Sometimes Things Are What They Seem… And Sometimes They Aren’t

My daughter Liana found this four-leaf clover last spring.

Saturday

It was a quiet morning, the start of what was to be an unscheduled day for me. Ahhh.

In the previous two weeks, my family and I had flown back from our family reunion in California… I had finished up an accelerated summer education course… I had had a routine screening colonoscopy… I had taken my girls to various annual appointments, gatherings with friends, back-to-school shopping, and their school open houses to meet their new teachers.

Having a great time with family in CA! That’s me in the dragon’s mouth.

All good. But busy. (OK, the colonoscopy prep was no fun. But the results were good, so I’ll take it!)

I was planning to head out that afternoon to indulge in some writing which had taken a backseat during the spring and summer to teaching recertification. I would hide out at the library or a café… and escape from life for a while.

Not!

The door bell rang. A friend of my daughter Liana had arrived to pick up Liana so that they could go for haircuts. (Suddenly, over the summer, several of Liana’s friends had attained their driver’s licenses. And they were willing and, dare I say, eager to chauffeur. Yay!).

I rushed to get dressed, greet her friend, and say, “Bye and have fun.” What happened next happened so quickly that I’m not sure exactly how it happened. All I can say definitively is that I ruptured a tendon in my left pinky.

As I was getting dressed. Yes, I hurt myself getting dressed. More specifically, as I was yanking up my jeans. I heard “SNAP” and… I’ll spare you the details of what it looked like.

Ouch. I know it sounds crazy, and almost two weeks later, I’m still shaking my head. And laughing about it. Kind of.

My husband, Rob, rushed me to the nearby urgent care center owned by one of the local hospital systems. The nurse joked with me that I must have been doing something heroic. Ha!

I had x-rays taken and my pinky was put in a temporary splint. Good news! The tendon hadn’t pulled off any bone.

But! I would need surgery. Bummer. I was given a referral to an orthopedic doctor with directions to call on Monday morning.

Saturday (continued) & Sunday

I iced and elevated. And continued on with life, disturbed that I could hurt myself getting dressed and sad whenever I peeked at my limp pinky in the splint. Every now and then, I fantasized that it would bounce back to life and not require surgery.

All the while, though, I felt grateful that it wasn’t worse, that I had family at home to help me, and that we have good health insurance (while feeling very acutely that everyone deserves good health insurance).

I contacted a friend who had had a hand injury last year, inquiring where she had been referred to and cared for. She raved about the UVA Hand Center (where I had not been referred to) saying that her child had also received excellent care there. Having great trust in my friend’s judgment, I decided to make the call there, first thing on Monday morning.

Monday

The kind person who took my call got me onto the schedule that very day. Indeed, I received excellent care. And then I heard these words: “I don’t think you’re going to need surgery for this.”

What?!

“We see this type of injury all the time. It usually heals on its own. We’ll get you into a custom-made splint and show you how to dress it.”

I’d come in fully expecting to schedule surgery. Instead I felt like I’d won the lottery.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll need surgery in the end. But I’m going with this until we know more. And I’ll be keeping my fingers, umm, crossed.

Wall-E checking out my handy-dandy splint

******

I’m under doctor’s orders to air out my pinky for 15-30 minutes every day. Since I have to support it with my other hand, I can’t be my usual self during that time, i.e. either buzzing around doing stuff or sitting still reading and writing. So I’m doing something I’ve barely made time for since my kids were born: watching TV. Rob got a big flat-screen TV ten years ago and I barely know how to work the thing.

So, there we are, Rob and I, watching a half-hour of TV together each evening. Often it turns into an hour. I’ve laughed a lot. And I wonder why I hadn’t joined him in front of the TV sooner. I like to think it’s just what the doctor ordered.

******

Wednesday

While I grew more skilled at washing the dishes and my hair with one hand covered in a plastic bag, my girls started their new school year learning algebra and trigonometry. They came home with stories to tell and I felt grateful to be a recipient.

After dinner Liana pulled the ice cream tub from the freezer. “Uh, this is really soft.” She took a close look into the freezer. “Everything is soft and melting.”

Oh no. This fridge was 14 or 15 years old. It had been a tad too tall to fit underneath the cabinets, and the delivery guy (with our OK) sawed off the bottom part of the cabinet frame so that it would fit.

About 10 years, the crushed ice function had stopped working. More recently, the filtered water had stopped working. And it had started making strange sounds.

We had just needed to replace the entire heat pump a few months before. The stove, dishwasher, clothes washer, and dryer were all older than the fridge. Don’t go, fridge! Not yet!

I left the kitchen table and crept toward the fridge, not wanting to face reality. On the way, I peered into the ice cream tub, and the ice cream resembled soft-serve. I reached into the freezer, touched the chicken, and it sprang back. Water was dripping from the ice container, dribbling down the walls of the freezer and onto the kitchen floor.

And yet for the second time since Saturday, I hoped against hope. Maybe it wasn’t really completely broken. Maybe we wouldn’t have to deal with another bill, another inconvenience, another thing to do.

Rob had had to work late. Fifteen minutes later he came home and was convinced that we had to deal with it. Well, all right, if we must…

I remembered that our neighbors had a deep freezer in their garage. I called them. Even better! They had replaced their fridge recently and moved their old one into the garage. It was working and nearly empty! They welcomed us to use it.

We packed up everything except for essentials for the next day’s breakfast and lunch. Rob and Liana brought over the food to our kind neighbors. Then Rob went out to get Ready Ice for the freezer where we then stored the essentials.

Thursday

Leaving four dishtowels on the floor in front of the fridge to sop up the dribbling water, I spent the better part of Thursday shopping for a fridge that would fit our smaller space. At Lowe’s there was one more in stock! On sale! To be delivered on Sunday! Score!

We knew we would survive with our food just down the cul-de-sac road. And we marveled at how people in our world live without a fridge and other privileges that many of us take for granted.

Friday

On Friday morning, Liana raced up the stairs to my bedroom. “Mom! Everything is frozen! My lunch is frozen!”

What?!

I ran down to the kitchen and threw open the freezer door (careful to protect my pinky, of course). It was working! I threw open the fridge door. Working, too!

No more water dribbling out of the freezer.

Maybe a mechanical part had gotten clogged with ice, shutting down the machine until the water had drained? I really had/have no idea. There’s a reason I stick to books.

I voiced the possibility of canceling the new fridge, but the other three people in my house vetoed that right away. Yeah, it had become too flaky. Sometimes it’s best to let things go. And we were lucky that we could afford to let this one go.

Bye, fridge. Thanks for all the years!

******

Friday (continued)

Later that day I was headed home at the start of rush hour. First, I planned to make quick stops at the library and supermarket. The cars were going the usual 60 mph on this stretch of a two-lane highway. I was traveling in the right lane, preparing to exit soon, when I noticed that a line of stopped cars had suddenly started to form. Maybe an accident? Or an overflow of exiting cars?

The-car-in-front-of-me stopped. I stopped. I looked in my rearview mirror. The-car-behind-me stopped.

But the-car-two-cars-behind-me DID! NOT! STOP!

It was coming. I would be rear-ended.

I heard it: “CRASH!”

But wait. Where was the second “CRASH!”? You know, my car? My car hadn’t budged from the impending impact of the-car-behind-me. Why hadn’t my car been jolted?

And then I saw the-car-behind-me fly to my left-hand side and stop beyond me in my lane.

And then I saw the-car-two-cars-behind-me fly between our two cars and continue beyond the-car-behind-me.

I pulled over to the break-down lane and looked around, trying to process what had just happened during the last few seconds.

The-car-behind-me was smashed in the rear and in the front. The-car-in-front-of-me had sustained less damage, but still, it had been hit and was further up in the right lane than the-car-behind-me. The-car-two-cars-behind-me was behind the-car-in-front-of-me, but in the break-down lane.

So, the-car-two-cars-behind-me had hit the-car-behind-me AND the-car-in-front-of-me.

And my car was untouched. Untouched.

What?!

I took a photo (which I’m not posting to protect the privacy of the other drivers), then got out of my car.

The road was littered with car debris. The traffic behind us had halted. Including the semi who was the first vehicle in the left lane. Oh, what a scary thought I had when I saw that truck…

Everyone said they were OK. Thank Goodness.

A police officer came quickly. Traffic started to move in the left lane.

Each driver talked to the police officer. I was free to go and got into my car. The police officer waved me forward, my car tires crunching pieces of the other cars that were all much newer and nicer than my 17-year-old car.

As I drove, I replayed the scene in my head over and over, trying to make sense of this accident that happened all around me but had left my car (and most importantly, my body) unharmed.

I hadn’t seen it all unfold. As with my pinky, it happened so quickly. But given the aftermath and after several mental replays, I think this is what transpired:

After the-car-two-cars-behind-me hit the-car-behind-me in the rear, the-car-behind-me steered into the left lane, presumably to avoid hitting my car, and then steered back into the right lane. The-car-two-cars-behind-me steered between the-car-behind-me and my car, presumably to avoid hitting either one of our cars. However, because it was traveling so fast, the-car-two-cars-behind-me hit the-car-behind-me again, this time in the front; and then went on to hit the-car-in-front-of-me.

Intense.

Unreal.

I could not believe how lucky I was to be able to go on with my day. If my pinky had been like winning the lottery, this was like winning countless lotteries.

I made it to the library ten minutes before closing to drop off some books and take some books off of hold. I picked up a few groceries for dinner at the supermarket and headed home.

Rob met me at the door. I said, “I was almost in a bad car accident.” That, of course, made no sense.

So he said, “What?” And I explained, feeling ever so grateful. And wishing the very best for the drivers and passengers of those three cars.

******

Sunday

The weekend had been uneventful, thankfully.

And then the highlight arrived on Sunday afternoon: the new fridge.

It fit! It worked!

******

For the past six days, we’ve been enjoying crushed ice and filtered water.

We love our new fridge. Well, everyone except for the cats who are wary of it. Maybe it looks like a gigantic animal. It certainly looks and sounds different. And probably smells different, too.

But unlike the pinky that needed surgery, the fridge that had drawn its final breath, and the car accident that was bound to happen, this new fridge is indeed what is seems to be.

Wall-E and Howie trying to decide what to do with that big thing

******

What did I take away from that week?

A LOT. I won’t mention every teeny tiny thing, but here are Amy’s Top Three (oldies but goodies):

  1. Be mindful; stay in the moment. I’m trying to use my pinky as a wake-up call. When I’m getting dressed, let that be what I’m focusing on instead of thinking about a zillion other things that may distract me… Or maybe I’ll just stay in my pajamas the next time the doorbell rings.
  2. Be kind. I interacted with a number of people, mostly strangers, as I dealt with these three situations. I was met with way more kindness than not, and every bit of it mattered. I would go into things more, but this is already a super long post! Thanks for making it this far.
  3. Be hopeful. Like the saying goes, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. There is always hope.

Have a wonderful Labor Day weekend! Whether you’re traveling far or staying close to home, safe travels to you and yours. And everyone.

Until we meet again,

Amy

Finding Kindness: Two Stories of Strangers

My yard this morning

My kids have been back in school for over a month, and homework and activities have kicked into high gear. Leaves are drifting to the ground and blanketing the grass. Tomorrow we’ll turn the calendar to October. Summer is behind us (although the 80-90 degree temps have made it easier for my mind to remain there).

I’ll remember the Summer of 2017 as the Summer of Reunions (I went to three!). I’ll also remember it as the Summer The Nazis Came to Town. It was an eventful summer all around at local, national, and world levels, wouldn’t you say? [Heavy Sigh]

In the swirl of summer memories, two keep rising to the top. As each situation unfolded, I thought, “I could blog about this.” I got busy with other things, but they’ve continued calling for my attention (even though neither is directly related to anything mentioned above).

I think their appeal is due to the fact that each involved two things: kindness and strangers. There’s a reason there are so many quotes about this combo. There’s something magical about it.

******

It was mid-June (technically not even summer yet). My girls were headed out of town on a Tuesday, a few days after the end of their school year. They were flying to California to stay with their uncle and aunt, and were planning to visit additional relatives. In the midst of end-of-year teacher-gift-buying-and-making, I had picked up gifts for relatives as small tokens of our appreciation. My closet looked like Christmas in June.

My family would have said, “No need,” but I really wanted to. These people were planning to take care of my girls for two whole weeks, laundry and all. They were also giving me way more kid-free time than I’d had in 15 years. I love my kids and they’re great kids, but let’s be real, parenting is tiring.

The school year ended. Monday afternoon arrived. All the gifts were ready!

Except. As I searched the gift pile, I realized that I had bought the turtle earrings for my mom (and the flower earrings for my daughter’s friend’s birthday), but I hadn’t bought the dolphin earrings for my sister-in-law, after all. They were still sitting on a rack at the gift shop at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. One-and-a-half hours away in Richmond. Oh no!

Was this a real problem? No. Remember: local, national, and world events. In a way, this “problem” was indicative of privilege. My girls were flying to CA. Relatives were excited to see them. My girls were old enough to finish packing while…

I drove to an outdoor mall in Charlottesville in search of something dolphin or cat or unicorn related. I saw a cute-looking store that I hadn’t noticed before. It was already 5 pm, so I dashed in. It was filled with cute knick-knacks and accessories. Perfect! I started to scan the shelves and racks.

A saleswoman, perhaps in her early 20’s, approached me. She looked like she could have been a runway model. In a professional manner, she said, “Is there anything I can help you find?”

There I was wearing my typical shorts, t-shirt, no make-up, and graying hair. I felt tired and frazzled, and probably looked it, too.

I told her about my sister-in-law’s preferred animals and mythical creatures. She reached for a pair of cat socks; too young. A unicorn stuffed toy; too big. She showed me a few more items, but nothing quite worked.

“I just really want to help you,” she said. I could tell that she did. And that she was disappointed with our luck so far.

“Thanks for all of your help. I’m sure we’ll find something,” I said, trying to reassure her.

Several times during our interactions, she said she was tired and apologized for stumbling over her words. Each time I told her, in one way or another, to please not worry. “I do that, too, when I’m tired,” I said (and it’s true).

I wanted her to give herself a break. She was trying so hard to help me find a gift, and to come across as the perfect professional. I understood this trying-hard-at-life thing. Don’t so many of us?

I spotted a mug. Not practical for luggage, but good enough. “I found something!” I said.

Photo compliments of my sister-in-law

She looked relieved. We chatted as we walked to the cash register. Again, she stumbled over her words and apologized. I told her that I had kids and understood feeling tired. “Look at me,” I said, “I thought I’d gotten a gift and I hadn’t!”

As she boxed and bagged and added tissue paper and ribbon, making a mug look like a million bucks, she said, “You’re the nicest customer I’ve ever had.”

Really?

“Some customers can be so demanding and also mean when I trip over my words.”

Really?

Then she started to cry. She said that she was a single mom with a four-year-old, that she was divorced from her daughter’s dad, that it was the best decision, that she loves her daughter more than anything…but that life was overwhelming.

“I went to my car during lunch and cried,” she said.

My heart broke for her. I was old enough to be her mom. I said, “I feel like giving you a hug.”

She came around to the other side of the sales desk. She bent down and I reached up, and we hugged. Two strangers in the middle of a store.

“You made my day,” she said.

“You made mine. I can tell you love your job, and you’re great at it. I bet you’re also a great mom.”

As I headed toward the door with my gorgeous gift bag, I turned back to her and said, “Keep doing your thing. Keep shining your light.”

She called back, “You, too!” She was smiling. She looked radiant. She didn’t look tired. The evening sunlight was streaming into the store and enveloping her red hair in a warm glow that made her look…well, angelic.

I walked to my car marveling that by simply being a decent human being, I’d made someone’s day.

After my girls had landed safely in California and I could breathe again, I called the store and left a message for the manager saying what amazing service I had received. Because really, that young woman had made my day.

And my sister-in-law loved her mug!

******

While our girls were away, my husband Rob and I visited a few places that we hadn’t managed to get to in our 16 years in Charlottesville. One place was White Oak Lavendar Farm located about 50 minutes from our house, on the other side of a mountain which is part of the Shenandoah National Park.

For a few reasons, I drove my car. It’s 16 years old, by the way. (See where I’m headed with this?)

We made it there and basked in all things lavender. I didn’t get around to trying the lavender wine, but I still felt intoxicated by the scent of lavender that permeated the place — from the fields and the shop products and even the tea. Guess what else filled the air on this picture perfect day? The sounds of live harp music. Life slowed down in this heavenly place. It was more than worth the drive.

At White Oak Lavender Farm

Afterward Rob and I enjoyed an equally relaxing late lunch/early dinner nearby. Then we decided to head back over the mountain to Charlottesville.

As I was exiting the parking lot, I heard something metal graze the pavement. A few miles into the drive, I heard the sound of metal scraping the road. “Uh oh, is that my muffler?”

“I think so,” said Rob.

I pulled over onto the narrow strip of grass near the guardrail and popped the trunk. We climbed out of the car and checked out the muffler hanging by one intact but rusted bolt. The other bolt had bitten the dust, lost somewhere on the road behind us.

Ah, my trusty old Toyota Corolla. It had passed the annual inspection a couple months before. Yes, we tend to keep our cars, Rob and I. My last car was towed away for parts right before we moved from Brooklyn. I still remember standing in my doorway waving good-bye to it like an old friend. Rob’s now seven-year-old car replaced his nineteen-year-old car.

Yet this was the first time, ever, that I’d been stranded by the side of a road. As a driver or a passenger. How lucky I’d been!

It could’ve been worse. It could’ve been raining. It could’ve been dark. We could’ve started ascending the mountain.

There were some stores, although they lay miles ahead of us. Anyway, it was Sunday at 5 pm. What would be open then in this rural area? And what was it about me and the 5 pm hour?

We looked in the trunk. No tools. My fault. I’d taken out the emergency crate to make room for our girls’ luggage and hadn’t returned it. There was some random stuff in there: reusable shopping bags, plastic forks, coupons, a clipboard, a lint roller. The most promising thing was some plastic twine. Rob wondered if it would burn from the heat of the muffler, but it was the best we had, so we were going for it!

Rob is a handy guy, much more so than I. He lay down on the grass with his head under the car. My attention felt divided between the cars whizzing by at 60 mph a few feet from his head, and the trail of ants crawling all over him.

I decided it was more important to keep my attention on the traffic, just in case I needed to scream at him to jump over the guardrail to safety. We’d deal with the ants later.

The cars on the two lane road kept zooming past us. Who knows where they were coming from or where they were headed? But I was keenly aware that we were in the middle of what was likely Trump territory. This is not to say that people who voted for Trump would hurt us or not help us, but as two Asian Americans, we were not in our comfort zone. We would have felt more at ease had we broken down in, say, Brooklyn or Charlottesville.

Several minutes later, a big pick-up truck slowed down and parked behind us. My eyes zeroed in on the specialized license plate: Don’t Tread On Me.

“This could get interesting,” I thought. “Probably not. Hopefully not.”

My eyes jumped to the driver behind the tinted window. He opened his door and stepped out – all 6’4’’ of him. A white guy wearing jeans and a t-shirt, he looked to be in his mid-20’s. He struck me as a nice guy; I caught a good vibe.

“Hey!” I said and smiled.

“Hey, do you need a hand?”

I exhaled. “That’d be great. Thanks so much for stopping.”

“I have some really thick bailing wire. Do you want some?”

Rob was looking up from the grass and watching the scene unfold.

“That’d be great. Thank you.”

The guy went back to his truck and soon brought us a strand of bailing wire.

“This is perfect. Thanks a lot,” said Rob who was now standing.

“That was so kind of you to stop,” I said.

The guy said, “Whenever I see someone broken down on this road, I pull over. People drive really fast here and they don’t always know what they’re doing.” He smiled.

“That’s so kind of you,” I said again.

“Well, I better go. I’m going to meet my girlfriend to buy baby clothes.”

“Congratulations!” Rob and I said. We thanked him again for saving the day. We exchanged names and handshakes. And the guy drove off.

Rob got to work with the bailing wire while I continued to keep an eye on the traffic. A few minutes later, we heard a loud honk. We looked over to the other side of the grassy median and saw the guy passing us. We waved.

And then I realized. “You know, he must’ve been heading in that direction, saw us, and did a u-ey to help us.”

WOW.

“Really nice guy. He really went out of his way,” said Rob.

“Yeah,” I said, “just showed up, helped out, and took off.” Kind of like a superhero.

******

When we got back home, I put that emergency crate back in my trunk.

The next day Rob left town for a work trip. And I took my car to the shop. I asked for two new bolts: one to replace the missing bolt, and one to replace the other rusty bolt that would fall out in a matter of time.

One of my shiny new bolts

******

When my girls arrived home a couple days later, they showed me their souvenirs. Miya was most excited about a bag she had found in Japantown in San Francisco. This pretty much sums it up:

“Choose Kind” is a theme in the middle grade novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio. This is Miya’s favorite book; she’s read it several times. It’s about so many things, but at the heart of it is kindness.

During these divisive times, I find myself holding tighter to stories of kindness – online, in the newspaper, in books, in life. These stories don’t erase the stories of horror, but they remind us that there is often kindness around the corner or down the street. It’s ours to give and, if we’re lucky, to receive.

Until we meet again,

Amy