On this family trip, I'm tailed down the highway by my old companions of the road: anxiety and grief.
by Frank South
Recap: It’s last July. My wife Margaret, my seventeen-year-old daughter Coco (who, like me, has ADHD with extra-sharp temper and impatient, edgy edges), and I are in our mini-van heading north from our home in Georgia to spend a three-week vacation at my 91-year-old mother’s house. My dad died last March and now Mom needs help going through my dad’s stuff. Plus my brother Rob is getting back surgery and he and his wife could use some help with their kids while they deal with doctor stuff. Someone else might be overwhelmed by this, but not me. I made detailed plans, mapped it out, wrote it all down and made copies. My preparations insure that everything will be fine for everyone no matter what. There’s nothing to worry about. Then, before we even get to my mother’s house, it all starts to fall apart. In my head, anyway, and that’s where the danger lies.
Back in my early road days, before I blew out a piston that I couldn’t afford to repair and had to fall back on hitchhiking, I tore over the highways on a sleek and powerful black and chrome motorcycle. I didn’t like VW buses and I wouldn’t have been caught dead in any of the minivans I left in my dust on I-70. They were the bloated, underpowered symbol of America’s complacent middle class: people that a rebel-artist-writer like I was would have nothing in common with, ever. Now, driving our Town and Country along the crest of a hill in West Virginia with my wife and daughter safely tucked inside with me, the minivan feels like a sleek and powerful family-protection machine. And a few years ago when we were scrambling to keep from going under financially, I realized that it takes years of unrelenting effort and anxiety to hold on to a spot in the middle class. Complacency has no place in the world of work and worry.
So now that my wife Margaret has a full-time job, and our life is on a steady course, I can devote every waking minute of my life to worrying about what could go wrong. Worry is my calling, what I was built to do. But it has to be clandestine so I don’t undermine the confidence of those I love. I keep all of it locked up in a dark hole in the Centralized Internal Apprehension section in my brain. Safely hidden away, my private CIA gathers information on all real and imaginary threats to family peace and well-being and keeps them front and center so I can worry them to death.
It’s our third morning on the road and we’ve settled into a nice companionable family rhythm. One of my four travel mix CDs plays, Margaret’s in the seat next to me flipping through a magazine, and Coco’s in the far back with her feet up watching the Appalachian country roll by. Leg three of my trip plan has us getting to my mom’s house early afternoon, arriving in time for a late lunch. But I’m not pushing it. I’m working hard on my calming breath work, enjoying the present with my family and trying my damnedest to let the future take care of itself. But that’s hard, because the future doesn’t follow instructions.
“Look at that pretty little town,” Coco says as we crest the hill on a two-lane blacktop in West Virginia. “From a distance, it’s so perfect, it looks made up.” I slow down, Margaret looks and I manage a glance to our left. The small group of red and white buildings, one with a steeple cluster around a river in the valley below us. The early morning sun freezes them with backdrop shadow next to the shining water.
“You’re right,” Margaret says, “It is perfect.” We roll down into the valley, closing in on an outlying farm. “And that is one pretty cow, even close up,” Margaret says.
“You don’t have to make fun of me, Mom,” Coco says.
Margaret turns around in her seat to face her. “I’m not, Coco,” she says, “I’m agreeing with you.” Coco doesn’t say anything, just stares out the window. Margaret sighs and goes back to her magazine.
One of my many long term self-improvement projects is to stop acting on the belief that the attempt to control the behavior of others is a part of demonstrating your love for them. This is an odd belief for someone who has rarely had any success controlling his own behavior. But even though from experience I know being the know-it-all peacemaker is a sure way to confuse things and make it worse for everyone, normally this is where I’d jump in. Worried that they were hurting each other’s feelings, I’d try to get Coco to accept her mother’s good intentions and also make sure that Margaret understood that it was just Coco’s ADHD frustration flaring and she didn’t mean to be so defensive. But I don’t because over the last year they’ve each told me to butt out. “We’re fine,” Coco told me last winter after one noisy kitchen confrontation with Margaret that I got in the middle of — pissing them both off. “Mom and I are working things out our way.” And she reminded me that I always told her she couldn’t use ADHD as an excuse. Then she asked if she could start seeing a therapist once in a while again, so she could work on her anger and stuff. Sure, I thought, be more mature and together than your father. See if I care.
So I keep my mouth zipped and drive on. I focus on the road in front of me, and enjoy the shift of light in the passing trees as the morning moves on. Keb Mo’s “Just Like You” comes up on the CD. I smile, but that dark, anxious hole in my head wipes the moment of peace away with an image of our big, beautiful dog Danny Boy back home in Georgia with my mother-in-law, Peggy. This morning when we called, Peggy said that Danny still hadn’t eaten since we left. Earlier I convinced Margaret and Coco that there was no cause for alarm — he’s a stubborn standard poodle, just upset that we left. I tell them it’s a normal thing for this breed, and my wife and daughter seem to feel better.
But I don’t believe a word I’ve said and I’m sick with worry. Danny is my best friend back home. The only other guy in the house, he follows me around while I do housework, shaking his head at the mess created by female humans. Last March, during the days after my father died and I couldn’t get out of bed for more than an hour at a time, he stayed next to me, his big head resting on my chest.
Danny has to be okay. “He’s not and it’s your fault” booms out of the mean, dark hole in my head. Stop it, you’re overreacting. But what if I’m not? I can’t go back home to Danny now; my mom and brother need me. Breathe. When we get to Mom’s house I’ll call our vet, see what she says. Peggy doesn’t drive. Maybe I can get my brother-in-law Earl to take Danny in to see the vet. I’ll call him too.
As a recovering alcoholic, I’m familiar with the serenity prayer, but that part where you accept the things you can’t change never took hold, which is another thing to worry about. My mind in self-inflicted, outwardly silent turmoil, I turn into my mother’s driveway in Delaware and pull to a stop. Coco’s out of the minivan like a shot and runs in to see her grandmother. Margaret gives me a squeeze on the hand and a smile before she’s out and on her way inside the house too. I sit, hands still on the steering wheel, winding my brain down. I tell myself I have to learn to let go, focus on what’s in front of me and trust in the future. Maybe stop worrying so much and show a little courage.
“What are you doing still sitting in the car?” A happy grin lighting her face, my mother stands in her doorway, shouting at me. “Get in here,” she says, “before your family eats all the sandwiches and oatmeal cookies.” I smile back. Standing there leaning on her cane, carrying not an ounce of self-pity but only deep grateful love for her family, my mother once again shows me what real courage looks like. I get out of the car, step to the door and fall into her embrace.
In the next post I swear we’ll follow the story inside the house where, as I said last time, things are great until we open Dad’s closet. Phone calls with the vet. My brother fights the surgeon. Mom and Margaret have martinis. Coco handles cousins. Religion in the air. I keep eating cookies.