WELCOME TO THE NEW YEAR, SUCKER!
I spent the first hours of 2018 on my hands and knees. I was rosy cheeked and a bit shaky. I was fumbling for answers and direction, wondering what had happened; wondering how I’d get out of a confusing mess.
No, I wasn’t drunkenly attempting to dig my car out of a snow-filled ditch. That actually happened on a different New Year’s Eve in another lifetime—a teenage lifetime that was usually awash in passion and emotion but occasionally lacking in solid reasoning. That story had its share of comedy: unable to dislodge my car from its snowy encasement on my own, I simply knocked on a stranger’s door, and when no one answered, I followed music and laughter into that stranger’s basement and announced to a room of celebrating fifty-somethings, “I’m sort of stuck in your yard. Do you think I could get a hand with that?” Thankfully, a couple of the holiday revelers did give me a hand with “that,” and so the stuck-in-a-ditch story ended well enough. Truth be told, I probably never worried too profusely that it wouldn’t. I was young. We feel so indestructible when we’re young.
And no, this New Year’s Eve I wasn’t laid low because I’d just been pummeled by a meaty sucker punch. I wasn’t lying with my cheek pressed to the frozen midnight ground, my youthful exuberance recently knocked off its axis (and off a stranger’s front stoop) as I exited a New Year’s celebration that had turned testy. That happened in a different lifetime as well—also that teenage one—and since then my face has thanked me that I’ve never again incurred the alcohol-crazed wrath of a giant, reactionary country boy named Lenny.
That sucker punch story didn’t end too badly either. It ended with a headache—and a jaw ache, obviously—but still no earth-shattering shift in my life. And again, I don’t think I’d been too worried that one would occur. There had been none of that quaking, scream-at-the-skies sort of Deja-vu feeling that grips adults after they’ve been hit with one too many challenging circumstances in a row. There had been confusion, hurt feelings, and a hangover, but no lingering anxiety about the future. That sort of anxiety only grips men and women after they’ve reached a certain age, after they’ve learned how to overthink and overthink about worst case scenarios at that. When we’ve had our toes held near enough to the fires of real tragedy or breakdown, we tend to get skittish around everyday sparks and harmless flames.
I can clearly recall when adult life became a scary notion for me. When my wife and I were still dating—about sixteen years ago by now—she missed her period. And then she missed another. Those bypassed cycles didn’t signal a pregnancy, as it turned out, but they did auger a shift in our reality. They were among the first smoke signals sent from a tiny tumor on her pituitary gland. They signaled the need for serious doctor’s visits, serious surgery, and serious medications. In some respects, they signaled to me that trouble might always lurk around the corner.
Several years later, my wife would need surgery for an ovarian tumor, and then we’d have financial difficulties that would take years to shake. And sometime during those years of “shaking”—determined to face adult challenges with true muscle instead of false bravado—I decided to quit the antianxiety medications I’d been taking for years, and a prolonged prescription drug withdrawal hit my mind and body. It was a years-long withdrawal that showed me the battle between God and the devil and between the devil and the rest of us.
And then, just last February, there was another ovarian tumor for my wife. The doctor said it was likely cancer, but later she said it was probably benign and just needed simple surgery. But the surgery wasn’t simple. It got rather complicated; it involved some “we’ll see how this works” strategies from the doctors. It involved a hospital stay that almost killed my wife with a morphine overdose that never should have happened. But we survived. We survived and experienced a water heater leak this past August, a situation that flowed into our lives and kept the fall months flooded with insurance claims and shady contractors.
But I digress. I’m rambling. I’m trying to say that the New Year’s holiday isn’t for recalling past troubles or dreaming of new ones. It’s for imagining new beginnings and trouble-free days filled with adventures and successes. So this New Year’s Eve, as my forty-year-old self was spending the holiday on the shores of deliberate calm—sipping Miller Lites, snacking on tortilla chips, and playing Scrabble with family—I almost allowed myself to envision a 2018 full of promise and free of challenge. My wife and I watched the ball drop on New York, and then we said our goodbyes and drove merrily home from the party—home, where the first surprise of the new year was waiting to be discovered.
“Hey, there’s nothing coming out of the kitchen faucet,” I called to my wife, who was no doubt discovering a similar scenario in her bathroom. Wisconsin was in the midst of a historic deep freeze, and the temperature outside was about negative fifteen degrees. It was about one in the morning, and I just wanted bed and a small bowl of ice cream.
I stood in the kitchen, thinking about dessert and futilely trying to wash my hands, and then the realization hit me: The pipes were frozen. I immediately felt an all too familiar flow of panicky anger well up inside of me, the sort that can arrive when some new trouble hits. This is adult life, a voice said, And adult life is about unforeseen problems dropping like bombs onto your calm. Don’t let yourself relax, because this is going to cause some grief.
So, instead of retiring to bed with that bowl of ice cream, I got on with the grief. I spent the next hours investigating and throwing Hail Marys at the problem. At times I crawled around on my hands and knees, examining suspect pipes, insanely attacking random sections with a hair dryer as the search results from Google had instructed me to do. But alas, my best late-night MacGyver efforts to rig a solution didn’t work.
2018 began with no water. We used paper plates when eating (so as not to dirty any dishes we couldn’t wash), we let the dirty clothes pile up, and we made trips to the gas station to utilize the mostly sanitary bathrooms. We eventually got the problem diagnosed and remedied and the water flowing again, but not without a bill—one that wiped out a chunky piece of that mythical budget line marked “savings.” And in the days that followed, my wife began complaining about stomach pains and headaches, and my mind could only see another emergency trip to the hospital, one replete with more suspicious scan results and more gut-punch news alerts from the doctors.
Trouble comes in bunches, I thought. Expect more trouble. And then one of our cars started making noises and needed a repair. And then my wife awoke to an eye infection. Welcome to the new year, sir, can I get you anything else?
But we’re okay. For today, we’re okay, and that is all that matters. We have running water, we have running cars, we have heat, we have plenty of food, we have family for support, we have faith, we have a couple of dreams, and we have each other. I guess that stuff is called “daily bread.” We have all the daily bread we need.
So that nagging voice that is always warning me to be on the alert for more trouble can just suck it already!
I didn’t really make any resolutions for this new year, but I’m making one now. Even if I get blind-side punched or stuck in a ditch—metaphorically speaking—I’m going to try to keep rolling along like I’m a carefree youngster with an older man’s wisdom. I’m going to take life one challenge at a time and not assume that trouble materializes in bunches. I’m going to appreciate each day’s blessings and any good health my wife and I are enjoying, and I’m going to recognize my daily bread instead of longing for some imagined feast that might arrive tomorrow. I’m going to remember the phrase This Too Shall Pass when things get challenging, and, when I need to summon strength and an extra measure of reassurance, I’m going to remember all of the difficulties I’ve survived in the past.
And, if on some difficult day, none of that stuff works, I’ll just think a little less. That actually seemed to work pretty well for me when I was younger.