Making Plans: Pushing Through Obstacles
August 4, 2013
“When did you first start to plan your trip?” she asked as we sat around the table eating take-out Chinese.
My daughter and my niece had planned a steak dinner for me to celebrate my arrival, but because of the rust that had accumulated on the tow bar somewhere between the Iowa cornfield and the Colorado border, it had taken several more hours than we had planned to load my girl, trailer, duffle and bike into her compact Honda.
I hesitated a moment, as I always did when faced with the question. “I wanted to make it last year, but my plans were aborted by overwrought family members,” I replied.
Truth was, I didn’t really plan the trip. Like nearly everything else in my life, it just happened.
“What is your five year plan?” he asked when we first met.
“I can honestly say throughout my life I have learned not to set goals. Life is always influx,” I responded. “I do know that when I retire, I would love to hike across Italy and England, following the in the footsteps of the American expatriates and English Romantic authors.”
He laughed, adding, “That will suffice. At least you have a 20 year plan!”
The following summer, one day after sharing our breakfast watching sunrise over the lake, I submitted my application to the Institute.
By the time I arrived, he was married to someone else.
I have, indeed, learned not to make plans. And as it turns out, I have landed in a much different spot than I would have ever foreseen.
As an adolescent, my plan had been to graduate from high school with the skills of a receptionist, apply for a desk job at Boeing, and spend the remainder of my life contentedly living a boring existence in Seattle, WA. College, I believed, was for rich white kids.
“Would Roberta Revia please come to the office?” I heard over the high school’s intercom.
At that moment, I knew he had died.
My mother had rushed him to the hospital on a Sunday evening, dropping me at my best friend’s house on her way there. The following day as I stood beside his hospital bed listening to the blip of his heart monitor, he seized up in pain, clutching his stomach.
He had been diagnosed with an aneurism in his stomach, an easy enough problem to address with a relatively simple, low-risk procedure. But because of his high blood pressure, they had put off surgery.
I glanced over my shoulder on the way to rush toward the nurses’ station, catching the last glimpse I had of my stepfather other than a few minutes later when the same nurses I had bumped into on my way out of the room rushed past the waiting room with him on a gurney.
“I don’t want you to go back into his room,” my mother told me a few days later. “He smells of death.”
He had been in surgery for hours, and she had arranged for me to be taken back to my friend’s house where I stayed for days, only receiving updates from her as we talked in the evenings on the phone.
After surgery, he had been placed in ICU, attached to a kidney dialysis machine, an artificial lung and a feeding tube, and she described the only sound in the room as the blip of the monitors and the hiss of the machines.
The sound of prolonged death.
She also described how the black that had appeared on his toes a few weeks before we had rushed him to the hospital had spread up his leg and began creeping into his fingers and arms as well.
She often didn’t allow us to watch television, so my brother and I were frequently banned to our rooms where we read instead. The exceptions were his sacrosanct M.A.S.H. and Star Trek.
“I am tired of waiting for death, Jeannie, and he would have wanted us to see the movie,” she explained as we stood in line for the tickets. He had been on life support for three weeks. “We need to get on with our lives,” she added with exhausted resignation in her voice.
I don’t recall anything of the movie past what the critics had identified as the too-long, lingering shot of the Enterprise.
The following day, I returned to school for the first time since we had rushed him to the hospital.
I had hours of make-up typing practice sets to do, so I stayed after school. I barely heard the announcement over the clacking of the I.B.M. Selectric.
I knew. I didn’t go by my first name, and I never shared my stepfather’s.
“Sit down,” my mother told me as I came into the small apartment we shared while we both attended Bible College.
Again, I knew.
Although I had enrolled as a missionary student, a few years into school I switched majors, knowing that my original choice would never yield a job since missionaries weren’t allowed to enter the field single.
Out of frustration, I returned to my high school goal: a desk job as an office assistant.
My speed as a typist was never as high as my peers since I struggled with tears nearly every time I typed, but I excelled at shorthand. I loved it for its artistry.
The fast, swirling reduction of sound into figurative representation fascinated me, and transcribing it reminded me of decoding, interpreting, revealing a hidden symbol.
Communication. Calligraphy. Art.
We had spent a wonderful holiday with the family, enjoying for the first time ever a relaxed Christmas dinner with as many of my siblings as possible. My mother, father and his wife are all part of the photos, and they are the only ones in existence that celebrate the confused tangle of “mine,” “yours,” and “ours” that our family had become.
For a brief evening, all the abuse, anger, frustration and bitterness had been set aside.
A few days later, I had gone to the business school lab to practice dictation.
My father had died of a massive heart attack in the grocery store while buying light bulbs. He had spent the morning across the street from our church, chopping wood for an invalid and his mother.
Planning had always, thereafter, been as spontaneous as death. Or childbirth.
“Push Mrs. Davis, Push!”
Any time I encountered an obstacle—physical, emotional or intellectual—my ex would playfully repeat the same phrase I had heard while giving birth to our first unplanned child.
“I have plans for most of July,” she informed me when I first passed the idea of the trip by her a few weeks before launching, “and I think I am busy most of August as well.”
I am proud of her accomplishments. She had a job before graduating from college and has been employed consistently thereafter.
Like me, she had worked hard for our trip to Europe, paying for it herself by juggling three part-time jobs the summer before we left, then earning enough for spending money throughout her senior year, the same year her parents divorced.
She loved Sex and the City, idolized the fast, consumer-driven lifestyle of the New York friends. And she had determined to return from Europe with a pair of Gucci.
While the remainder of her classmates spent their money on the same brands they could have purchased at a Colorado mall, she waited patiently, determined to slip into the shops from which our tour guide had consistently steered us away.
The opportunity arose, and she left Europe having attained her goal: an adorable pink pair of sandals that sported a bee, her nickname. It was a custom pair, the only one in the store we had stumbled upon while in Florence. Unique. Beautiful. Playful. Just like her.
“If you can reach the Colorado border by next weekend, I can pick you up. But I don’t know when else I can do it since I have plans again for the following weekend,” she explained.
“But I doubt you can cover most of Nebraska in a week,” she added.
While I usually don’t make plans, she is aware that I do step up to a challenge nicely.
“The solid tubes have slowed me down a bit,” I told my brother after he reminded me that I still had over 2000 miles in altitude to gain before reaching my destination.
“It is all uphill from here,” he wrote, adding a string of cycling clichés.
“Ride, ride like the wind.”
“Ride like you mean it.”
“Ride to punish your bicycle that you have grown to hate.”
“Ride for revenge.”
“Ride to annoy your nay sayers.”
“Ride with total abandon.”
“Ride because your invisible friends are chasing you.”
“Jeannie, you’ve got to get back on,” he said as I clutched my leg, horrified, as blood ran down it, staining my socks, dripping onto the pavement.
“I can’t, daddy! It hurts too much!”
“If you don’t get back on now, you never will,” he insisted.
I reached down to pick the big black piece of asphalt from the wound. “No, leave it. We can clean it when we get home. If you touch it now, it will get stuck. The blood will help wash the wound.”
I grabbed the bumper of the parked car I had just ran into, eased myself off the ground, and angrily got back onto my bike while my brother stood behind me, laughing.
My dad had bought us bikes a few weeks after the divorce, and I had stubbornly, fearfully not allowed him to take off the training wheels for almost a year.
Mom, I am going for a bike ride,” my brother would yell.
“Take your sister with you,” she would always shout back at him as we left the house. As I tagged along behind my brother, he would often complain because the training wheels slowed me down and limited the paths we could take.
But that particular Saturday, after pulling out my first tooth that had dangled in my mouth for weeks, I was ready to conquer the world.
I had always enjoyed helping my dad—an avid do-it-yourselfer—with his projects.
After I had watched him take off the training wheels, handing him the wrench and the pliers, responding to his request for tools with the same promptness a nurse responds to a doctor’s request in an operating room, my confidence grew as he ran along behind me, holding onto the back of my banana seat to balance me as I pedaled up the nearby hill, explaining that the speed I would get while going downhill would hold me up.
Not fully understanding the laws of physics, I believed him.
As I gained speed, though, he was right, and I was exhilarated by the final push he gave me as he let go of my seat.
My brother, riding slightly behind me, shouted, “You are doing it!” and I looked back at him, smiling with my toothless grin.
Next thing I knew, I was on the ground behind the parked car, nursing my bloodied leg while my brother laughed.
“I feel a part of your success since I taught you how to ride a bike,” he texted me a few days ago.
More than that, he and my father both taught me how to get back up after I hit the ground, and at the same time taught me how to laugh at my own mistakes.
My father was right. Wounds heal. By the time we reached home, as I took off my sock, I found the pieces of black asphalt mingled in the cleansing blood.