It’s a few days before Christmas. It’s on the brink of getting dark- I’m parked in a grocery store parking lot, both my kids are asleep in the back seat. As we wait for Erik to come out of the store with the few things we still need for Christmas dinner, I am about to doze off enveloped in the warmth of the car, when a knock on the window lurches me quickly upright. I peer through the window and see a middle aged man standing by my car, with a wad of cash in his hand- although the light is dim, I can sense a cloud of worry and stress surrounding him. I don’t know why, maybe so that we are more equal this way, I open my entire door, instead of just rolling down the window, and ask if I can help him. He’s embarrassed. A little bit desperate. He explains that his car keeps dying at every stop light. He thinks it’s the battery. He has $76 dollars and he’s pretty sure a new one will cost him $100- can I spare anything to help him?
He says he’s just trying to get home.
I have a bird’s eye view of myself sitting in another car, almost 30 years earlier- same sort of deal. Two children sleeping in the backseat, I’m manning the front- only this time, the kids are my younger sister and baby brother. It’s Christmastime, I know that- and it’s cold, I feel like it’s raining. Something has happened to the car we are in, it won’t run anymore, and we are not even remotely close to home, but there is an urgency to get there as quickly as possible, I am conscious of that, but I don’t know why.
My awareness comes back to the man standing in front of me. I remember that I have $20 in my wallet and I dig it out of my bag and hand it to him. There are tears of relief in his eyes, furthering his embarrassment. I wish there was more I could do, I say to him. He thanks me for the help and wishes me a Merry Christmas- I see him drive by a few moments later in a late model car that appears to back up his claim.
My youngest begins to stir, Erik comes out of the grocery store, and my time is not for investigating the past right now, and so I forget about it all until I have one of those rare pockets of time alone with my dad. We go for a short ride and then a walk along the Piney River; in the winter, it’s my favorite. I run a bit and then fall into pace beside him. Bundled up, we point out the woodpeckers and chat about the level of the river. We sweet talk the coon dog that has come to trot alongside us and watch him meander along, back to his home. As we lean against his truck, I relay to him the story of the man in the parking lot, and how it brought back this memory-but it’s so spotty. What happened? Where were we? Help me fill in the blanks-
It’s was New Year’s Eve, actually, he says. My mother was so very sick- she had spent Christmas in the hospital. Without going into too much detail, the culmination of losing her family as a young child, combined with the demands of her own young children, had sent her down into an indescribably deep, dark place- one of which I am still afraid to think about too much, for too long. Her brother’s family had offered to help out by keeping us kids over the Christmas vacation so my dad could have a break, but they quickly realized how overwhelming we were and called my dad a few days later asking him to come and get us. Without a question, my dad climbs into the car, drives non-stop for five hours, loads us up in minutes, without even turning the car off, and gets us the hell out of there.
He was trying to outrun a few things right then, I suspect, but the most pressing of them was a huge ice storm that was taking over the Midwest. In my mind’s memory, I can see us kids, giddy to be back with someone who loved us, singing along to Christmas carols gleefully, completely naïve to the struggle that had become my father’s life.
That’s the beauty of childhood- or what every child should be allowed to have.
And what a beautiful man to absorb it all, in order to let us have that.
My dad goes on to recount that, as if it weren’t enough, as we raced down icy highways cutting through Indiana corn fields, he can remember watching the dash lights of the car grow dimmer and dimmer as the odometer hit 100,000 miles. He knew what was happening. The alternator was going out. We coasted to a stop some 30 miles down the road, ending up on the edge of an industrial town along the Ohio River.
He says he just couldn’t believe it, and all he could think was: “What am I going to do?” These were the days before mobiles and GPS- there was no location app to help him find the nearest auto repair shop, or cell phone to call AAA for help. He got out of the car, to keep breathing instead of freaking out. He looked around. Off in the distance he could see what he thought was an auto parts store and so putting me, the eldest, in charge, ordered us to lock all the doors and under no circumstances were we to talk to strangers (these were the days when you could do such things) and took off running, with a prayer on his lips and an ache in his heart, for an alternator.
It’s 5:50pm on New Year’s Eve, 1991. A stressed and worried, middle aged man walks through the door- the bell, attached to signal customer entry, rings hollow. The man stands at the counter with a hand full of cash and explains his car has just died. He knows it’s the alternator, and can even replace it himself, if they have one. He’s in luck, they do. It’ll cost him $120. Problem is, he’s only got $80. What’s he going to do?
He’s got a check! It’s good, he promises. Sales clerk looks at it, shakes his head- no out of town checks accepted. His boss would kill him. The man frantically explains that he’s got three little kids waiting back in the car and the ice is coming. The clerk is sorry- but there’s not really much he can do. The man rifles through his wallet- looking nervously out the window in the direction of the car that has his life in it. He’s got an ATM card for a Cincinnati bank- would it work here, even though he’s still in Indiana? The sale’s clerk looks at his watch, then stares at the man who is peering out at him from wire rimmed glasses, nervously waiting for an answer. He lets out his breath. He thinks there’s a 5/3 Bank on the other side of town.
The clerk makes a split decision that will impact someone else stranded in a parking lot, 30 years later.
And he decides to help.
Pulling the alternator off the shelf, he closes up shop, drives my dad across town to the ATM where he’s able to get the rest of the cash, then drops him off, where, thank God, we were still locked in the stranded car, moderately happy. He manages to replace the part and get us home without any more drama worth retelling, but the details of that day were obviously etched in his memory forever.
We both came back to the Piney River, after time traveling to a place and a time, that was difficult then, and somehow, even harder now. On opposite sides of the truck, and with the sound of the running river muffling out the sound of our sniffles and tears, I was able to thank my father for his struggle that day. Had it not been for that moment- that wretched and stressful day so many years ago, I might have been more suspicious, might not have connected, might not have made the decision to help the man standing there in the grocery store parking lot those few days before Christmas.
Hearing him retell this story, and thinking of it from his perspective now as an adult, as a parent, just as a human being, makes my heart ache for the many more stories of struggle he has yet to retell. But I look at him now and see a strong and capable man who has quietly maneuvered his way through life, and taught me so much, just in the living of it all.
He has modeled the truth for me: I will struggle, day in and day out, from the moment my feet hit the floor in those early morning hours- but it’s not ever all about me. I may see it as mine, but I am understanding that the reason we struggle is also so that others may gain strength, so that those around us can become better versions of themselves, better versions of us.
We will most likely not witness the impact of our dealings on others, but it is there- it has to be, because we are all one giant web of interconnectedness- we are humanity. We are each other. And when we beg for the burden to be lifted, are we then keeping someone else for whom the effects of the struggle were meant for, from actually getting what they need?
If we view the struggle as being more than just what it seems in that moment for a solitary self, then it seems insurmountable, exhausting, and unnecessary. But if we allow the purpose of all of the life stuff to sink in, and surrender to it-because life WILL have it’s way-then I wonder how much less striving we will have to do in the first place. Maybe there will be acceptance, and while challenging and painful, hectic and heart numbing, it will be just like all the other worthy things in life- work, learning, and in the end, triumph.
Today is my dad’s 65th birthday. It’s hard to verbalize what this man, who is partly responsible for bringing me into the world, and sustaining me with his presence, perseverance and character, means to me. All I can say is thank you- Thank you, Dad, for surrendering to the struggle. I know you don’t feel like you had much choice, but your decisions made me who I am today, and for that, I am truly grateful.
If there is one thing I have learned in my short, yet struggle filled years, it’s that life doesn’t ask us for our permission about anything, however, it will always require a response.
Surrender to the struggle, my friend, because it’s more than just about you- if you let it, it will change not only your life, but could impact someone else’s. Someone standing in a grocery store parking lot, 30 years from now.