Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Happy birthday, Dad. Even if you probably won't read this.

On that hot July afternoon, I was fifteen years old and just beginning to sample the sweet taste of freedom that driving could provide.  I had a valid learner’s permit but limited driving experience, always in the company of a fully licensed parent.  I felt (too?) confident on the back country dirt roads in my neighborhood; I think my parents picked up on this and in their wisdom told me in no uncertain terms that I was never to drive any of the vehicles by myself, not even down the road to the neighborhood mailboxes. I listened – until my youthful hubris decided that it had had enough of silly rules.  After all, I was a good driver (!), so why were my parents stifling my youth?  One day, after a long internal debate about the best way to get to the mailboxes in the July heat, I grabbed the keys to our old, dented International, my father’s “camping” truck, and set out down the road.  My parents were both at work, and no adult accompanied me as I entered the truck. I turned the key in the ignition, rolled down the windows, and flew down that road watching as dry dirt swirled in my wake.  At fifteen, there is nothing more freeing than the wind through your hair as you drive by yourself.  And oh!  How sweet that freedom tasted!

When I finally made it to my destination, I pulled up alongside the old, rusted metal mailboxes and opened the door to our own box.  I grabbed the mail and stowed it on the seat next to me.  Looking cautiously in front of and behind me, I switched into “drive” and attempted to pull forward only to hear the ugliest sound in the world – that of metal creaking, grinding, and jerking against metal.  In my ignorance, I had pulled far too close to the mailboxes and had run the driver’s side of the vehicle into them.  I panicked and stepped on the gas harder and suddenly that same, once- sweet freedom became a dense mass in the pit of my stomach. 

When I finally disentangled the International from the row of metal mailboxes, I drove the half-mile back home as fast as the speed limit would allow, hyperventilating the entire way.  Once the vehicle was parked I hopped out of the car telling myself, “The International is a beast.  There’s probably nothing wrong.”  But, as it turned out, I was oh so wrong.  Jerking along the length of the driver’s side was a long, ugly scrape accompanied in some spots by unsightly dents.  I fought the mailboxes and the mailboxes had won.  Now I was really in a pickle.  Not only had I done something that I had been expressly forbidden to do but I had also damaged the vehicle in the process.  I was in full-on panic mode, fairly certain that my young life was about to end before it had really had much of a chance to start.

I turned to my go-to emergency contact, my best friend’s mother.  I dashed into the house and phoned Anne.  In a panicked voice, I asked if she had in her possession a blue Sharpie marker.  (Yes, that’s right…I was convinced that if I just colored in the scape with a blue Sharpie marker, my problem would disappear along with the scrape).  Using her own motherly intuition, Anne sensed that there was a deeper issue at work and she dutifully walked up the hill to my house with a Sharpie marker in tow.  Once she had arrived, the story spilled out and Anne walked around the side of the house with me to view the damage. 

I still remember Anne doing her very best not to laugh at the notion of a blue Sharpie fix as she looked at the International. Instead, she simply looked at me and said in her knowing way, “Chelsea, we can use this marker to color in the damage, but do you really think that the marker will fix this?”  I knew that Anne was right – no amount of blue Sharpie could fix the damage that my illegal jaunt had caused.  So I asked the only thing that came to my mind, “What should I do?”  She looked straight at me and said, “It will be better for you if your father hears it from you instead of finding out about this in a few days.  Trust me.”   And since even youth recognizes good advice when it is offered and with a heavy heart I spent the rest of the day stewing in my room, nervously pacing the floor and trying to calm the deepening hole that had invaded my stomach.  I practiced my carefully chosen words over and over again. Finally, when the sun had set and the house was quiet, I decided that the time was at hand.

Steeling myself for the yelling and dire punishment sure to follow, I trudged into my parents’ bedroom with my head hung low.  My father was already in bed reading a book.  He looked up as I came in, placed his finger between the pages to mark his place, and smiled at me.  He thought I had come in to give him his customary goodnight kiss and in that instant I felt so very terrible that the tears began to flow.  My father’s smile disappeared and worried creases formed in his forehead.  He patted the bed next to him and said, “Sweetie-pie, what’s wrong?”  I sat down next to him, he put his arm around me, and between wracking sobs the story took shape.

“Dad, I’m so sorry but I did a bad thing today.  I did a really, really bad thing.  I did something you told me I was never supposed to do.  I got bored and wanted to go to the mailbox but I didn’t want to walk because it was too hot and I’m a good driver.  So I drove the International to the mailbox to get the mail.  But then I ran the International into the mailboxes...and Dad…I am SOOOO sorry.”

My father didn’t say a word.  He bit his lip and thought for a moment before rising out of bed and putting on his clothes.  I followed dutifully behind him as he walked in silence to the International to survey the damage that my teenage foolishness had caused.  My father walked around the truck and paused near the driver’s side door, hands in his pockets, his face unreadable.  I was relatively sure that something very bad was going to happen to me and I waited for the yelling to start.  I was petrified.

But them something astonishing happened: my father simply turned to me, put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Well…it could be worse.  The International was never very pretty anyway.   The important thing, Chelsea, the most important thing of all, is that you were not hurt – and you didn’t hurt anyone else.  Accidents happen to everyone but the reason that you are not to drive without your mother or I present is because you are still learning how to drive safely so that you don’t hurt yourself or someone else.  It was only the mailboxes today, but it could have been a neighbor child that ran out into the street.  You could have taken a corner too fast and rolled the vehicle.  Cars are replaceable, kiddo, but people aren’t…YOU aren’t.  Understand?”

I understood perfectly.  And somehow, without yelling or screaming, without threats or grounding or loss of privileges, my father had gotten his point across to me with absolute clarity.  In that moment, I fully understood why my parents made certain rules…it had nothing to do with stifling my youth and everything to do with preserving that youth and ensuring that it would grow safely to adulthood.  My parents’ rules had everything to do with love.  I learned a lot of lessons that day, courtesy of my father.

So here’s to my Dad – the man who taught me that we are meant to learn from our mistakes so that we can do a better job the next time around, and the man who taught me that mercy and gentle words teach stronger lessons than angered denunciations.  But most importantly, here’s to the man who has always shown me, with every breath, just how much he loves me . . . and who has always treated me with care.

Happy Father’s Day (and birthday) to the best father a gal could ever hope to have.  I am so incredibly lucky.  I know you probably won’t ever see this, Dad…but I love you oh so very much and I hope that you always know that.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

To mom, on her birthday

This year, more than any other, I feel so very thankful to have my mother in my life.

When she was diagnosed with colon cancer last year, the bottom (temporarily) dropped out of my world.  After my father finished relaying the news to me over the phone, all I could do was sit on the couch and cry for the rest of the evening.  I've always been scared of losing my parents too soon (although, is there ever really a good time?), but in that moment, I was terrified because cancer is a serious thing.  People die.  My mother could die.  I know that I'm an adult and have lived on my own for awhile now...but I am still nowhere near ready to say goodbye to the amazing woman that is my mother.

I've always thought of my mother as this incredible, invincible woman.  Through the years, she was always my Super Woman, ready to come to my aid or defense at the drop of a hat.  She was the woman that worked tirelessly to provide for our family during the years when my father was in college and still managed to make it to all of my high school concerts and piano recitals.  She was the woman who drove me at breakneck speed in a winter storm for nearly 2.5 hours so that I could join my friends on the school bus (whose local departure I had missed) heading to the state Science Olympiad competition.  She is the one person who can always tell when something's wrong in my world, and when I lie and say that "everything's ok," she always calls me out on it.  She's the person who has been by my side at every major turn in my life - whether it was driving me to college, to medical school, or to residency, she's been always been there for every journey.  And though she probably doesn't know this - she's the part of moving that I love the most.  I don't enjoy the packing/unpacking, the sleeping in hotels, or eating crummy food...but I do enjoy traveling with my mother and I am always thankful that she gives up her time (when she might have better things to do) just to spend it with me.  She's the woman who has never let me settle for less than my best and the woman who has never given me less than her best.

I know she'd argue and say that she hasn't always been the best mother,  but trust me when I tell you that's a lie.  Because the best parent isn't someone who never messes up.  It's not the person who always puts a homemade meal on the table, or the one who never yells at you out of sheer frustration - the best kind of parent is the one who is there for you in all circumstances and who loves you in all circumstances, who strives to show you how important you are to them every single day.  And by those standards, I'm pretty sure that I have the best mother in the world.

So happy birthday to you, Mom.  Thanks for being a terrific parent and for always giving me better than I really deserve.  I love you.