Friday, March 20, 2015

For My Father-in-Law

Mike's dad died last week, most unexpectedly, and all the days since have, of course, felt surreal.  Today is the first day of a spring that was going to be our first that found me finally driving the three hours to Mike's mom and dad's house with my newly-attained license.  Instead, we begin spring suddenly without one of our parents, and the father-in-law I always called "my good buddy" will not be anxiously awaiting our arrival on his front porch.  I had so been looking forward to hearing his impressed and relieved "So you got here in one piece!" as I pulled up and his oft-repeated "BE! CAREFUL!" as I drove away.  And knowing that Mike will not be on the phone with him rehashing the Yankees games this season or watching the games on TV with him during his visits home sends an almost-nauseating wave of sorrow over me.  Poor Mike had surely expected shortstop Derek Jeter's recent retirement to be the saddest aspect of watching Yankees baseball this year.  Oh, Life.
Every time Mike would get off the phone with his dad, he would turn to me and tease in mock-disbelieving tones, "Well!   Isn't a certain someone just so fond of YOU!  Apparently, you can do no wrong!" or "You sure have someone back home wrapped around your finger!  Oh, on and on about how you write such nice letters!  It's like he's your number one fan!"  It has long been a joke between us that when Mike says something that aggravates me, I cry out, "Well, now!  Let's just call your dad and see what he has to say about THIS!" or "I don't think your dad would care for the way you're speaking to me!"  He told Mike a few months after we got married that just as he had "found [his] angel" with Mike's mom, he thought Mike had found his angel in me.  An angel, I am not, but may we all be so blessed as to be so purely loved by someone.
During the four days and nights we spent in the hospital last week, we kept the room's TV on the Turner Classic Movies channel, and the films' actors and characters already seem as much a part of the landscape of all those rich but draining hours as the many doctors whose names we in the family couldn't keep straight and consequently referred to amongst ourselves as "Richie Rich, with the Blonde Hair and Clogs," "The One with the Red Tie," "The Wrestler," "Frank-the-One-Who-Talked-with-Us-in-That-Little-Room," "The Grey-Haired Nighttime Equivalent of Frank," "The Research Study Guy," "The One With the Beard and Glasses," and "The Doctor We Liked Who Had All Dad's Info in Her Back-Pocket."  I don't know if a day will ever come when I won't remember Paul Newman in The Hustler, an oddly-orange-skinned Jackie Gleason in Don't Drink the Water, James Cagney in Picture Snatcher, or, most memorably to me, Ann Sothern in a late night marathon of Maisie movies as people with whom we shared the horrible events of the past week and a half.  Today it still seems like a glimpse of any of these actors will forever take me back to room 303 with its wall of taped-up family photos I'd brought in from home, Mike's navy knit Yankees cap resting flat on top of his dad's EEG-lead-covered head, and Mike and I in chairs on opposite sides of the bed, providing a sometimes-mocking commentary on the old movies while we held his dad's hands.  The channel was only changed once last week, when Jackie Gleason was really hamming it up in all his wide-eyed, over-the-top glory and Mike declared that his dad would prefer the basketball game.  

I think Wednesday night was Maisie night, when I had sent Mike home to feed Stuffed and try to get some sleep and I volunteered to sit at his dad's side overnight.  The Maisie marathon was, strangely, my last bonding experience with my father-in-law.  The medical team told us all week that he was unaware of what he was experiencing and that he was feeling no distress, but when I realized, during one of the movies, that I'd been babbling at him non-stop for the better part of an hour, I joked that he was probably quite tired of the sound of my voice.  As Maisie got her man, visited the Congo, had knives thrown at her during a circus act, and marched down a dirt road in a peplum skirt-suit while carrying her luggage, I held my father-in-law's hand and filled him in on the absurdities of the films, fully believing that he could somehow hear me and that he was there in spirit.  "Oh, you'd love THIS!"  I chattered.  "Maisie's driving her car while carrying on a conversation with a policeman driving his own car in the lane beside hers.  No need to look at anything but each other while they drive, of course.  And you worry about ME on the interstate!"  In the wee hours when I could no longer even pretend to concentrate on Maisie's misadventures, I talked until my voice was raspy about family news, updated him on Stuffed--he'd always loved Stuffed--and reported on what everyone had found to eat in the hospital cafeteria that day.  "Everyone's taking good care of you," I heard myself saying multiple times that night and throughout the week.  "And everyone's taking care of each other too.  You don't have anything to worry about.  Everything will be okay."  And whenever I looked up, I'd see dear determined Maisie, hair curled in some sweet 1940s do, dusting herself off after her latest trials and taking on the world anew. 
"My good buddy" died as he had loved to live:  With his family gathered around supporting him and each other.  I have to believe that he knew we were all there with him and that he enjoyed our laughter as we shared funny memories of him in his final minutes.  It was too beautiful for him to have missed. 
I found a number of hearts last week, as I tend to do, and I took every one as a hug from God, as I always do.  Our first night in the hospital, I spotted a paper towel scrap-heart on the floor of the family lounge.
One morning at breakfast in the cafeteria, a heart-shaped potato "cube" tumbled out of my cup onto my tray.
I looked down as we prepared to enter my father-in-law's room as a family for the last time and saw another paper towel scrap-heart on the floor outside the intensive care unit's entrance.
 One melted spot in the snow at the cemetery after the funeral was heart-shaped.
And a stunning heart-shaped knot stood out in a tree trunk there, as well.
Almost twelve hours after the funeral Monday, after his mom had gone to bed, Mike and I sat together at his parents' kitchen table for a belated supper of Sloppy Joes and potato chips, occasionally sneaking scraps of lunch-meat ham to the stray cat his parents had recently taken in.  All day, I had felt twenty years older than I had when the week before had begun, but eating Sloppy Joes beside my husband in his childhood kitchen  was what broke me and made me feel too young for all we'd been through already, and soon we were off to bed too.  We know, though, that life will go on and that the thoughts of Turner Classic Movies and the Yankees' Opening Day won't always punch us in the chest the way they do right now.  Everyone's taking care of each other, as I kept repeating last week.  Everything will be okay.  While guiding our rental car down a steep and winding  hill on the way to his parents' house the morning of the funeral, Mike mentioned that whenever his dad would drive down the same hill, seemingly flying out of control as the car gained speed, he'd call out, "Dig in your toenails!  We're going up on two wheels!"  Ah, my father-in-law.  :)  "Dig in your toenails!" became a catchphrase of sorts between me and Mike that day, and it continues to strike me as astute, albeit homespun, advice for all the heartbreaking days ahead this spring.  Our plucky and unstoppable Maisie would concur:  We're up on two wheels here, but everything will be okay. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Daffodils and "Downton Abbey"

It is still a snow-covered world here today, but the first Daffodils have hit the stores.  I look forward to this little treat all year. 
And it is a gorgeous blue-skied sunny day so far, making Daffodil Bouquet Day even sweeter. 
This February was rough.  "And the hits just keep on coming" kept coming to mind each week.
March 6th already.  Bring it. 
I had five days off beginning February 28th, and I!  completely!  vegged!  out!  I finally watched "Downton Abbey"--ALL of "Downton Abbey," beginning season one Saturday morning and watching the season five finale late Wednesday night--and was as charmed by it as everyone assured me I would be.  Mr. Carson--"[the] old booby!"--has won my heart.  Love that character.  And Violet's laugh makes me laugh every time I hear it.  Mrs. Hughes' "Oh, heavens, girl!  You're building a fire, not inventing it!"  The aqua dining room with the cream doors.  The swishing of the dear pup's tail in the opening sequence.  The music.  The DRESSES!  Violet and Isobel together.  Lovely Sybil.  Ah!  It was well worth the wait, and it was the perfect way to put a horrid February behind me. 
And now March is here, and here with Daffodils and sunshine.  Happy day. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


I took this picture two weeks ago today in the hopes of finding articulate--and ideally, beautiful--words to accompany it in honor of sweet Patricia of the blog "Simply Balisha" (and another blog for years before that one).  Only a month after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Pat has entered a hospice facility and has posted her goodbye in her final blog post.  She has found words, and I still have not.  Clergyman Phillips Brooks once shared his belief that none of us can be good without the world somehow being benefited by that person's goodness, and since I can't seem to find my own words this month, I'll simply agree with his as I nod toward Pat. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


"Did you know," inquires my dad in his last letter, "that ice-chipping is much worse than snow-shoveling?  Well, it is.  75 lures later, I still have three weeks to kill before March 1st--my sanity cut-off date.  Pitchers and catchers report coming soon.  Cardinals are singing.  I'll cling to any ray of hope. "  Indeed.  I wasn't minding winter until this past week but now feel like I've gotten the gist--If I were in Boston, I'd say I've more than gotten the gist.  We got hit by our own three-feet-of-snow blizzard here in February 2010, so I empathize--and am ready to move on to spring.  This photo. . .after a mile-and-a-half walk a few days ago. 'Have been in a rotten mood all week, and it's not like me to be in one for this many days.  I blame the wind, the slippery sidewalks, everyday life nonsense in general, phantom wisdom tooth pain--they were removed thirteen years ago, but now and then, the site of one missing tooth starts aching--and lack of enough real walks.  Blehhh!  I echo Mom's postscript-drawing in Dad's letter below. 
My younger brother turns thirty-three today.  It is my father-in-law's birthday too.  And by Saturday, a small package containing chocolate-marshmallow hearts for my niece and my nephew and a copy of this sweet book will reach my niece Alyssa--of bat-and-cat-drawing fame--who turns eight this weekend.  Both my grandmothers, Mike's niece, a great-aunt, and my older brother have all had birthdays this month too, and each circled cake-and-ice-cream date on the calendar is a bright spot in this otherwise dreary month.  And thank God for that. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Mom's Orange Sunset

My mom began oil painting when I was about five years old, and when I would return from school in the afternoons, she would be in the process of finishing a piece and arranging her makeshift kitchen table/studio back into its usual red or blue gingham tablecloth-covered self.  The smell of the turpentine she used to clean her paintbrushes instantly transports me to those afternoons, as do the voices of painting show hosts Bill Alexander and Bob Ross.  Their "happy little trees" were such a part of my childhood.  I can still hear the whippa-whippa-whippa as Mom's wide brush slapped back and forth against the canvases with the oils.  And how many times did I hear her comment that the only thing about oil was, it took the paintings forever to dry. . . .
Mom painted mountains and rivers and forest scenes and bodies of water.  Much later, by the time I was in high school, she would prefer painting in acrylics and would be selling her artwork--mostly landscapes and wildlife--in local shops and in both Farmington and Mystic, Connecticut, as well. 
While home a few months ago, I lamented that I hadn't saved any of her old paintings.  She had always sold them or given them as gifts, and it seemed such a loss that we had none of them--and not even pictures of any of them.  "Oh," she said looking pleased to have been asked, "I still have one canvas somewhere in the basement.  I don't know if it's in your colors, but you can have it if you want it."  She rummaged around downstairs for a few minutes before handing me this orange sunset. 
I treasure it, of course. 
Mom's paintings were beautiful, both in what they captured and in what they represent to me now:  My young mother--just-turned thirty--only thirty!  almost a decade younger than I am now--became interested in something, set out to learn how to do it, did it, and managed to do it without a proper or permanent work-space and while busy raising three young children.  My younger brother was only a newborn when she started, I was in kindergarten, and our older brother was around eight years old.  I think of my mom, getting us off to school, taking care of my then-baby brother, doing everything that needed to be done around the house, and still carving out the time to set up easel and paints in our little kitchen, only to disassemble it all each afternoon so she could be ready for us by the time we got home--and simply because it made her happy and she loved it. It mattered to her, and so, she made the time.  Beautiful. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Past Two (Lazy, Indoor) Weeks

Well, I highly recommend kicking off a new year by conquering one's fears and achieving something that's been on the To-Do list for ages.  It's infused the past two weeks with significantly more lightness and dance-around-the-apartment-to-my-favorite-songs JOY than I usually feel in January and February, for sure.  In the spirit of celebration last week, I treated Stuffed to a comfy new cat bed--and he's actually been curled up in it, wonder of wonders--and a catnip ball, and I gave Mike an amazon gift card.  We can all use some extra fun here in these weeks of day-after-day of forehead-freezing wind and back-wrenchingly slippery sidewalks.  I got my taxes done this week.  And filled out some student loan paperwork that had been on my to-do list too long.  And got another box of books and book characters ready to mail to the school.  And worked at my job, of course.  Otherwise, I have been lazily cuddled up with an afghan more often than not:  reading stretched out in bed, reading in my chair with my feet tucked under me, or refilling glass-after-glass of chocolate almond milk, hot chocolate, or iced tea while making my way through the episodes of "The West Wing" that I missed when it was still on TV.  In short, aside from a few must-do duties, I've spent the past two weeks vegging out, and it's been lovely.  I treated myself to the dvd of the first season of "Downton Abbey"--I've only ever seen some the first episode--and plan to relax with that sometime soon, as well.  Eleanor Roosevelt's book You Learn By Living is brilliant.  I admire her so, especially for her managing her shyness so beautifully.  I have only a few pages left in J.K. Rowling's The Silkworm, Steve Berry's The Lincoln Myth, and Steven Rigolosi's The Outsmarting of Criminals:  A Mystery Introducing Miss Felicity Prim.  I've been skipping around in Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun--one of your favorite books, Lisa, I know!--since around Thanksgiving, probably.  I'm a fast reader, but I like just reading a section or so of that book and waiting awhile to dip back into it.  It is a soothing read, with some of the most beautiful writing.  Patti Smith's Just Kids has been hauntingly beautiful too.  And "Mrs. Mimi's" teaching memoir, It's Not All Flowers and Sausages:  My Adventures in Second Grade, along with Searching for a Savior:  The Trials and Triumphs of a First-Year Teacher, because I've never been able to shake the idea of giving a teaching career a second go.  (I taught two months of middle school when I was twenty-four.)  We'll see.  For now, I'm reading and watching and thinking and daydreaming:  teaching kindergarteners how to read, solving mysteries with Cormoran Strike and other detectives who need my expertise, assisting Josh and Donna at the White House, falling asleep while an owl watches over me from my bedroom windowsill in Tuscany, discussing shyness and fear-conquering and driver's license-acquiring with Mrs. Roosevelt. . . .The rest of me continually re-wraps itself into a blanket, only getting up to pour another drink or to feed the cat, but my head--Well!  My head and I, we're GOING places, I tell you.  :)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

At the Ripe Old Age of Almost-38

I finally got my driver's license yesterday.  When my best friend died in a car accident in 1995, I don't think my friends or family or I had any inkling that it would scare me away from driving for so very long.  My dear Sommer had been on her way to pick me up for school on March 1st of our senior year of high school when her car went off the road.  The investigators never determined what caused it to happen, and that fact left me uncomfortable in cars at best and terrified in cars at worst, even as a passenger.  

I tried in 2002, when I was 25, to get my license.  My dad taught me to drive, and I spent more than thirty hours in practice that summer, but I failed the test twice--parallel parking mistakes, both times--and wasn't comfortable enough even then, so I didn't bother taking it a third time.  In the summer of 2003, now 26, I tried again.  I renewed my learner's permit and went out to drive with my dad a few more times.  One evening, I didn't navigate a turn properly and almost hit an elderly male driver.  I could have killed this poor man, not to mention my dad and myself.  That was only about ten minutes into that evening's drive, but I turned the car toward home and never went driving with my dad again.  I let my permit expire, and until last fall, that was the end of that.  My parents tried to tell me to "get back on the horse," and my aunt Laurie continued, for the next few months, at least, to ask about my progress, but it would be eleven more years until I would try again.  After awhile, no one asked or mentioned it anymore.  It was just an awkwardly understood subject:  Val Doesn't Drive, It Freaks Her Out.  It was the one aspect of the entire trauma of Som's death that I wasn't able to work through and get past.  

Until yesterday. 
 In 2013, I decided that I was going to get my driver's license before the twentieth anniversary of Sommer's death, which will be March 1st of this year.  I studied for my learners' permit--the written test--again, researched local driving schools and sent one a long email that September to tell my story and see if any of its instructors were up for the challenge of helping me. 
 "Please know," I warned toward the end of that first email, "that I don't get behind the wheel at all without thinking of [Sommer] and imagining her last moments, so this is still a tough road ahead of me."  The founder of the driving school promptly wrote back to say that she would be honored to work with me and that another student of hers with a similar story had just gotten her license, and to please call so we could talk and arrange my first lesson.  But I was still too scared, and I put it off another entire year.  Another entire YEAR, you guys.  Bah!  And then I realized this past summer, now September 2014, and now 37 years old, that the twentieth anniversary of Sommer's death was only six months away and that if I didn't start now, I'd never get my license by then.  And twenty years, it was now clear, was more than long enough to have this particular monkey on back.  In a fit of bravery, I found myself calling Cindy--Just do it, before you chicken out--and before I knew it, we were talking and laughing and had made appointments for my first two lessons.  I quickly renewed my permit yet again, rewarded these small acts of courage with a bouquet of pink roses--the pink roses would become a tradition throughout this process--and hoped and prayed that I could somehow make it happen this time.
My first driving lesson with the wonderful Cindy from the driving school was September 23rd of 2014.  I hadn't told anyone--not my parents, neither of my brothers, none of my friends, not even Mike--that I was attempting to get my license, so no one knew--until yesterday!  --that any of this was happening.  No pressure for me that way--or no additional pressure, I should say, and much less stress.  I met Cindy in a neighborhood store's parking lot (after Mike had "safely" left for work), and she immediately had me sit in the driver's seat.  That alone was sickeningly scary to me.  To anyone walking past us as we sat inside this car in the store parking lot, it was just a student having a lesson with a driving school instructor.  I knew, though, that I was terrified that I was going to die in a car accident during this first lesson and had actually written a goodbye letter to Mike and left it on our dining table for him.  I was that scared.  After reviewing the controls and features of her car, Cindy had me drive around the neighborhood to see how much I'd retained from 2002 and 2003.  "You're doing beautifully," she encouraged me and added that it was clear that I'd retained a lot of what I'd learned with my dad twelve years prior.  "Usually during a first session, the student's veering all over the road and stopping and starting really abruptly and the whole car's bucking and jerking.  You're doing none of that."  As in 2002 and 2003, though, my driving may have looked okay to the people in the car with me, but I myself felt nauseous with fear.  "I feel like I'm going to cry," I confessed, and Cindy asked if I wanted to pull over.  "You won't be the first student who's needed to stop and cry," she reassured me.  I didn't stop and cry right then, though.  I waited until I got home.  :)  And I forced myself out again for a second lesson that same week.  I rewarded myself for those first two lessons with another bouquet of pink roses, and I scheduled another session for October.  
On Halloween, my third time out with Cindy, I drove on the parkway for the first time.  I drove on the parkway!  And drove in rain (and on wet leaves) for the first time.  And through a restaurant drive-through for the first time.  (Cindy wanted a diet Coke.)  :)  And drove through my first roundabout.  All the cars in Cindy's driving school are equipped with accelerator and brakes on the instructor's/passenger's side too, and I think knowing that if I couldn't control the car, the instructor could, is one of the biggest factors in my success at learning to drive this time.  With some of that specific fear finally removed, I was finally able to absorb what I was learning instead of going through the motions while really focused instead on the Oh-my-God-it-will-be-just-like-what-happened-to-Sommer-I'm-going-to-kill-someone-this-is-life-and-death-it-will-happen-again-because-of-me-this-time the way I had been in 2002 and 2003.  "I've got you," Cindy would remind me.  "I'm right here."  When I returned home from that session Halloween afternoon, I wrote in my journal:  "It started raining as I was getting ready to meet Cindy, which added to my anxiety--I was almost nauseous before this lesson--but now I'm glad it was raining because it makes me feel that much braver and that much more accomplished.  Today changed things.  I can picture myself really driving after today.  It's going to happen this time, it really is."  I ended that journal entry by doodling a driver's license cake, 
and it would be a vision I would hold on to, some positive visualization of the celebratory cake I was determined to make the day I finally got my license.  And after this lesson, I treated myself to a small china bowl with pink roses I found at Goodwill, a twist on the pink roses tradition for this turning point in the process.  
In November, I had two more lessons, one being a review of parallel parking and the other my first official highway lesson during which I drove to the airport and back.  Cindy told me then that if I were to take my driver's exam that day, she thought I had a pretty good chance of passing it.  She would still want more time to do a mock driver's exam with me, but this was the first time she had mentioned my being even somewhat ready for the test.  Later that month, I dreamed that my older brother and I were in a car and I was driving us somewhere, and we were laughing and talking while I drove.  This is the first "driving dream" I'd ever had that wasn't a nightmare, and when I woke from it, I realized I wasn't afraid to drive anymore:  That stage of my life had ended. 

 My sixth lesson was December 19th and was, indeed, preparation for the exam.   (Gah!  I'm really doing this!)  And on December 21st, I decided to (be optimistic! and) go ahead and  schedule it.  Unlike in 2002, the Department of Motor Vehicles now has a road test-scheduling feature on their website--no more walking in and taking a number as I had before--so I was soon scheduled to take the exam the morning of January 6th.  I spent Christmas and New Year's sick with dread, although Cindy said I was ready now.  And finally, after four months of "sneaking around" and keeping all this a secret, I told Mike what I'd been up to.  I still didn't want to tell him, but Cindy had said that she was going to pick me up at 6 am--6 am!--the morning of my exam so that we could repeatedly run through the road test route and practice in the DMV's official parallel parking space--it is off-limits during business hours for anyone not taking the exam--before my test, and I couldn't come up with a "story" for why I would be leaving at 6 am, so I finally had to tell him the truth.  On January 3rd, I had my final lesson with Cindy--more test preparation--and I mentioned while we drove around the DMV lot that a storm was supposed to hit in the next few days.  "Ugh!" she groaned, then added, "Do you want to see if they'll just let you take your test today instead?  They might be able to squeeze you in."  I didn't like what I was wearing, though, and I knew that if I passed the test that day, that would be my outfit on my driver's license for the next few years, so I told her I'd wait for January 6th.  And then I laughed as I realized that if that was my reason for not wanting to take the exam, I really was finally ready for it.  :)  The city was hit with snow and ice the night before my exam, though, and in the wee hours of the morning, I texted Cindy to let her know I wanted to reschedule it.  I hadn't driven on snow or ice before, and the idea of doing so for the first time the day of my driver's exam didn't thrill me.  Later that day, I rescheduled my exam for 8:30 am January 27th, and I've spent the past few weeks alternating between nausea and panic and tears as the clock has counted down to Test Time.

 I got absolutely no sleep--not a single second--Monday night.  The city, like much of the northeast, was hit with a mess of snow, and Cindy had told me to let her know by 4:45 am at the latest whether I wanted to cancel or take the test.  All night, I wondered what I would decide.  At 4:02 yesterday morning, I sent her a text message:  "Unless you think the roads are too bad, I will try the test today."  I figured that even if I didn't pass the exam, at least I could consider it a driving-in-snow lesson.  (I had still never driven in snow.)  And Sommer's birthday was last week, and part of me wanted to do it this month for her, as a gift of sorts.  And I was just tired of having this dread hanging over my head since December 21st.  And a defiant damn-it-I'm-going-to-DO-this part of me had begun to burn:  I wanted it.  Wearing a locket with a favorite photo of me and Sommer inside, and carrying Dad's handmade fishing lure in my bag as a good luck charm, since he had been my first driving teacher, I woke Mike at 5:45 yesterday morning to tell him that Cindy was here and I was leaving.  "Hopefully, we'll be having a celebration cake tonight," I told him as we hugged goodbye. 
Although Cindy did not agree with me, the practice before the exam was horrible.  I messed up something every single time I tried to parallel park--and the parallel parking is what had thwarted my first two attempts to pass the test in 2002.  I repeatedly drove the route well, but I only managed to try to parallel park correctly over and over and over again right until 8:24 am when Cindy said I really needed to go inside to check in and start the test.  The man who would be my examiner asked me to sign my name at the check-in desk, and my hand was actually shaking.  Then my arms started shaking.  The examiner tried to joke with me--"That's a nice Irish name," he said sarcastically as he looked at my signature--but I was so nervous and nauseous, I could barely smile at him and was just trying not to cry.  I turned to Cindy and whispered, "Cindy, I'm SHAKING.  Even my ARMS.  What am I going to DO?"  She said I would be fine and tried to distract me by showing me some vacation photos on her phone, but I have rarely been as big of a mess as I was in the moments before the exam began.  I couldn't bring myself to make eye contact with Cindy again as the examiner and I headed outside, but Cindy told him as we walked past, "Val's good.  She is.  She's ready."  Cindy, Cindy, Cindy.  :)    The examiner walked out to the car with me and said that I could start the car and get situated for a second because he needed to walk down to the lot's parallel parking space to make sure the cones were set up properly and the space wasn't too messy from the snowstorm, since I was the first exam of the day.  While he checked out the space, I got myself sorted out in the car and prayed--and to Sommer specifically--for courage and calm.  I have to do this this time, please help me, I just have to do this, I need to pass this and get on with my life, I need this stage to be over, I need to pass this, please, PLEASE. . . .The examiner returned, and after he was done explaining a few things about the exam, I told him, "I'm almost forty years old, I hate being this nervous!"  He looked stunned and said that he hadn't realized that I was that nervous.  "You hide it really well," he added.  Ha!  (Cindy said later that he told her the same thing about me after the exam, while they were waiting for me to come back inside:  He wouldn't have known that I was nervous at all if I hadn't mentioned it.  To me, it was beyond obvious, but apparently not.)  And then, just like that, just like a switch had been flipped, all my nervousness went away, and I thought, I've got this.   It was like I could see the entire test and day before me--Val passing the exam, Val posing for elated pictures with Cindy after the exam, Val at the grocery store buying ingredients for her celebration cake after the exam--like it had already happened.  I've never felt such a strange and sudden calm. 

I demonstrated all the vehicle controls correctly, the examiner got into the car and asked me to use the horn and windshield wipers for the final part of the vehicle controls section of the exam, and then I backed up--dodging a snowplow driver who was a little too close to our car for comfort--and drove us down to the parallel parking space.  Before putting the car into reverse, I took a second to think through the steps, and then I did it.  I just did it, as smoothly as an expert driver in a driver education video.  I just did it.  I asked the examiner if he wanted me to apply the parking brake "just to be official," and he said no, and then he added, "I actually just want to sit here and savor this a minute because I know I'm not going to see anyone else do as good of a job parallel parking the rest of the day."  ! ! ! ! ! ! !    I calmly thanked him--although I felt like cheering and giddily clapping my hands--and off we went for the road test part of the exam.  Part of the route was a snowy and somewhat slippery hill, now in even worse shape than when I had practiced on it with Cindy just minutes earlier, but I controlled the car well, and the examiner complimented me on that too.  "As long as YOU know that I've come to a full stop here. . ." I said at two different stop signs, "But I'm going to have to inch forward a bit.  I can't see anything."  As if the examiner didn't understand how to drive and wouldn't have comprehended such amazingly advanced skills.  ;)  But I wanted to make sure that he knew that I knew. . . since he had warned me before the exam that he is a "stickler for stop signs."  "Of course," he replied both times.  "You do whatever you need to do to drive safely, especially in these conditions."  While waiting for traffic to clear at another point so I could make a left turn, another driver flashed his lights to signal that he was letting me go, and when the the examiner saw that, he quietly said, "Oh, NICE."  :)  He was mild-mannered and quiet and the perfect fit for me for the exam.  'Back onto the main road, and thank God, no icy patches on it--just snow and slush.  Before I knew it, I was pulling back into the DMV lot and parking the car.  The  exam was over.  And after twenty years of being terrified of all things driving-related, I was told that I had passed my test and could go inside to get my picture taken for my license.  
On no sleep, in the city, and on my first day ever driving on snow, I got my driver's license.   
Click to enlarge.  :) 
 The examiner talked with me for a minute, answered a couple of my driving questions--I asked him what advice he had for me as a new driver--congratulated me, and went back inside to start the next person's exam.  As soon as he left, I got out and went to the back seat for my bag--letting in a bunch of swirling snow when I opened the door--and took a second to reach inside and grab my phone to send a quick text message to Mike.  Without waiting for a response, I zipped up my bag, locked the car, and turned around to see Cindy waiting for me outside the DMV's door.  "Can you BELIEVE it?!"  I cried out, then really started to cry.  "Yes, I CAN!" she replied, and we hugged before I headed over to the counter have my picture taken.  And it is, like most driver's license photos, a hideous picture of me that looks nothing like any of the other pictures taken of me yesterday.  :)  But it's my DRIVER'S LICENSE picture, so how could I complain?!  
 My examiner kindly took a couple pictures of me with Cindy before he began the next person's test,
and when Cindy and I got back into the car, I pulled out a couple thank you gifts I had made for her:  A vintage car-shaped planter with a Hyacinth bulb inside, 
 and a card I'd drawn to look like a license plate.  
On the way home, Cindy said that maybe it was Sommer who had "magically" calmed me down as the exam began, and I have to agree.  She also admitted that while she had believed I would be fine and would pass the exam, she had also been really nervous for me (with my trembling hands and arms) right before it:  "I've been doing this so long, I don't really get nervous anymore when my students take their tests, but I was almost SICK over you!" she told me, and we laughed over her "You make me sick, Val!" for awhile.  After more picture-taking and some goodbye-hugging, Cindy dropped me off, and I soon found myself in the grocery store, just as I'd envisioned, buying ingredients for my celebratory cake--this one is a Hershey's recipe actually named Celebration Chocolate Cake.  I couldn't stop sneaking peaks at my driver's license--"my driver's license," I just wrote!  I have a driver's license!  --as I walked around the store.
Back at the apartment, I immediately called my dad.    I mentioned his good luck fishing lure, of course.  And I sent messages to my brothers and their wives.  My secret was now out! I answered text messages and phone calls and emails as I baked my cake, crying again as I reread that first message I'd sent to Mike right after the exam.
Oh, life is so sweet some days.  So perfect and down-to-the-last-detail SWEET.    After all three cake layers were out of the oven, I took an hour-long nap--my first sleep in twenty-nine hours---and woke to a congratulatory phone call from my mom after she'd gotten home from work.  She couldn't believe I'd kept it a secret, and for so long, and that even Mike hadn't known until I scheduled the exam.  She sounded just as shocked by my accomplishment when we said goodbye as she had when we'd said hello.  :)  She doesn't even drive in the snow, so she was really quite stunned by all the story's details.  :)
And finally, after supper last night--Mike ordered an extra-cheese pizza with mushrooms, my favorite--I got to enjoy the cake I'd begun drawing sketches of months before.  Positive visualization at its finest.    To complete the roses tradition, I used the pink roses tablecloth I'd been saving for this occasion.  And was in bed by 9 pm, for the best sleep I've gotten since before I'd scheduled the exam last month.  :)  Ahhhhh!  I did it!  Six days after Sommer's birthday and with just five weeks remaining before the twenty-year mark of her death, I did it!  Mike and I don't have a car--we can walk or take the bus to everything we need in the city--so for now, the driver's license is more a symbolic gesture and an accomplishment than it is everyday joy rides, but I told Cindy I would continue to schedule sessions with her just to get more/regular driving practice, and sometime this spring or summer, I want to rent a car and drive home to my family for the first time.  One step at a time.  Today, I'm still basking in the accomplishment, marveling at yesterday's sudden serenity, and looking forward to another piece of my cake.    I did it!  

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Day of Rest

 Finally, a day off after an aggravating work-week.  Strawberries and red grapes for breakfast.  A chicken Caesar salad for lunch.  I started Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids, this afternoon.  Beautiful writing.  And a beautiful cat stretched out on my legs while I read.  Leftover chili for supper.  And now, a big bowl of popcorn on my afghan-covered lap while I return to my book.  Bliss!  One of my favorite professors in college always wrapped up his Friday afternoon classes by advising us to have either a productive or relaxing weekend, whichever it was that we most-needed.  I think of that advice on evenings like this, when I look back on my day and its hours of reading, cat-cuddling, and catching up while Mike reads in his own chair beside me.