish out my week as planned. Even have some time with my widowed, pastor Aunt whose presence alone reminds me I can complete what I begin here. On Saturday, after driving on wonderfully dry roads, Ricky picks me up at the rental car place and once home sweeps out the garage of the accumulated winter grit. Paul tells me of all the chores he did and all the project ideas he’s had in my absence. And at some point, I realize how many people in small and large actions it took for me to be gone six days. Creating a chain of seemingly small moments, one not holding me in place, tethering me to my past and to my fears. But an emotional chain forming a kind of human train. Connecting me to our home yet sending me forward and out into the world.
“Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well...”
Mark 10: 46-52 (NRSV)
*Taylor, Barbara Brown. “The Courage to See” in Mixed Blessings.
Photos courtesy of Pixabay.