Whenever you are feeling cruddy as a parent, saying yes to an after school playdate is one way to feel better about your sacrifice. Add in distance (the playdate is twenty minutes from your house) and traffic (pick up at 6:30pm) and you have the makings of a parental martyrdom victory. While I never thought I’d do this when “playdates” became “hangouts”, I also never thought I’d be living in Luxembourg where families cross borders to come to one of two English language schools. It’s the total opposite of a neighborhood school. I’d call it a tradeoff, but that would be totally annoying to everyone who doesn’t get the chance to live abroad.
I had picked up from this friend’s house once before, coming from somewhere other than my house. That pick up had been during the day and had included 5km along a gratuitously winding, barely two lane road through a dense forest. It seemed at the time to be an unsettling route but believing in our GPS “Betty” and resigned to Luxembourg’s love affair with back roads, I followed Betty’s less than ideal instructions. The fact that is was daylight kept my head in the game and car on the road. Now I’m a certifiable nervous wreck (no pun intended) behind the wheel under perfect conditions, but you know when the speed limit drops from 90kph to 30kph in Europe the road is meant for mountain bikes or the well insured. It’s certainly not meant for Mothers at dark.
I left the house at 6pm. Though I knew the Way of Terror, as is my habit I plugged the address into Betty as backup. I had this idea that maybe there was a more direct way. After all, they lived in a village of some size. But then I remembered that my husband (who normally picked up at this friend’s house) saying “the fastest way is through the forest.” It’s best not to challenge husbands on these matters. I kept Betty muted.
Several kilometers before hitting the forest, I noticed Betty inaudibly signaling for a right hand turn I couldn’t see in the fog. I ignored her, as one does when you already have a plan. She eventually rerouted me in the direction I was instinctively heading, adding ten extra minutes. I thought the additional time curious, but tried to stay positive and at the speed limit. (I use abundant caution on rural, undivided, two-lane roads as a matter of principle. Not all my passengers understand this when late.)
By the time the forest turn came we (Lawton and I) had been in the car for about 15 minutes. Until then, we had been chatting normally about 8 year old things like South Korea. Within a few unhappy minutes and after it was clear that I would be alone for the next 5 km (which proved to be 100% true), I moved to the center of the 1.5 lane road. It was pitch black. There were lots of switchbacks, no guard rails and a cloud of fog even the high beams couldn’t penetrate. This was the road less traveled at night for good reason: to live another day.
I told Lawton he needed to stop talking. I then starting muttering and thinking things ranging from the negative like my obituary, “She died of a heart attack while picking her son up from a hangout.” to the more hopeful assuming I survived, “Colin needs to find a new best friend.” You have no idea how long 5km is when driving 15kph. Actually, I can tell you. Its 20 minutes of misery. Add the misery minutes to the normal minutes for a total journey time of 35 minutes.
By the time I arrived at the friend’s house, my heart was still pounding. The gorgeous house was beautifully lit up, a small wonder on the other side of the sinister forest. Lawton, figuring I still needed a minute or ten, offered to wait in the car. I composed my weakened self and rang the bell. Two angelic faces – my son and his best friend – answered the door. They were happy to see me, no trace of doubt about my arrival. They had a great time playing football in the garden, eating hamburgers and walking their dog (presumably out there) making it hard to maintain my idea that Colin find a new, better located best friend. They said their goodbyes while I checked in with Colin’s friend, “So does your Mom always go through the forest?” “Yep!,” he confirmed without flinching. With that, all gorgeous house envy (still alive and well) drained.
Returning to the car, I tried my best to cover up my Fragile State of Being. Lawton obstructed the effort by announcing to his not yet traumatized brother, “Mom says this place is so stupid. She says she’s never driving here again.” Cover blown. Though by age eleven, they know better how to ride these Mommy moments out. Seeing the village of size down below the ridge, I begged Betty for a second opinion. Give me toll roads. Give me construction. I don’t care, just give me a new plan!
Impatient, I made my own way down toward the village. On the way, I got delayed by not just one, but three, super stupid cul de sacs. We exchanged words. Once down at village level, I pulled over to pull it together. Betty had given me another route. It was the shortest route. Through another forest.
This was the forest my husband meant. The forest my son’s best friend meant. The forest my son’s best friend’s Mom verified the next day in conversation. Okay, it's probably all technically the same forest but this was the forest they were all talking about. It was, in fact, the right hand turn I had ignored on the way there in favor of the way I *thought* I knew to be right. Sweet Maria.
No surprise to anyone but me, the shortest route was the way normal people in vehicles go and indeed twenty minutes from home. As a forest, it was also dark and winding in spots, but there was plenty enough ambient feedback (and pavement) to give you confidence that your destiny was not in a deserted ditch. It makes me think about the verse from the Bible, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.” Betty had the vision of satellite maps on her side and yet I thought I knew better. We must do that with God all the time. We take the way we think we know.
The problem is that the way we know can be the hard, overly complicated way. It’s often circuitous and slow. We limp along in daylight, but it’s the dark that’s unbearable. It can take a toll on your physical and mental health. It can cause you to tell the people you love to shut it or make you want to withdraw from good things. It’s the road traveled without company. And Lord do we need company. Company alone doesn’t resolve all the darkness, but we give each other pointers and runway and a tow if needed.
Sometimes we see an obvious signal for another way. Sometimes it’s only an idea - a gut feeling - that maybe there’s a more direct way. Sometimes we’re knee deep in conversation about South Korea that we forget where we are going. But usually, there’s a hint. I know for me, I’m going to try to listen closer to those I consult. I’m also going to keep Betty unmuted. She knows things.