My daughter wants to be a girl detective. She’s desperate for a mystery to announce itself to her so she can solve it. Sometimes she makes up titles for her future adventures: Sophie and The Squeaky Door. Sophie and the Midnight Ghost.
But we entitle the stories and chapters of our lives only after they occur. Moments don’t announce themselves as mysteries. The events that become our stories – our lives – sneak up on us:
When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss doesn’t “mean anything” because, much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with you or anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.
In the infinite sixty seconds in which they occur, our defining moments are almost always discreet.
We’re never really ready.
The woman who put her babies to bed in their cribs and switched on the lamp so they wouldn’t be afraid of the dark couldn’t have known the lamp would topple over and ignite the bedsheets. And when she ran from the blazing apartment with one of three children in her arms, she probably wasn’t thinking, this is the moment our lives change. She probably wasn’t thinking anything. Her mind was consumed by the flames of mama panic.
Emergencies are uninvited guests. Our defining moments knock without notice. We are never really ready.
And the non-urgent moments that define our lives just as certainly but more softly and slowly than a crisis – like the river that wears the rocks smooth or the kiss that means nothing that means everything – do not come with parades and placards.
It is only later, when we look back at the road taken and the roads not taken, that we realize, that was the fork in the road. That was the defining moment. That was the decision that changed everything.
And it wasn’t even a decision. It was a kiss in a doorway. It was the click of a light switch.
The great mysteries of our lives get solved later. We see the clues in the magnifying glass of retrospect.
Which, I think, makes it difficult for us to predict with any accuracy how we will behave in times of crisis. If we knew how it would turn out, we’d know how to behave. If I knew my lover would stay, I’d say something different. If I knew we went on to have four babies and five grandchildren, I wouldn’t be awake at night wondering if I’m taking the right risks. If I knew that one day the doctor would say “lung cancer”, I’d put the cigarettes away. If I knew that I’d need to rescue my babies from a burning building, maybe I would be prepared when I saw the flames. Maybe I’d remember rather than react.
Remembrance is a gift. I remember being shattered, shattering. I remember the destruction of divorce. And in the shadow of that shattering I am gentler with my beloved than I’ve ever been. I speak rather than scream. I ask rather than demand. I open rather than close. I am conscious that we could come together only to take each other apart. I remember. My mid-life love has gravity.
Sometimes I think about Elizabeth Edwards, about Resilience, about how she writes that she was never as good or as bad as others would think. About how she insists she was never St. Elizabeth.
And while of course she was right, she was wrong. She couldn’t see how singular and magnificent she was.
Because, it seems to me, we often look for reasons to fall apart. We call our former lover incessantly and say awful things and we know she’ll forgive us – and we’ll forgive ourselves – because we’re hurting. We know that we can write a note to the teacher and all will be well. We know that the client will let it go. Our families will chalk it up to the diagnosis, the dog dying, the driveway that needs to be dug up, the dirty look from the barista.
We look for excuses to behave badly and we behave the worst with the ones who love us most. When our sneaking, thieving defining moments steal chunks of our equanamity, we leverage them for months of emotional credit.
At least that’s what I see. That’s what I have done. And that’s why it seems to me that Elizabeth Edwards was extraordinary. She behaved with grace in the face of monsters. Death, disease, betrayal. Anyone would have excused her for falling apart.
But that’s not what she did. She leaned back into the teachings of her father, who told her that character was what you did when things were bad. Being strong when things are bad. Holding it together when you have permission to fall apart.
She didn’t let herself off the hook.
Because sometimes writhing on the hook is indescribably divine.
And sometimes staying on the hook is the road – and it is most definitely the road less traveled – to the divine.
(Says the fisher to the worm and the worm to the fish and the girl detective to the midnight ghost.)