I have a love/hate relationship with surprises. It’s simple – I love being the surpriser and hate being the surprisee. I mean I do love little surprises – like when my dear wife comes home with a case of my favorite wine or a friend sends me a card in the mail when it’s not my birthday. I’m just not a fan of the big surprises – like a party where you never really are surprised, but you have to act like it to make sure everyone else is happy. That is no fun, but I’m all in as the surprise generator and I orchestrated a really good one for my sister over Labor Day weekend.
My sister lives in California but has been on the east coast for business and was visiting her dearest friend from high school – Paige – who lives in Waynesboro, Virginia. We grew up in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley in Harrisonburg – God’s country as my father was fond of saying – so Waynesboro is close to home for us. Paige and my sister have an extraordinary friendship dating back to the 8th grade. I hope to write about it some day in a book – yes, it’s that rich. They will both turn 60 next year, but when they get together, they’re like two teenagers and I was excited to crash their slumber party for one night. Bonus – Paige’s party mix is legendary.
The drive to Waynesboro up U.S. 29N through Virginia is the MapQuest of my life. I have made that drive at least 200 times since I moved to North Carolina in 1995. It was the route I took to visit my parents until they died in 2002. And during that darkest of years as they both succumbed to cancer, I was on autopilot, making that trek on an almost weekly basis. I was a little apprehensive that the drive might stir up some painful memories of that time, but instead, my trip was a comforting collage of many of the best times of my life – trips home for Christmas with my former partner, the car loaded with presents, goodies, and giddy anticipation; drives past miles of burnt sienna colored trees to Charlottesville to meet my folks and my dear friend Chris for a UVA football game; day trips to Lynchburg to visit my favorite aunt who always called me “Love” and made me feel cherished. This was a solo trip, but my car was filled with loved ones past and present.
My mind was so full on the trip up that I sometimes forgot that I was driving. Not in a dangerous way – more like when you enter a drive-thru carwash and slowly pull into the grooves of the tracks and shift your car into neutral and take your foot off the brake. There’s that sudden lurch forward, but then the car is driving itself and you simply let go, knowing that you are safe as you are mesmerized by the spray of changing colors. That’s what Route 29 feels like to me. I was being gently pulled forward in a cocoon of gauze filtered memories.
As if the drive wasn’t already delicious enough, I treated myself to a free Audible trial and listened to a book by Anne Lamott – Almost Everything, Notes on Hope. Lamott is, of course, a wonderful writer and I love to hear her read her own work. It’s like sitting over a cup of coffee with her at the kitchen table. Neither one of us is in a hurry and I feel like she’s speaking directly to me – sometimes a little too directly. She often writes about family – a subject I find heartbreakingly fascinating. Lamott says that “family has to be a cauldron of challenges and loss or we couldn’t grow.” Yep. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time stooped over that cauldron since my parents died – endlessly stirring lamentations and disappointments. I’m tired.
Lamott shares a story about an uncle that she had a huge row with many years ago – while she was still drinking. A few years after getting sober, she offered an apology to the uncle and he reluctantly accepted. They remained distant and life went on and they both got older and he moved into assisted living. She visits him often now and says that she will miss him when he dies. Lamott explains that our old identities within our families keep us small and that our work, and it is hard work, is to forgive ourselves and our families. For years, my role in my family was that of the dutiful oldest child – a role Lamott describes as “code for filled with rage” – that made me laugh out loud. I was damn good at that job, but when my parents died seven months apart from each other, my identity was obliterated. I desperately clung to a role that no longer existed and set myself up for years of disappointment with unrealistic expectations of others. Lamott describes these expectations as “resentments under construction.” See? She was totally speaking to me.
I could not bear the idea that my perfect family no longer existed. Of course, it never existed – no family is perfect. Lamott says that this journey we call life is mostly about reunion. And she ends the chapter on family with four words that made me almost stop the car – “Don’t bank on never.” These words were a hopeful balm to me as I motored down memory lane.
I thought about a couple of interactions I had had on my birthday last week with two people I hold very dear. We’ve been estranged for many reasons – some quite valid, some tethered to those old identities. Whatever the reasons – the connection with those people gave me a bit of the peace I have been longing for. I felt hopeful that there might be more.
So, I made it to Waynesboro and surprised my sister and Paige – a good surprise I think – at least they made me feel like it was. And we laughed and laughed and shared old stories and inside jokes – the kind of things that families do when they get together. We cried a little, too, when we remembered those no longer with us and some of the hard things we had all been through. When I went to bed that night, my body was tired from holding so much joy. I want more of that tired, please – the restorative tired that connection and reunion bring.
My drive home the next afternoon was lovely. I stopped at the scenic overlook on top of Skyline Drive and stood in the breeze for a good while looking down on the beauty below. There was a family picnicking nearby – just as my family had done many times over the years. They were happy and laughing and I wondered how things get so achingly complicated when it comes to family.
And then I heard dear Anne’s wise voice again – “Don’t bank on never.” And I got back in my car heading towards Route 29 because somehow, that road always leads me home.