What Was Really Happening
Late last night you drove three hours in deep darkness on the highways and then byways of a nearly-forgotten southern coast.
What was really happening was that you were thinking about another trip you took at the tail end of last summer. One of your youthful companions was with you, the middle one. Her belongings were jigsaw-puzzled into the trunk and the back seat.
She sat in the passenger seat, or rather she reclined in the passenger seat, and slept. She slept almost the entire way, over a thousand miles, as you piloted the rental car through the highways and byways of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
On the car ferry that crosses Lake Michigan the two of you made your way to the top deck and dragged lounge chairs over to the side. She reclined hers fully and fell asleep for most of the four-hour journey across that vast lake, waking up when you pressed half of a giant chocolate chip cookie into her hand.
Once in the car again, on the other side, she fell asleep again while you drove through the vast forests and hills of Michigan, a remote and, in your opinion, highly underrated state. When you crossed over into Canada –blessings on Canada, that vast and beautiful country– she fell asleep again.
She came awake when you spontaneously steered the car toward Niagara Falls –where you hadn’t been since you were a child– and the two of you got out and walked the length of the stone-walled path, cooled and softened by the ever-present mist rising from those enormous falls.
“Why am I sleeping so much on this trip?” she said.
“You’re tired,” you said. “It’s been a busy summer.”
She nodded. It had been a busy summer. Travel and socializing and working, all busy things, things that could tire a person out, but not so much when you’re her age.
One of the things that was really happening was that she had spent the summer not thinking about what was coming at the end of it, which was this long trip that was carrying her away from the city of her birth, the city she loved. That was carrying her away from the place that held her childhood.
But here she was, and here you were, getting back in the car for the final few hours of the trip which would bring her to a new place, where you would leave her. You decided to say something true.
“You’re sleeping so much because I’m driving and you feel safe because your mother’s taking care of you and it reminds you of being a little girl, so you let go and you fall asleep,” you said.
She smiled. There were only a few hours left to this trip and she didn’t fall asleep again. It was too late now not to think about what was to come, all the newness, all the unfamiliar people, all her friends back home.
All her friends weren’t back home, not really. They too were dispersing, if not to places a thousand miles distant then to places closer. But still: different. Different places. New places. New lives.
The thing that was really, truly happening was that she knew, fundamentally, that the life she had lived up until now was over. Still part of her, as it would always be, but over.
You glanced at her, gazing out the passenger window. She was the second of your three youthful companions. Her brother had two years of being the only one, before she was born. Her sister would have three years of being the only one, now that she was leaving. She was the only one who had never had a single stretch of time with just you.
For some reason this had never occurred to you before, and as you watched her looking quietly out the window at the woods and lakes of upstate New York, the knowledge smote your heart.
Something else you knew but didn’t say was that she slept so much on that trip because what was to come was inevitable. There was nothing she could do, at this point, to prevent it.
Choosing where to go to college, whether to go to college, who you’ll live with when you’re there –none of these decisions were the catalysts of the change she was facing. Time was. The simple fact of years, years that go by, that ferry a person from one stage of life to another.
Sometimes you’re aware that it’s happening, other times it just happens.
There have only been a few times when you yourself weren’t trying to influence the outcome of something in your own life. When you weren’t striving for something, urging yourself on, making lists, working on something that would not see completion for a long time, if ever.
What all this busy-ness means, ultimately, is that you count on there being a future. You count on there being days and weeks and years ahead of you. How often has it happened that you just. . . stop? Shut down the planning, the thinking?
Rarely. Almost never. Two times come to mind.
The first: you were a child, riding in the back seat of the station wagon with your sisters. Your mother was driving. It was winter in upstate New York: snow and wind and black ice on the road. The car began to slide. It was sliding sideways and you were looking out the window and you knew it was going to slide right into the ditch, right into that wall of snow on the side of the hill.
There was nothing you could do. You let go and let it happen.
The second: about an hour after that girl, the one looking out the window on the final leg of the thousand-mile journey, was born. She was a long time coming, like her brother before her, and by the time she was clean and swaddled you were so exhausted you couldn’t speak.
When everyone was gone –the nurses, her father, the silent smiling man who brought you a plate of supper– there was only one lamp lit in the room.
It was night. It was winter. She was sleeping in a plastic-walled box on wheels next to you.
You don’t know why you turned on the t.v., but you did, muting the sound. There on the screen, bombs were falling on a distant country. Your country was bombing another country. You had brought another human being into a world full of bombs and violence and terror.
For the first and only time you can remember, this didn’t matter to you. You didn’t start planning and worrying and shaking your head.
Here was a quiet room, a lamp, a sleeping baby, a plate that held baked chicken and green beans and buttered toast. You let go and let it happen.
Then you closed your eyes and went to sleep.
In the end, is this the way it is? From one life into whatever, if anything, comes next, does there come that sleep? That letting go?
Between two unknowns, I live my life.
Between my mother’s hopes, older than I am
by coming before me, and my child’s wishes, older than I am
by outliving me. And what’s it like?
Is it a door, and good-bye on either side?
A window, and eternity on either side?
Yes, and a little singing between two great rests.
(excerpt from “The Hammock,” by Li-Young Lee)