07 July 2008

Unrealized Nightmares...Unmerited Blessings

I went to Greenville, South Carolina last week. I left on Monday Evening, after I had studied the myriad of interstates that would carry, and possibly confuse me, between Wilmington, North Carolina and my forecast destination. It's 312 miles between here and there and my major stumbling block, the area where my eyes kept returning to, was the Interstate bypass that would (hopefully) take me around Columbia, South Carolina. That was my least favorite part of the route, at least visually on the map, because I don't do well at all when I'm on multiple lane freeways in heavy traffic. Such driving is terrorizing for me. I know that because I've had all of my most impressively horrific panic attacks while trying to bypass large metropolitan cities in both light and heavy traffic. It can be distilled in one fourletter word. Fear. Pure, unadulterated fear.

But I had a plan because we're nothing without them, right? I would leave around 6:00 PM from Wilmington the night before I would need to arrive in Greenville. Given that there were 312 miles separating me from my target, I surmised that if I left at 6ish in the evening, it would place me and my car and my terror well past rush hour and hopefully in the lightest, most manageable traffic possible.

In the hours leading up to my dreaded departure, if you had seen me that day, you might have thought I was being remanded to the gallows. That I was facing incarceration and, in a sense, I was - I was becoming imprisoned by my own over-inflated, but nevertheless paralyzing, fear.

I walked about the house slowly. I would pace from my suitcase to the dryer, with a deliberate and defeated gait, robotically depositing the clothes I had mindlessly selected to wear on the off chance I survived my journey. Just in case some blazing eighteen wheeler didn't overstep his lane and crush my car and take me out with it in a fiery ball of cataclysmic devastation. If there was even the slightest possibility I would make it unscathed to Greenville, at least I would have clothes to wear as I trained for the job that would be waiting for me should I twice defy the unfathomable odds and arrive back safely on Wednesday Night to Wilmington.

Frankly, at the time, I would have told you that my odds of winning the powerball were much more favorable than my surviving the roundtrip tour I was preparing to embark upon. My mind was playing some very Un-empowering tapes and someone (me) had tripped the switch on my mental tape player to "repeat".

I finally bid my parents what I secretly felt could possibly be a final farewell and trudged to my waiting car. I would imagine that people being taken to death row probably had a more sunny countenance than the one I secretly wore. Death row inmates face capital punishment. I, however, was staring toward the capital of South Carolina and its eight possibly lethal lanes looming in my immediate future.

I walked out of here with the weight of the world and every agonizing mile punishing my psyche, deeply entrenched in the dangerous and dark recesses of my overactive and often times inaccurate imagination.

I pulled out of the driveway, waving at my parents, who were smiling contentedly, never once realizing the deep danger that the interstate bypass of Columbia was holding in wait for their only remaining and ridiculously panic-stricken daughter. I dug deep within myself and managed a smile, almost feeling sorry for them because I didn't think they stood a chance of seeing me alive again. How sad, because two days later, on July 3rd, they would celebrate their 62nd wedding anniversary and what a bleak stain my impending doom would lend to their very special day. They were just so clueless and didn't understand the monumental obstacles that my mind had managed to manufacture.

The first few miles I had to literally fight with myself not to make a U-turn and turn my car around and run back home to my perceived safety zone. Honestly, I absolutely had to beat back the impulse as I made my way toward the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and crossed the great divide that would separate the men from the boys, and me from New Hanover County.

I hate bridges. I abhor them. I have always had a fear of steel spans. Normally, just the prospect of crossing the Cape Fear Bridge would have been enough to reduce me to a hyperventilating, sweaty-palmed, heart-palpitating and trembling mess, but given that Columbia was on the dusky horizon, I reasoned that I had bigger fish to fry and so I had to put my fear of bridges on the back burner of the stove I use to create mountains out of anthills. No one can reasonably nurture more than a couple of unreasonable phobias at a time, so my fear of bridges had to rescind it's top stop in favor of rapid-fire freeway traffic.

But before I made it over the bridge, I took a side street on my way downtown to Market Street and found myself parking where that major thoroughfare (by Wilmington standards) terminates and I parallel-parked in a spot that faced the Cape Fear River and the USS North Carolina which is moored on the Brunswick County side of the river and is one of our major tourist attractions in this town I love so much.

I sat in my car, window rolled down, watching the tourists smiling on their way to or from dinner, small historic maps in hand, pointing at this structure or that sight, completely oblivious to the terror lurking inside of the white Lincoln LS which was, I must say, expertly tucked into a tight parking spot. I saw the horse-drawn carriage amble to the right of my car, as the horses dutifully trudged their course while the tour guide recited all manner of interesting and historical facts about Wilmington.

It was just another sultry summer evening in a sleepy, southern town teeming with tourists who had probably spent most of their Monday at our area beaches and had driven downtown for a nice meal and a little southern ambiance courtesy of our moss strewn, tree-lined streets and sweeter than iced tea charm. Stupid, clueless tourists. They had no idea the fear contained in the innocuous looking automobile, lurking just beneath the surface of the tousled, wind whipped blond hair of a 48 year old woman who wished for all the world someone would tap on her window and tell her that she didn't have to cross that bridge or merge into the lanes of the freeway that was supposed to take her AROUND Columbia, South Carolina.

I sat in that car, almost frozen in fear, mapquest print-out in my lap, staring absently out the window and wishing, dreaming, that the governor would call and say it was all a mistake - I could still have the job, the salary, the medical, dental and vision benefits without having to drive those looming, doomed 312 miles to Greenville; that someone as clearly bright as me didn't require training or need to make an appearance in a town so far away and INLAND, and that I could just learn everything on the fly and forget this whole silly Greenville madness.

I waited. I sat there for at least 20 minutes knowing that no one was really going to knock on my car window and tell me that it was fine, that I didn't have to go, and that I could simply turn around and return to the safe harbor of my home, my family, my dog and my two cats and my 50 or so fish contained in five aquariums who really needed me to look after them, but oh how I wished someone would have. At the time, I would have given anything for a reprieve, a stay of interstate transit, or a simple change in plans that would allow me to stay home and not venture outside my comfort zone which extends to about ten miles in every direction from the epicenter here at 326 Nottingham Lane.

It never happened. That call never came.

I took a deep breath and knew it was time to face my fears and plow through the list of turns, merges and highways and snap out of it. I wanted to call my Dad and ask him what I always ask when I'm feeling especially shaky and scared..."Dad, do you think I can do this? Do you think I'll be OK?".

I know it sounds completely ridiculous and I always know exactly what he's going to say, but I swear I can't tell you how comforting it is to here his response when I ask him that question. He chuckles in a manner that makes me believe that's the silliest question he's ever heard before in all of his 83 years been asked. His voice is tinged with a durable confidence I hardly ever feel, as he exudes the utmost belief in me and whatever it is I'm afraid to do, whether it's boarding a flight for NYC or Manchester or Paris or sailing or about to give a talk to a recovery group or go in for a root canal or sit for a test or drive to the center of downtown Raleigh or embark on a very long drive all alone. His words always empower me. They make me believe I can do things that my mind tries to trick me into thinking that I can't possibly deal with or handle. It's amazing really, the power of hearing him say that I'll be fine, just fine, and that it won't be any trouble at all and that I will just fly through whatever is looming on my horizon without the slightest hint of a glitch.

It's so comical in one sense. How many times did I hear him express his confidence in me when I was growing up and filled with all kinds of angst over just about everything and what a difference his belief in me meant on more occasions than I can count? I guess it's because as I was growing up and navigating childhood and adolesence and dealing with so much uncertainty and fear after my sister died when I was 13, my dad and my Mom were accruing a track record of being right about 99.9% of the time and guiding me with so much love, so much devotion, wisdom, kindness and compassion.

Late Spring of 1973. That's when most of my biggest fears were born - in the days, weeks and months following the completely unexpected death of my 23 year old sister. I was thirteen at the time, which is a hard age when everything is going perfectly, but my gosh, the day following May 25, 1973, it seems as if I caught every fear and phobia imaginable. And somehow, even in the deep and horrific pain of losing their first daughter, my Mom and Dad managed to guide their second one through the scariest period of my life and to this day I have no idea how they did it.

After having two kids of my own, and understanding the depth and magnitude of love one feels for their children, it's even more inconceivable to me that they had the wisdom and capacity to steer me through what felt like hell. But they did it. They did exactly that. They never gave up on me and they never allowed me to give up on myself, through every bump, stumble and fall I've ever dealt with in life. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't find my parents' strength and the power of their love and understanding, to be a force even unto its own. They have always been my rudder, the artificial horizon by which to fix my position, to navigate when life feels so disorienting and foggy that I have to rely and depend on my instruments because the weather is such that visual flight rules do not apply.

It is, in a word, uncanny. I am, in another word, blessed.

And they were also, a few days ago, as they celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary. Justin and Stephanie joined us and my handsome, sturdy son "manned" the grill and graciously feted us with sumptuous, done to perfection steaks, baked potatoes and, for dessert, Stephanie and I snagged two big hits - Strawberry and Rhubarb pie and Dutch apple pie. It was such a great evening and a very special, intimate celebration for two exceptional folks.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, even though I didn't call my Dad on the way to Greenville for a pep talk, I just replayed one of his many encouraging "talks" in my head and, with a sturdy predictability, I could hear my father's voice in my head telling me it was really going to be JUST FINE! "Nothing to it!", I'd hear him say with a wry smile in his voice, exuding the confidence I often find myself running so short of, forgetting more often than I should, that I do come from sturdy stock and that I am stronger and more capable than I believe myself to be most days. I wish I could get those good tapes to kick in automatically without the fear taking hold, and some days I do better than others, but I guess that each time I face what I perceive as an obstacle or challenge, well, maybe something is strengthened that I'm not yet aware of and perhaps it serves a larger purpose. I don't really know why I let myself get into such a state from time to time and allow myself to become flooded with torrents of self-doubt but I guess the good news is that most times I don't allow it to paralyze me or render me immobile. There were times in the past that it used to have that power and in the past few years, I have at least managed to walk through most fears even if I was shaking just a bit so, well, that's progress, right? Yeah, it's OK to say that.

And, as you might imagine, Columbia proved to be "much ado about nothing". By the time I arrive there, it was nearly 10:30 PM, so the rush hour was long finished and put to rest. Only a nutty blond with exhorbitant fears could be found on the highway at that absurd hour and very little traffic was to be found. From Columbia to Greenville, I pretty much had the highway to myself and arrived in Greenville at around 1:30 AM. I know, I know - most rational people would be afraid to be out driving alone at such an hour - I mean - it would be reasonable to fear that the car might break down, that one might suffer a flat tire or engine trouble alongside an empty interstate in a mostly rural part of a southern state. To be afraid of those things would be prudent, rational and completely logical. For me? Those fears never really cross my mind at all. No, I'm more afraid of all of the things least likely to happen, bypassing the events that have a far better chance of causing me trouble. Go figure. If you do, let me know. I sure can't figure it out but, then again, maybe it's because I'm an Aquarian, and just a little crazy. The only physical pain to report from the trip was contained in the fingers of both of my hands, not unusual given the strength of the grip with which I held onto the steering wheel.

Happy Anniversary Mom and Dad and thank you so very much for being exactly who you are, and still taking the time to gently teach me so many things I should have figured out decades ago. Katie, Justin and I love you both so much. As Fred Rogers would say, "just for being you...".