We bought her new in Dallas, Texas one spring morning: a deep garnet red metallic MX-5 Miata. Retractable hard top. Buff colored leather interior. Loaded. Going north on I-35 after the last handshake, we drove so fast I swear we caught sight of a comet’s tail as we flew. A hundred and thirty miles per hour was effortless and smooth.

We hurtled out of Texas and cut into the twists and turns of the Wichita Mountains with the precision of surgeons slicing around organs and arteries, defying death. The road leveled out through vast fields, sun spilling from under the clouds on this side and that, golden wheat with a line of trees mustered like troops a few miles off. Oklahoma at its best. Round, red barns and square ones, rectangles with corrugated metal roofs, silver flashing in the sun. He laughed; I slathered on sunscreen and turned the radio up.

After the diagnosis, when his foot grew too heavy and his hand too shaky, I drove when we were together. It wasn’t the same. Dust settled on the hood of the Miata. Our barn cat would loll on the hard top, and he’d half-heartedly shoo her off. Driving fast no longer an option, he drove confused, once wandering around the town we had lived in for 15 years of our married life, looking for a street he’d been down a thousand times before. Our daughters sat in the back seat of the SUV he drove that night, stunned with disbelief as their Christian father cursed the car, the roads, the brain that didn’t work well enough to tell him where to go.

The month before, while driving his truck, he slid through an intersection at a stop sign he didn’t notice, heavy shaking foot taking him flying through it, sliding on wet pavement and coming to a tangled rest in the middle of a black Mustang. The Mustang was totaled, a crushed and horrifying mess, its young owner incomprehensibly saved, climbed out the passenger’s side.

“I was on my way to work. I just bought the car last week,” he kept repeating.

I could have died, he meant.

“I work just a few blocks away, for Devon Oil. I graduated last year.”

I worked hard to buy that car; it was my dream, he meant.

My husband shook so hard that day, I thought he’d fall down. “Sit down, sweetie, sit down,” I urged.

You’re going to fall down, I meant.

A scene from years before suddenly leaped into my mind, an old man I’d seen, coming out of a shop on Main Street while I idled at a red light. His Parkinson’s Disease was so advanced, he could hardly walk. Coming through the door of the shop, he had frozen at the threshold, unable to go forward, unable to go back, poised in a game of freeze tag in which he was the only player. Finally lurching forward like a drunk on unsteady legs, arms windmilling for balance, cranking like a hurdy-gurdy player, he barely made it to the car where he opened the door with fumbling hands, started the engine, and drove away. The light turned green, and the driver behind me had to honk sharply to get me to move. I was frozen in the thought: A man who could hardly walk, driving.

Standing at that intersection in the cold drizzle, holding my husband’s shaking, fluttering hand, the memory of the cartwheeling man made me throw my arms around my husband and hold him. Every fiber of his body shook and rattled. We’d been in the Northridge earthquake in 1994, our hotel room rolling and sliding, pipes bursting and water gushing into the hallways. Hanging onto my husband that day, I had the sense that I was no more support to him than the hotel door jamb had been for us when we took refuge under it. No matter how hard I held on, or what the doctors did, this disease was a roiling, heaving event greater than us. We were reeling on the edge of a deep crevasse, looking down into its maw with horror and awe.

“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it,” my husband repeated. “I couldn’t control the slide, couldn’t stop, didn’t see the stop sign until it was too late, couldn’t react, just froze. Look at his car. Look at his car.”

What he meant was, I could have killed that young man.

After he died, I sold the roadster to a Canadian couple who winter in Arizona. They were the same ages we had been when we bought the car. I watched them drive away in the car my husband loved and was happy for them.




By the Throat

From time to time throughout life, things happen that get you by the throat and threaten to squeeze the life out of you. If you don’t find a way to break the stranglehold, you’ll stop breathing and die. The stranglehold can be the care of a disabled child, or that you long for a child and have been trying to get pregnant but can’t, or a protracted and costly legal problem, a disease or aftermath of an accident or the result of someone else’s negligence. What throttles you may come from an ex-spouse, a former friend, a child who turned out badly, an alcoholic parent, someone else’s addiction or your own, a layoff or lost job or a terrible economy that drains your profits and renders your business impotent.

Everyone has these terrible events and circumstances that come through their lives, but not everyone has them regularly or often, and some people seem to live much of their lives without suffering, only to have it suddenly come upon them when they’re in late middle age and have no coping skills. I know some people like that. Still, everyone experiences real suffering at some point (as opposed to neurotic or self-created suffering). What then? What does one do when disasater strikes and the suffering begins?

Breaking the Stranglehold

When disaster first strikes, you go reeling. Eventually, worries, anxiety, and despair can get a person in a stranglehold that can claim your soul. The fact is that what we fear the most is death, and your death and mine are inevitabilities. Being in romantic denial about the limited time we have in this lifetime is the gift of youth. As a commenter to one of my previous blogs wrote, opportunity and wide open horizons are the fantasies of youth. Though the American dream is one of unlimited opportunities and vast horizons, the truth is that this type of Jupiterian expansiveness decimated entire peoples, produced slaves, and has led to the highest depression, anxiety, and addiction rates in the western world. This type of expansiveness isn’t advisable, for we are ever only as large as the health of our bodies and the amount of money available to us. We all tend to forget this every day, which explains why Home Shopping Network and eBay are so wildly popular, for when we can buy stuff we feel powerful and are reminded that the possibilities are endless. This is the power of an addiction: it numbs us and deludes us into thinking that we have control when, in fact, it has us by the throat.

As Jo Coudert writes, “of all the people you will know in a lifetime, you are the only one you will never lose.” You will never lose yourself, that is, as long as you hang onto yourself.

Hanging onto Oneself

When facing hardship, loss, or tragedy, we all tend to focus on what has happened to us–what’s in the past, in other words. We can’t change it, but we ruminate on it anyway. What of the things I can change? These things would include my own psychological state, the philosophy I live by, my values, my actions, where I put my body, what I put into my body, the thoughts I cling to and entertain, and the ones I dismiss.

Given the responsibility I have for my own life, I ask myself questions when I’m in crisis, questions such as: What are my psychological survival tools? What will help me maintain my sense of self? What will I need to believe, think, or do that will help me keep hope and joy alive? What will help me live with the sadness I feel all the time, the grief over my lost dreams, my lost life? How must I live if I want to be alive today? These are the questions to grapple with when crisis hits.

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