I was already running late. I had picked up all the kids from their various schools and activities, and everyone was packed into the van, impatient to get home and have their snacks and shed all the cumbersome baggage of the school day. I just barely had time to zip home and unload everyone before locking myself in my room for a phone interview scheduled for 5:00.
But wait, I was almost out of gas! I would never make it home with the needle so low. So I swung into a gas station, charged out of my seat, squirted a few gallons of gas into the tank, hurtled back behind the wheel, and cranked the engine while slamming the door closed.
I tried again. Nothing. The lights came on, but that was it.
It was cold, and snow had started to fall through the darkening air. As the windows fogged over with the breath of nine cranky children, I struggled to hide my rising panic. I had somewhere to be, now.
This was several years ago, before I had a cell phone or AAA membership. My husband was at work, over an hour away, and I couldn’t think of anybody to call. It was, perhaps, not the screamingly horrible emergency it felt like at the time. But I was pregnant, sweating, and I had an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, and lived in constant fear of letting people down. The interview was an important one, and I was already anxious about it even before I thought I might be late for it. Cars lined up behind me, waiting for their turn at the pump where my van lay dead.
I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t think. The toddler began to wail as I climbed out of my seat, hoping that someone behind the counter of the convenience store could give me some advice. But inside was a long line of people waiting their turn. All normal people, competent people, people who had a right to be there, unlike me with my panic and my emergencies and my sweating self and my window-fogging family.
So I crept out again and stood beside the van, clenching and unclenching my fists. The younger kids began to fret, asking over and over, “Mama, what is it? Why aren’t we going, Mama?” and the older ones shushed them, sensing something had gone very wrong.
Then a car pulled up to the pump opposite my dead hulk of a van. It was a sleek little BMW in dark blue. A man in a fitted overcoat and leather gloves stepped neatly out and began to fill his tank. I gathered my courage and called out in a shaking voice, “Hi, hello, I’m so sorry to bother you, but my car won’t start. Do you think you could–”
He turned to look, and saw . . . I don’t know what. A mess. An entanglement. A quagmire. And he said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” and turned his back.
I tried again, this time with a pleasant-looking woman in a sable-colored minivan.
“Hi, I’m so sorry, my van won’t start. Do you possibly have a phone I could . . .”
Same story. She looked grieved for me, but there was nothing she could do. She had places to go. She had her act together. She was all tidy and intact and well-planned, and could not afford to get sucked into someone else’s knot of misery and irresponsibility. And I understood! I wouldn’t want to get involved with me and my nonsense, either! But unlike her, I couldn’t just leave.
Not knowing what else to do, I opened the hood of my van to show that I wasn’t just hogging the spot for no reason, and I sat down behind the wheel again. I left the door open so I could breathe, and the cold winter air picked out the hot tears leaking down my face. Nobody was going to help.
And then, someone did. Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.