Alone with my thoughts, I could probably have spent the whole flight going over the trip in my mind, much like I did for the few hours of rest we had after we left the reception. All I knew then was that I was to pack for four days for a hot beach. I didn't know where the beach was, but I knew Robb was packing our passports. It was his last surprise. The flight would leave early Sunday morning, so we would have just a couple of hours to pack and sleep and then leave the kids in the care of my parents. I was too overwhelmed to sleep, though, and instead, I spent those few hours going over the perfection of every detail in my mind. I could not stop smiling. I think I smiled through the flight from XNA to Atlanta where finally, all the way at the end of the terminal, I saw our destination designated at the gate: Nassau, Bahamas.
Of course. Of course he would take me to the Bahamas. Twenty years ago, he had gone there on his senior trip for college, learning to sail chartered boats around the islands on a grand adventure, while I was back at home in snowy Pennsylvania. He bought a handcrafted box with a butterfly on it from the Straw Market there, and used it to hide my engagement ring the night he proposed. Of course he always intended to bring me back there with him.
And it had been perfect. Just the right mix of adventures and doing nothing. The water, so clear and blue, the sand so fine and white, the waves smaller and calmer than they are on the Great Lakes. The all-inclusive hotel provided one delicious meal after another, and enough alcohol to pickle our livers. And the best part, as any other parent of four children could verify, we didn't have to worry about anyone but ourselves. The lovely Bahamian people have made it their business to make their guests relax and have fun, and they are good at it.
I even got a chance to wear that cute dress I had bought. It was perfect for our actual anniversary on that Tuesday night, when we followed a delicious dinner of steak and lobster with a moonlit walk on the beach. We talked about our dreams and hopes for the future, especially as we were about to really start a whole new routine with Robb's new job, working from home, and the kids heading back to school. I tried again to explain what I was feeling back at the very beginning of this huge surprise... why I asked "Am I dying?" It was such an odd thing to say. I fumbled for an explanation as we made our way down the soft sand with the beach all to ourselves.
"I just feel like I'm due some sadness with all this joy."
"Why? We live by grace, Honey, not karma."
Something about the objectivity of that theological statement settled me, like it often does, and our conversation drifted to other things.
But, back on the plane on the way home, feelings I didn't quite understand began to build. My heart pounded as I tried to ascertain what I was seeing below us. The water was so clear, I could discern what seemed to be shallow water around the edges of land. But I knew from flipping a jet-ski earlier that morning, that even though it looked shallow, it was actually quite deep. As the turquoise turned to dark blue, the vastness of the water frightened me. What is comforting and relaxing while you curl your toes into the sand -the bigness of the ocean verses the smallness of your problems- it becomes something entirely different as you fly above it and cannot find the orienting edges of where the water ends and the dry land appears. I tried to read, but the opening chapters of Dave Egger's book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius are nothing short of a parent's nightmare. The more I tried to calm myself, the more I could feel panic rising. The thought of waking Robb to tell him I was freaking out seemed too cruel. He had just given me such a perfect gift...how could I turn around and tell him I was unhappy in any way? It seemed like the blood pounding in my ears and the pressure of the air of the plane were both pushing me into a corner of my imagination. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted everything to stop. I wanted to hide. I wanted to stop feeling whatever it was that I was feeling.
"God. You have to come get me. I'm freaking out here." I prayed.
"I'm serious. Drop whatever you are doing. I need you."
Back at home, the school year resumed. So much newness. Not only was Robb really getting in gear for his new job, I started a part-time gig with my friend Stacie and her shop Gingiber, answering customer service questions and helping with other areas of communication. My ordination paper still unfinished, I observed the days and tried to guess how I might construct them in ways that let me accomplish as much as possible, while running the mom-taxi and keeping this crazy little toddler of ours occupied in ways other than say...coating herself in eyelash glue from her sister's bathroom (Sorry, Mattie). The air cooled unusually for the weather in August here in Arkansas, and we gulped down each new day like another bite of dessert.
We had a therapy session on the calendar already, which Robb had cleverly pushed back a week or two longer than our usual interval, so there was much to talk about. We practiced telling the story of Robb's surprise with our therapist, since we will be telling it for years to come. Much of the hour was gone by the time I brought up the anxious moments from the plane.
"What is the deal with that?" I asked flippantly, not really expecting any real answer of substance. The time was too short to cover such a big topic. And besides, obviously, I had so much happiness to live off of, I could push anxiety away by replaying the happy story to myself and other people. Those hours of being so perfectly loved. So perfectly safe. So perfectly relaxed. My only job being to feel joy.
I had even described it to Robb as being life-changing. He had raised an eyebrow to that and teased that I was being a little dramatic. "No! I'm really not." I explained. It was as if my parameters of what was possible had been pushed back to a much wider, more beautiful, more hopeful, space. Robb's "why not" of grace had cleared back a landscape that I often allow to become overgrown with doubts, mismanaged practicalities, self-imposed limitations and childhood hangups.
Our therapist cleared his throat. "Well, it seems to me that anxiety comes up so often for people because we exist in the world as adults the way we learned to exist in the world as children."
I choked down a sob that caught me totally by surprise.
Perhaps you want to read those words again and see how that bit of free therapy I'm passing along affects you. I can only tell you that I suddenly had the image of my own self, at about 7 years old. In my imagination, I poke my head in, like moms do, to see her playing by herself in her room. I know what is inside the mom's head. And I know what is inside the girl's head. So often, when we look back on ourselves, we are condescending; "So dumb!" we think. But in this moment, I saw that child with compassion, the way I would feel about my own kids. My eyes followed the unruly curls on her head and observed her easy smile. She is full of curiosity. Creativity. Industry. She is always thinking up a day-dream, a pretty, innocent thing. She sees the world as basically good and she sees herself as basically strong.
But you know how kids pack for things in ways that seem so silly? You tell them, "We're going on a trip!" And they pack their favorite stuffed animal and four shirts, and a few toys and no socks or toothbrush or pants? I imagine myself that way too. For life, I packed some ridiculous notions.
I packed the expectation that nothing good comes without some string attached. I learned somehow as a kid to never think that good things just came along without something equally and oppositely bad.
There is no free lunch.
Into every life a little rain must fall.
Don't tempt the gods by being too happy.
I should make the disclaimer that I don't know if anyone was really trying to teach me that or not. Kids just try to make sense of their worlds the best they can.
The image faded from my mind as I came back to our therapist's office and I heard his voice clarifying his comment:
"We are trying to decipher, is it a benevolent universe, or isn't it? How are God and my father different?"
"It's Psychology 101" I said. "I get it."
Back on the plane, my desperate attempt to reach Heaven for an answer had just been sent, and I waited for a reply like an important text. I snapped photos, trying to look calm when I felt like any second I might start screaming.
And then I heard it.
I don't often hear from God. Probably because I'm not often poised on the edge of terror. I can usually find some activity to busy myself and push anxious thoughts away. But on a few occasions, I have heard that unmistakable voice. The economy of words is what tips me off. They speak straight to the real thing. My own imagination is ...obviously.... wordy in the extreme.
It was not the promise "Nothing bad will happen to you." or "You are never going to get cancer" or "You'll always get to have the relationships you want to have." or even "This plane will land safely."
Instead, the words spoke to the source of my real anxiety. My panic attack on the plane was born out of the belief that because I had experienced such bliss, I would pay for it. It would come after me and break my thumbs and demand equal suffering. And it would be soon. Because, as one psychologist explains it, "What fires together, wires together." If you were having a perfectly nice time and let your guard down and were just having fun, that was the moment that everything would turn south. The principal would walk in on your dance party in Study Hall. The family vacation turned into a yelling match. The snake slithered down the creek where you were wading. So don't be too happy. Don't have too much fun. Don't get too relaxed.
"I made this for you. "
"I made this for you."
There is no other shoe to drop.
You don't have to pay for sunrises. They just happen. Everyday. You don't have to earn leaves changing colors. It just happens. We don't work for waves. They just happen. A daily, reliable, tangible gift. Love. Goodness. Beauty. Grace. The deep water we don't always understand. The islands of calm. The colors. The air. The vastness. All of it. It's right there in front of you.
My heart stopped pounding and took Robb's hand and went home to my beautiful life.