Beauty for Ashes
I’d jammed my day with tasks, every minute accounted for and assigned a purpose. My checklist included a trip to the orthodontist, scrubbing the shower, reading with the kids, writing in the morning and again in the afternoon, driving my son to kindergarten, picking up lunch for a friend, teaching piano lessons, making roasted cauliflower soup for dinner, and Christmas shopping with my husband. The stress was self-imposed. At the time, I found it perfectly acceptable to cram my days like Jack Black in a wetsuit.
I hustled the kids out into the van as my mind raced down the list of tasks. I was counting on no wait at the orthodontist, or I would be hopelessly behind schedule. My writing time usually became the sacrificial lamb. Drew buckled Kate in her seat as I slid behind the wheel, turned the key, and shifted into reverse. Then it happened.
First came the serrated sound of impact, metal against metal. Second, the horrifying realization. The garage door had been innocently creeping up the metal rails when I’d given it a sudden punch to the gut with the back bumper of my van. In short, I had backed the car right into the garage door before it had opened completely.
What an idiot!
Immediately, shame siphoned away all the momentum I had for the day and gloom settled in like fog. Turning the car off, I jumped out with an intense longing to skedaddle out of my own skin. I’m such an idiot. I’m such an idiot, I muttered to myself, my hands gesturing wildly as I circled the space where my husband usually parked his Civic. Wade is going to kill me. My mind howled. My hands shook.
My twelve-year-old son, Drew, emerged from the car. “Mom, don’t freak out. It’s going to be OK,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” I hissed.
He stood looking at me like a puzzled Christopher Robin.
We got back in the car (we had an orthodontist appointment after all) and I slowly inched out of the driveway like a student driver under surveillance. The garage door would no longer shut so I left it open, the shelves of tools, sleeping bags, and motor oil displayed like my sins to the world. The falling snow gathered on the driveway before the open door. It might blow inside, paling the shelves and garden tools with white dust.
In the orthodontist’s waiting room, I slunk to a corner sofa, hoping to avoid the gregarious receptionist. Drew sat next to me. “It’s okay, Mom. It’s just the garage door. At least our house didn’t burn down.”
I eyed him with suspicious wonder. He was, no doubt, referring to the tragic incident six months earlier when the house next door caught on fire and within minutes was consumed in flames.
Is this kid for real?
Despite my son’s attempt at perspective, I couldn’t shake the stupidity of what I’d done. It was the most ridiculous of all my mistakes. It was on par with Jar Jar Binks or Watergate. How was I going to tell Wade? When I returned home, I yanked on the garage door until it slid closed. Then, in some sort of She-Man frenzy, I attempted to push in the dents with my bare hands. I wanted to fix it, erase my mistake, go back in time. I cancelled my lunch date, I didn’t write, I forgot about the homemade soup, I didn’t take a shower. Instead, I sobbed on the side of my bed and tried to pray.
My inner dialogue rose to a frenzied pitch. “Who does that? Who runs into their garage door?”
“Actually, a lot of people,” Wade reassured me when I finally summoned the courage to share the news. “It’s a common mistake, Kristen.”
Could my husband be right? Could this not be a big deal? Could I be overreacting just a tad bit? As funny as it sounds, I didn’t consider these possibilities at first. During the initial emotion, all I could do was rubberneck the wreak. It held my gaze like watching Michael Jackson dancing “Thriller.” It took an interaction with my husband to deflate the mountain back into a molehill. As the undertow of self-reproach slowly eased its pull, I scrambled up from the floor where I’d been rat-holing tissues under my knees.
The pendulum swung to the opposite side, and I began to wonder why I had overreacted to the point of rejecting all my goodness because of one lousy mistake.
In my neighborhood several years ago, a teenage girl was sunbathing in the hot sun on her driveway. Because of the earbuds nestled in her ears, she didn’t hear the truck roar to life in the garage. Her older sister checked the mirrors to make sure the coast was clear. It looked clear to her. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a garage door to impede her progress down the driveway.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the girl. Not the one that tragically died two days later in the hospital from brain injuries, but her sister, long-limbed and vivacious, who’d been behind the wheel and had asked her brother to jump out and see what she had just run over. “Probably a bike,” she’d suggested before her life changed forever.
It was a terrible accident, no one at fault. Everyone said it. Law enforcement deemed it as such. The media emphasized it. But how could she breathe?
I willed her to know it wasn’t her fault, that it could happen to any of us.
After backing into my garage door, I worked to change my frazzled mama status because frazzled mamas run into garage doors. I calculated the cause and traced the evolution of the error. If I avoided all the pitfalls that lead to metal against metal, I would be safe from relapse.
Now, I see clearly my problem lay in my behavior after the garage door incident, not before. I can’t avoid mistakes. There isn’t enough slowing down in this world to dodge accidents or avoid risks. I could very well run into the garage door again when the imminent soccer game starts in five minutes and we’re still waiting for my son to finish in the bathroom.
My mistakes are strewn behind me like fallen leaves, a brown and wilting trail of inevitable regret. I cringe at this memory not because I drove like a peeved off Herbie into the garage door but because I treated myself so harshly afterwards. This was my mistake.
If I struggled to forgive myself over a garage door, how could my neighbor navigate through the emotions of forgiving herself? I prayed she was stronger than me.
We’ve all heard the slogans. Mistakes are a part of life. Accidents happen. We harm others and they harm us. We learn valuable lessons from our mistakes and failures. People run into garage doors and tragically over loved ones. I remember Wade’s words, “It’s a common mistake.” He meant garage doors, of course, but after it happened, many came forward with similar driveway tragedies to comfort the girl and her family.
The consequence of my mistake, my miscalculation, consisted of a crooked door. For my young friend, the loss of a beloved sister. Both events started from the same place, backing out in a hurry, our thoughts directed at destinations and the mundane tick-tockings of the day. It’s a testament to the unfairness of this life that my consequence lasted a few short hours, while hers will last a lifetime.
I’m quite certain she still has bad days—the brown leaves mixed in with the red and orange—but she remains vibrant and generous. I recently heard her speak to a group of young people. She spoke about faith in God and choosing light instead of darkness. She was strong behind the microphone, cloaked in courage and confidence.
“I do not believe,” she said, “that this life is a test to see who can suffer the most. This life is for joy.”
We applauded her with our tears. There’s relief when someone finds a way to bear the unbearable.
Maybe it helps her to know tragedy comes to all of us. Maybe she’s learned to forgive herself again every morning. She must have ways to cope when the darkness threatens. She must intimately know the mental ruts she can never allow her mind to wander. If she can find a way to face every day with hope, I will try to treat my own mistakes with a little more grace. I will try to see the beauty in the ashes.
Every fall break, we join family friends for a camping trip to the west desert. I affectionally call it “The Wasteland” and we fantasize that the Tatooine scenes from Star Wars were filmed there. It’s a place that even the environmentalists care little about and leave us alone to roam the knolls on our dirt bikes. We ride pell-mell on trails dotted with sagebrush and heave over the whoops and the sand dunes. With each of us insulated in our bulky helmets, we point and nod to communicate. At the wide-open flats near I-80, the kids scatter to make figure eights in the salt and push the limits of their speedometers.
Back at camp, the kids spend hours digging a hole in the ground, an activity that can only be explained by the accessibility of endless dirt mixed with boredom. Last October, they dug deep enough to hit saltwater. My daughter and her friend shaped the wet clay into bowls and plates and attempted to harden them into pottery over the fire. The younger kids carved a bench in the side of the hole and ate their dinners there as if it were a clubhouse or a foxhole.
The landscape feels abandoned. As if God ran out of the good stuff during the Creation and simply rippled this part of the earth with His fingers in a desperate attempt for some contrast. But at dusk, the colors flare across the western horizon like your own private fireworks show and my throat swells like an Adele crescendo. The view is humanlike: ruthless, raw, and lonely. A place where mistakes glitter like sand in the sun. We can’t live a life without mistakes. Nor would we want to miss out on their barren beauty.
In the camping trailer, I hear the muffled sound of dirt bikes roaring to life on the desert. My daughter clambers up the metal stairs and pulls open the screen door.
“Mom!” she says and holds up her helmet.
It’s time to risk another ride.