Chapter 2 - Lessons from the Road
I thought of my late brother tonight as I drove to a work assignment, someplace out where it was cold and barren but for some emergency vehicles waiting for me. I no longer live out West, but with my husband in a tidy little bungalow closer to the
, a place where weather can be just as treacherous. We’re newlyweds, my getting the courage to remarry after twenty years on my own, with an introduction by friends and a bit of help from a big black dog. But that is its own story. Windy City
When the visibility is down around a quarter of a mile, that truck in front of me seems no larger than a spool of thread until its brake lights come on, and then it looks enormous. With almost a foot of snow, it looks so peaceful out there, everything blanketed in white, as innocent and smooth as the surface of so much cream. But it’s not a good day for travel; hundreds of flights canceled, probably thousands when all is said and done. Don’t drive if you don’t have to, the radio warns, as under the hood the engine rumbles with threat and promise both.
Allen, being my only sibling, had taught me how to drive; but what I remember most was his teaching me how to drive in the snow out in the West where we grew up, the two of us and our parents. We’d take the little VW Bug I had over to the empty high school parking lot where there were no people or light poles. There I learned all about braking, sliding, skidding, and the physics of stopping with a stalemate of snow and rubber. He’d teach me to recognize a skid, how to immediately pick out a distant visual target and keep your eyes focused on that target, while I steered out of it as he issued commands to keep me pointed in the right direction like a border collie directs cattle—his tone fast and quick and light, words darting in and out of my field of vision.
As I relaxed into well-practiced maneuvers, I simply listened to him talk; about things that angered him, things he wished he could change as he got older, what was right with the world, and what he could to do preserve those things. And I quietly listened, there amidst snow flying as if from a blower and donuts formed of chewed rubber, circles as identical and monotonous as milestones.
I put his teachings to test on hill and valley, letting that little car run like it was a horse, leaning forward with a yell as we got into fourth gear as if by doing so I could somehow outpace it as we both fled the sheer inertia of Earth. That car and my spirit ran free of the fence lines, free of themselves, racing with a quality of movement in our motion totally separate from the imaginary pounding of hooves or the whoop of joy as I discovered flight in four-wheeled form. I put mile after mile on that car, the land stretching out until only darkness stopped her, the heavy scent of pines lying across the road for my trusty steed to disperse as if the scent were tangled skeins of smoke.
I also knew when to rein it in, slowing it down on slippery turns, downshifting through those sharp corners that are judgment and sentence and execution. I knew to stay behind the clusters of bright shiny cars, artificial flowers to which the restless bees of the law would be drawn. I also knew when to drive away, coasting out of a driveway when I arrived at a high school crush’s to find him with someone else—that long slow tearing that leaves no scar of tire, only an internal lament that is the rending of raw silk.
Those lessons saved me more than once, like when the car slid toward an embankment late one night, that dark space where one’s shadow waits for your death, only to recover and continue on. You’ve likely been there as well. It happens so fast: one minute you’re staring bored at the speedometer, and the next you’re snatched out of your lane in a torrent of rubber and refinanced steel, other vehicles scattering like rabbits suddenly looking for their warren.
When that happens you may not even know the cause--speed, black ice, or the force of Mother Nature that's as distant to indictment as God. All you know is that for a moment your useless hands are clasped tight to a useless steering wheel, and by only muscle memory you try and keep the pointy end forward, the headlights revealing not your safety but the now-empty road’s abiding denial. When you finally stop all you can hear is your heart and the tick of a watch, that curved turmoil of faltering light and shadow in mathematical miniature reminding you how close you came to running out of time.
Such moments are the reason my last little car was traded in on a truck, though in city traffic a truck would be about as maneuverable as a dirigible. But I don’t mind. I know about weather and idiot drivers, and I also know about fate. Because fate waits, needing neither patience nor appetite—for yesterday, today, and tomorrow are its own. For fate I’ll arm myself, as I look down on a little Smart car scooting along the slick road between semis like a lone circus peanut among a herd of stampeding elephants.
I come to a halt at a rest stop. I get out, stomach in knots, regretting downing the salmon oil supplement with my vitamins and a glass of milk on an otherwise empty stomach. As I walk through the trees an unladylike belch sneaks out, fragrant with salmon—and I can only think to myself: I’ve survived the drive, now I’m going to get eaten by a bear in a rest stop in the middle of nowhere.
But I make it back to the vehicle with some animal crackers from a vending machine, none the worse for wear, hoping I can make it through the night without running off the road, wishing I had Allen with me for company.
I hear his voice in my head on that drive, echoes of the phone calls we made over the years. Sometimes he just wanted to vent a bit—not about the particulars of his military work, which he would never discuss—but simply other things he’d gone through. Our Mom’s death to cancer when we were barely out of school; a fire that took his home; a bitter divorce. But I’d let him talk without interruption. For one thing he taught me other than slips and skids: that there are things we should never stop refusing to accept. Be it injustice and dishonor and outrage, not for cash for a better car, not for accolades, not for anything. There are things one must continue to be outraged over, to fight for, hands firmly on the wheel of where you want your life to go. His words are in my ears to this day: “You will have regrets, but never let yourself be shamed.”
So many words of his as I drive along, words of not just wheels, but commitment to something bigger than both of us. They are words that got me to change course when I lost direction, words that helped me as well to take on a mantle of duty I never regretted even as I was forced to put it down; words to live that last life that I left behind. Now, years later, I have taken up that duty again, with his words—words that like a long climb up a rocky road were stepping stones of atonement. All of them words I’ll remember long after he is gone, words that I’ve handled so long the edges are worn smooth; words that will keep me alive.
“Focus on the target, you can do this. . .”