Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Wife Rule #54: Sometimes the Answer is No

I have been avoiding this topic ever since I started writing down Wife Rules, but it has been such a big part of our first ten years together that I knew I needed to eventually deal with it. It's not a pleasant thing to think about, much less to write about, but it is something that has deeply shaped our lives together, our relationships with our families, and our faith.

To be honest, I don't think about it all that often anymore, probably only a time or two each week. But there is a certain place we occasionally pass through--a city--that seems to trigger a flood of difficult memories that wash over me and bring back all the unwanted emotions that I typically dismiss as water under the bridge.

This city lies directly in the four-hour path we take between our home and my wife's mother's new home. It catches me off guard every time we go to visit her. I don't usually worry much about it, and even if I did, there really isn't a good alternate route; I can't avoid it.

At a certain point in the journey, about ten miles outside that city, we pass a particular bend in the road, and start traversing up a little canyon that houses a tiny town. My wife sometimes reflects on how her dad knew the mayor of that town. Driving through this canyon is always the first time that hints of sadness begin to surface at the edges of my mind, like suddenly noticing the sound of water lapping on the shore of a lake, where the sound had been only in the background earlier.

I remember the day, four-and-a-half years ago, that we got the call from my wife's mom. I was late for work, and was sitting between our bed and the window on the carpet, soaking in the morning sun, when the phone rang. Mom asked if my wife was there, and said we should both stay on the line. Something was terribly out of place in her tone of voice. She didn't delay telling us why she called; she just let it out: Dad had been in a terrible accident on his way to work. A dead deer was in his lane on the highway. A truck was coming from the other direction. It was dark. There wasn't any time to react, nor anywhere to go. He hit the deer, rolling his car multiple times. His brother had walked away from the wreck, but Dad didn't have his seat belt on, and was thrown from the car. A helicopter had flown him to the hospital, the one in the city just a few miles ahead of where we are driving now.

I look over at my wife. She's asleep. Or at least she's pretending to be asleep--I can't tell which. Good. I don't want her to have to think during this stretch of the drive, these miles of pavement that conjure up such strong memories.

After the phone call we dropped our kids off at my parents' home and headed north. That first three-hour drive is a blur, and my next memory is in the ER of that city's hospital, the first time we saw Dad after his accident. He wasn't conscious. There was surgery that needed to be done immediately. I hoped we could comfort him when he awoke, during his recovery.

We chatted lightly in the ICU waiting room upstairs. My mother-in-law and all the children were there. The doctors hadn't told us much, except that the damage was serious. There was head trauma. Recovery would take weeks at best. Despite this news, we were still optimistic, hoping things weren't really as bad as they looked.

We would spend a lot of time being optimistic together in that room, in that hospital, in that city, over the coming days.

Optimism calls for a delicate balance between short- and long-term planning. The prospects of a long recovery meant that I had to get back to work, to ration my time off. Besides, I had to pick up our kids from my parents' home. My wife could stay, but I needed to figure out how to manage my job and the kids while my wife stayed close to her family.

It worked out for our kids to stay with my parents, so I slept there with them, my days alternating between going to work and travelling back to the hospital. The specific sights of my route through that city burned themselves into my memory over the days that followed: the gas station where I filled up, just off the freeway; the exit signs; the particular angle of the bank of earth that sloped up away from the road; the large white dome to my right where my wife once competed in a tournament; the sight of the hospital and campus buildings on my left; the quaint, old houses and large shade trees, mostly barren of their autumn leaves, that lined the quiet streets.

I took a walk along those streets alone one evening when I needed a breather from the crowded waiting room. It seemed peaceful at the time; I still had high hopes for a complete recovery. I studied the old homes, mostly student housing now. I remembered my time as a student, not so long ago, a time that was incredibly busy but also relatively carefree.

My wife's aunt was the first to greet me as I returned to the hospital. Something about good news, something about the latest surgery. No specifics on further recovery yet, though.

Over the next few days, I repeated that long, lonely drive a few more times. My wife's aunt let us spend the night once at her nearby home. A local Red Lion hotel provided complimentary rooms for the whole family when I brought the kids up. Each trip required traversing that same freeway exit and that same lonely route to the hospital. In a way, that portion of the drive was comforting; something I could memorize, a constant in a time of great uncertainty.

Over the following days I experienced tremendous highs and shattering lows as new information became available. News of any change was infrequent and never very satisfying, but we never gave up hope. We never gave up faith. We never gave up on Dad.

But in the end, he never regained consciousness. After a week and a half in a coma he died, and there was nothing we could do about it. Sometimes optimism and our best efforts at faith just aren't enough. For reasons we may never understand in this life, God chose to answer our earnest, heartfelt prayers for Dad's recovery with a "no." We all suffered a terrible defeat--the greatest loss of our lives--in that city.

In the four-and-a-half years since Dad's passing, I haven't been back to that city, except when just passing through. The only places from my memories that I have seen since then are the stretch of highway ahead of me, the exit signs, and the exit, snaking off to the right.

As we arrive at that stretch of road today, suddenly my throat constricts and my eyes start to burn. The atmosphere seems heavy, like a burden pressing down on me. I hate the sight of that freeway exit. I hate my memories of all those places I visited in that city, and I fear them. I never want to drive along those quiet streets again. I never want to see the quaint houses or the bricks of that hospital again. Not in that city.

I'm glad my wife is asleep so that she doesn't see the pain contorting my face, the anguish in my countenance. I'm glad she is asleep so she doesn't have to feel any of what I am feeling right now. As hard as this is for me, I know that it would probably be harder for her.

I'm not always the driver, but today, by driving along this stretch of road and letting her sleep, in a small way I am protecting her, shielding her from the terrible memories of this place. In a few minutes, this city will be behind us, and she will be safe again. Safe from the oppressive weight and the deep, deep hurt that seems to emanate from the city where the cruel spectre of death took a loved one from us.

I realize that by writing this, some unpleasant memories will surface. But I have to--I need to--tell this story, because as hard as dealing with Dad's death has been, there has been good that has come from it. My children need to know about those good parts, and they simply wouldn't make as much sense without the context of the bad parts as well.

So we drive along the route that life requires of us. Most of the journey is pleasant, but a few parts--the "no" parts--can be painful. I don't know if that city will ever be neutral territory again. If not, I just hope my wife sleeps each time we pass through.


Amy said...

Matt, thanks so much for sharing that story. I knew Brooke's dad had died a few years ago, but I never realized it was in a car accident. I can imagine, and can sense, how hard it is to recall such a painful and surreal time of your lives, and how we all wish it could have been different.

LuckyMatt said...

Thanks, Amy.