The best laid plans.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

– To a Mouse,  by Robert Burns (paraphrased from the original Scottish text)

My Dad used to quote that line.  He quoted it a lot.  My Dad used to quote a lot of things – literature, poetry, Shakespeare.  He was well-read, intellectual, with a flair for the dramatic.  All of those things I’ve just said are a complete understatement.

It’s funny the way that his favorite words find me, now that he’s gone.  How they grab me.  How a piece of text will pop into my head out of nowhere and I’ll hear it echoing in my brain, always in his voice, deep and tinged with a hint of laughter, a dash of Irish mischief.

I used to roll my eyes when Dad would quote some famous piece of text, theatrically, in that way that he did.  It would verge on melodrama, but he really meant it.  Or at least, he sold it well.  During his court-mandated stint in rehab after a drunk driving incident, Mom would tell me stories of how Dad charmed everyone, how he brought other rehab patients to tears with his eloquent quotations of some of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets.  He impressed everyone, even the addiction  counselors.  But Dad was never serious about getting sober.  He just wanted to win the room.

It’s so strange the way that our subconscious mind puts things together, so weird and wonderful the way long forgotten memories come flooding back when we least expect them to.  Now, when one of Dad’s favorite quotes pops into my head, I figure  it must be because I needed to hear it; it’s some lesson I’m still learning.

Just like the line, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.  If ever there was a line reverberating in my brain lately, it’s that one.  Because my life these days is nothing like I thought it would be ten years ago, or five years ago, or even a few months ago.  I’ve learned (or am learning) that nothing is certain, except uncertainty.  As I try to hold on to the hopeful optimism that’s been a constant companion throughout my life (when I was a girl, Dad used to call me ‘Polyanna’), I find myself in a frequent tug of war between long-held dreams and current, inescapable realities.  And as much as I know that the surest path to freedom is to release my expectations, let go of the past, embrace the moment, and move the F on, it is a heck of a lot harder to do that than the Buddhists would have you believe.

In fact, I’m not even sure that letting go of expectations is entirely possible.  How can you?  If you do something, anything, in your life – take a job, make a plan, start a relationship, a friendship, a project,  you buy tickets to a concert on Saturday night – you have a picture in your mind of how it’s going to go, don’t you?  You anticipate.  You dream.  You imagine the outcome.  It’s what we do as human beings.

So here I am, with all of the best laid plans I made for my life gone completely awry, wondering what now?  And so I take comfort in those words.  Because I’m not the only one to make big, grand plans that just don’t work out.  I’m not the only one to build a dream and then watch it crumble.  I’m not the only one to feel like I’m too old, too lost, too hopeless to start over, and yet start over I must.

Thanks for that reminder, Dad.  Thanks for allowing those words to come to me – via you – just when I needed them the most.

Until next time, friends.

Ice Water.

Hidden Lane Back View

You nearly died when I was nine. Though I might have been as young as eight, or as old as ten. I don’t remember. I do remember the fear.

We were living in Anchorage, in the house on Hidden Lane. My mom’s dream house. The three-story Alaskan chateau with the cathedral-high ceilings and the great big skylights, the wrap-around deck, the window bench I used to clamber upon on special nights well after midnight when the Northern Lights were out, the vegetable garden where we harvested rhubarb to make pie, and the jacuzzi in the basement ‘spa’ room populated by my mom’s favorite plants.

I dreamt about that house often after my mother’s death. It had been more than fifteen years since I’d lived there but in my dreams I remembered every detail, every inch of it. That house was as much my mom as her aquamarine eyes or her easy laugh. She worked with an architect to design the floor plan to painstaking detail and she was so very proud of it, as if she’d built it herself with her bare hands.

But as magical as the house on Hidden Lane was, bad things happened there. Burglars smashed in the front door in broad daylight and stole jewelry from my bedroom before an alarm scared them away. My parents fought frequently, often about my father’s drinking and the need for him to retire from his law practice. My mom, miserable during the cold, dark Alaska winters, suffered sad spells and would lock herself in her bedroom for hours at a time, refusing to answer or come out. More than once, I fell asleep curled up on the carpet outside her door, keeping vigil.

And then there was the night you almost died. Mom and I were upstairs, watching a movie. I think you and she had fought about something, but that memory, like many during that time, is fuzzy. What I do remember is the moment mom wondered aloud where you were and her eyes met mine and we both knew in an instant that something was wrong. We flew down the stairs – two or three at a time – to the basement. As we got closer, we could hear the hot tub whirring and I felt fear churning in my stomach.

And then we saw you: submerged under water, eyes closed, face purple. I thought for sure you were dead. It was the first time in my life I felt real terror – the kind that plunges into your chest like a swift, steel dagger, a sudden attack of ice water in the veins, freezing, expanding, breaking you apart from the inside out.

I remember mom pulling you out, screaming, crying, yelling for me to call 911. I don’t remember dialing the numbers, but I know that I must have done it because there was the operator’s voice on the other end, talking me through CPR. There was me, relaying instructions as mom went through chest compressions and mouth to mouth resuscitation. There was mom, turning you over on your side, and you, vomiting up water, coughing, choking, gasping for breath. And you didn’t die. Not that day.

The ambulance arrived, and you went to the hospital. And 24 hours later you and mom were off on vacation somewhere much warmer than Alaska – Hawaii or Mexico, I don’t remember – as though nothing had ever happened. If it wasn’t for the terror, the shock of ice water in my veins, I would think that I dreamt the whole thing up, that it was all just some hazy nightmare.

But I didn’t dream it. It was real. It happened. I wouldn’t feel that same terror, that same sudden, swift dagger again for another twenty years. Not until the Sunday morning when I received a panicked voicemail from my aunt telling me to call home, and you answered the phone and informed me in a flat, distant tone, ‘Mom’s dead.’

The night you nearly died was my first time, my first experience with real fear, my initiation into a world that wasn’t so safe, a world where everything could shift in an instant. It left an indelible mark. When the feeling visited me again many years later, I knew right away what it was, what it meant – that ice water, that steel dagger, that lightning strike of pure terror. After all, you never forget your first time. Do you?

Coastal Trail

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