Once upon a time, I really enjoyed driving, but that era had long since past. In this particular moment, all I could do was try to breathe and tell myself over and over again, “You’re okay. You’re okay. You’re okay.”
I was driving down a 7,000-foot-high mountain with Sweet Chuck and Seabass in the back seat after a week at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Uncomfortable turns and sheer drops off the right shoulder had me more than a little anxious. Since my early 20s, I haven’t been able to handle heights or grand vistas like the ones I was seeing through the passenger’s side window. But who else could take the wheel? Jake was home remodeling our kitchen by himself. We were in Southern California to get out of his hair.
To complicate matters further, my driver’s side mirror was gone – smashed to itty bitty bits in the middle of the night by a hit-and-run driver – and Grandma and Grandpa had been nervous for our safety. So, just before we left their house that morning, this happened.
On one particularly hairy turn down the mountain, my palms started to sweat. “You’re okay, you’re okay,” I muttered to myself. Sweet Chuck started scratching at her ears, which were no doubt popping from the effects of a steep descent. “You’re okay, you’re okay.” And then Seabass started whimpering, I thought out of fear because his mommy sounded loony.
“My back hurts!” he mewed. “When you twisty turny on the road, my back hurts!”
“I’ll try to take the turns as gently as I can, sweet boy,” I replied. But it was no use. The next thing I knew, guttural barfing noises emerged from the back seat.
If it wasn’t for the godsend of a turnout on the side of the road that very instant, I would have had hot Seabass chunder all over the inside of my van, which, more importantly, may have wound up at the bottom of a canyon due to driver instability. But I flew into action at the sound of vomit and made the turnout just in time to catch Seabass’ honk with a plastic bag.
I’ve only ever seen Seabass barf once before, thankfully. This time, I marveled at how slowly yet forcefully it came out. It reminded me of those underwater volcano videos we used to watch in science class.
Poor little boy. He was pretty well shaken by the whole experience, and Sweet Chuck’s crying couldn’t have helped settle his nerves. I stroked his little back and kissed his head. And what do you know? Not three minutes after I’d removed the barf and wiped the corners of his mouth, he was asking for something to eat and requesting The Incredibles in the DVD player. Before long, we were down the mountain and both kids were happily in their own little worlds.
We made it to Santa Barbara in three hours, fifteen minutes – a record by all accounts! – and decided to visit the darling Santa Barbara Zoo for a peak at the animals, a train ride, and lunch on the lawn. I strapped Sweet Chuck into the Ergo and Seabass chirped excitedly alongside me, holding my hand. The weather was pristine and the animals even seemed happier than usual. Despite a rocky start, I was officially having a good day.
We eventually made it up the hill to the Zoo Cafe, where a long line of hungry people snaked around the building. We took up residence behind a vacationing Indian family of about two dozen members, each of whom wanted a quesadilla. You would think that an order for a billion quesadillas would go pretty quickly, but each of them ordered and paid individually. I feared for the happy attitudes of my children, but Sweet Chuck gummed the strap of the baby carrier contentedly, and Seabass stood quietly in line. It was as though they’d been drugged.
We finally made our order and picked up our food, bringing it over to the lawn where both kids could roll around and eat without greasing anything or anyone up. Sweet Chuck had just started crawling, so she was scooting to her heart’s content, and Seabass made friends with the Indian boys while munching on his PB&J. I was even able to eat a salad without answering Seabass’ machine gunfire-style questions about life, or keeping all food and sharp dining implements out of Sweet Chuck’s reach. It felt like life was happening. I felt like I’d finally found my groove. You never would have guessed that my car sported a sagging bumper and a duct-taped side mirror, or that I’d nearly had an anxiety attack that morning, or that my son had ralphed nineteen pounds of oatmeal into a Stater Brothers bag just hours before.
“Excuse me?” I swiveled to see a family seated nearby, the mother smiling at me. “How old are your children?” she asked.
“The baby is ten months today, and my son is three,” I answered.
“Wow,” she gasped, looking at the man next to her. “I was just telling my husband that you are my inspiration. I can’t imagine bringing my two kids to the zoo alone. You look like such a natural mother. No, really! I’m jealous of your confidence and poise.”
Now, I want you to take a moment and think back on what you know of me. Think back on the posts this blog has featured. The hair-tearing. The sackcloth-wearing. The gnashing of teeth.
Now imagine someone attributing the above words to me. TO ME. I was awestruck, dumbfounded and speechless, just like you are right now. That’s why I started to laugh. And not in a cute, self-deprecating way. More like in a sort of creepy way.
“Well,” I choked, “that is A MIRACLE. Really, you have no idea how funny that is to me. But thank you.”
Here was a lesson I needed to learn right then and there: looks are deceiving. Sure, you hear those words all the time, but that’s usually from the outside looking in. This time, I was on the inside looking out, appearing to have my ducks in a row and the world on a string. It was my moment to learn that everything is not as it seems. That woman you think has it all? Who drives the nice car and whose kids have clean faces and who smiles a lot? She might be dying a slow death inside. Or she may have just been breathing into a paper bag in the ladies’ restroom. You just don’t know.