A few years ago my sister Anne drove Mother to an appointment with a medical specialist whose office was at a nearby hospital. Mother had seen this doctor before, when she’d been driven by a home health aide. As Anne drove, Mother became agitated and blurted out in dismay,
“Anne! You’re going the wrong way!”
“No, Mother,” Anne assured her, “this is the way to the hospital.”
“But it isn’t the way we went before!”
“Well, Mother, there’s more than one way to get there.”
“But it isn’t the way the aide went!”
Repeat as needed until the incredible arrival at the hospital.
The first way she gets anywhere becomes the only possible way to get there, no matter how often experience indicates that multiple routes to destinations are the norm. She had a there’s-only-one-way-to-get-there meltdown when my husband was driving us to the airport from the beach in South Carolina at the end of our annual family vacation on Edisto Island. The fact that he was using GPS didn’t matter. She was so overwhelmed by fear that she burst out in terror, “Rick! You’re going the wrong way!” He wasn’t, of course, because there’s more than one way to get there. Despite assurances, she trembled with panicked certainty that her suddenly unstable son-in-law would make her miss her plane and plunge her into chaos.
Until we reached the familiar gas station where we always stop to gas up the rental minivans on the hour-long drive from the beach house to the airport, she couldn’t open her eyes, control her petrified facial expression, release her clench on the armrest or repress the little whimpering noises. She could not let go of her terror of the dreadful consequences when my technology-drunk husband’s recklessness hurtled her into some dark and lawless tangle of dead-end dirt roads where the minivan was sure to begin sinking into a snake-and-alligator-filled swamp bursting with nothing but slimy substances and multiple-choice death scenarios.
After miraculously surviving this harrowing ordeal, she staggered into the gas station store for a retreat into the restroom and a calming snack. She had only a few minutes to navigate the treacherous path through the rocks and hard places of her fears and the essential maintenance of sweet helplessness, the shield she relies on for managing other people. The anxiety that surrounds any plane flight was looming, and in her panic over the unsanctioned route to the airport she’d told my husband he was wrong; she’d learned from my father that men will not tolerate being told that they’re wrong. When she got back to the car, she offered my husband a meek apology, closed her eyes, medicated herself with the gas station muffin and started to piece her safety back together.
My mother solves most of her problems by applying her masterful passive-aggression skills to get someone else to do things for her. But when you do things for her, you have to do them her way. Because anything else is a threat to her world.
Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.