So there I am, in the cockpit of my tiny all-manual-in-every-way silver Saturn. It’s 12 years ago, nearly exactly, and I’m driving because at this point (a few months into our relationship) Joey does not know how to operate a stick shift.
(He would later go on to become really good at it. I’d teach him to breathe his way through the gears somewhere in rush hour traffic between Seattle and Vancouver, and this lesson would be one more nail in the coffin when it came to me as someone who drives. Don’t get me wrong. I drive. I’m a good driver. But I’ve been in accidents, and I’ve lost people I love in cars, and I’ve even been hit by lightening driving home from work. The driver’s seat is where I put my fears.)
But on this day, I’m a slightly more confident driver than I am now. I’m newly in love, confident enough to take my eyes off the road to look across the car at this person who surprises and confuses me. He’s made lots of mix tapes and we sing. We’re on the highway that eventually leads into Portland, Oregon, and the Columbia river stretches along just to our right, so close that there’s no shoulder. The road is low, and there’s some illusion of the land that makes it feel like it’s lower than the river itself. It begins to rain, not the kind of rain that the Pacific Northwest usually wears, but a thick pour of heavy buckets. The road fills, the river seems like it will overflow, and I slow down, peering out of the cockpit in an attempt to keep track of the road. And then, for what seems like hours, hundreds of gigantic semis pass my slow and tiny car, each driving along without a care in the world. With each truck, a tidal wave splashes up on windowsill, and I do the things I still do when I am afraid. My hands shake. My stomach hurts. I can’t quite breathe, and my attempts to talk come out as something more like crying.
(I’m a scared kind of person. I’m afraid of driving in weather, but also lightning, falling, and mysteriously enough, the rusty underside of large boats. I’m most afraid of letting my life be dictated by these fears, and so I often end up right where they can get me. I can’t seem to learn how to hide my fear and this has led to a few embarrassing situations where people have to forgive me or take care of me without really understanding why.)
I was pretty sure we were going to die that day, my little car smashed or propelled into the green gray Columbia river. And Joey, usually not so prone to car drama, played along, either because he was truly afraid or he just didn’t want me to be in the lonely room of my own irrational fear.
I’m not sure who suggested it first. But either way, there it was.
“If we live through this, we’re getting married.”
We’d only been together a few months, but I think that the vulnerability that comes with fear provides an opportunity. If we can be afraid in front of another person, it cracks us open so wide they can come right on in. And by the time the rain had stopped and we had found a diner in Hood River, he was already in. We had spent that time on the road imagining our wedding, our children, and everything else that would convince us that we would live and have a future. Later that day, we stopped off the side of a road at a waterfall that seemed to be entirely constructed of moss, and I remember running my shaky hands over the green. I’d been living in the desert for years by then, and I couldn’t imagine how there could be so much green. It was all more alive than anything I had seen before.
A few weeks ago, I went back to the Pacific Northwest. I went for lots of reasons, but mostly to write, and to quiet my head, and see a few friends to whom I really owed a visit. I don’t travel much, but when I do, it changes my whole outlook. We now have one of those credit cards that gathers up air miles (I know, I know- you all have had one of these for years) and Joey sent me away to Portland. “It’s time,” he said.
I went to stay with my friend Kari, and I slept in her attic with one of her tiny dogs under the covers. She made me coffee early even though I’d wake up before the sun came up. We walked all over the city and appreciated every bloom. And all though it, she took care of me and my head was quieter than I can ever remember it being. I stopped worrying. I talked to Joey and the girls a few times a day, and we all shared stories about what we had done with those hours.
My friend Donovan (the creator of that perfect hedgehog in my sidebar) picked me up on the first day of Spring and drove me down that same stretch of road where Joey and I had decided to get married. It was clear, and the river was calm and glassy. She showed me her favorite waterfalls, all covered in moss like the bright green dream I held in my mind. We hiked up alongside one of them and I stopped on the path, tilting my face up to the sun. My phone rang right then, and it was Joey. He told me how school had been, and that he was roasting a chicken, and that Sadie had had a good play rehearsal. I hung up, and I put my hand on the moss and looked out towards the river.
See? I thought to the river. We did exactly what we promised! Thank you for not swallowing us up that day.
At the end of the week, Kari drove me up to Seattle, and I spent the weekend with friends who have just moved there. I met a few wonderful writers who, although I feel I’ve known for years, I had never met in person (thank you, internet magic). I ate a dinner here that I will never forget. And on my last evening in Seattle, I took my little friend Ilse for a walk around the neighborhood. She and I are 34 years apart exactly, as we share a birthday. I wore a tee shirt, knowing that it was just a few hours until I was back in my beloved 20-degree New England, and I plopped her into her stroller. We walked in the last of the sun as it went down, and she stretched her bare little toes out in front of her as I pushed the stroller. I think it was the warmest day they’d had yet, and she chatted to me and to her own feet, happy for the air between her toes. All weekend, I’d held her whenever she’d raise her arms to me, and she’d point to her mom, and say “mamma,” and then point to me and say “a mama”.
I’d only really started to miss home then, in those few last days. And then it was time to come back to this family I love (where I am not just “a mama” but “the mama”). But it was good to be back by that river, and to remember that that beginning, and so many others since then, have come from moments where I was terrified. That being afraid lets other people right into you, and that you never know what might begin just then.