Halfway across New Mexico, we almost lost our marriage. We didn’t know it yet, as the highway stretched out before us for miles. We sped along lulled by a landscape I could never quite figure out. It lacked the lushness to be called prairie or plains. But I never imagined a desert dotted with so many hearty plants. Whatever it was, I found an odd comfort in its barren grittiness and playful dust devils.
At some mile marker, we got cell coverage again and Amanda my wife took that moment to double check the national park website to ensure our family Spring Break plans were still a go. Around that time, we meandered into the town that accounted for the cell service and I found the nearest truck stop for gas.
“What!” she said in the way that’s not a question.
“What?” I asked back, for sure a question.
“Tickets now required.” She read on, “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, online reservations required for park entrance.” She looked back at me. “And… its sold out all week.”
Turns out the protocol at the Carlsbad Caverns had changed on Friday, the day before we left. They were no longer what the park ranger told us a month ago when we planned the trip. It had been first-come, first-served to those standing in line each morning. And now sitting at a truck stop in Nowhere, New Mexico, an hour from our hotel, we discovered we may not be getting into the pinnacle of our Spring Break plans.
This was no emergency. But we were gut punched. As as I stood next to our minivan, looking at the three boys looking back at me, I knew this would be hard news. They had literally jumped for joy at this trip. We paced and mumbled for a few minutes. And then I fought to do the thing I don’t often do. I grabbed Amanda’s hand, pulled her towards me, and said, “Whatever happens, I don’t want to lose you to this.”
We’ve lost each other so many times, to so many stressful moments.
You may know the type, where you get hit with something unforeseen, a stressor big or small. And you reel with the blow like a boxer seeing stars. Then you go real deep inside to cope. Some kind of survival self shows up and you no longer feel all that connected much to others, or maybe not even to yourself. You are just getting through.
Sometimes the stress of a day alone can do this and make it hard to find each other when we reconnect at night after work and life. The flurry of stress when we pack for a camping trip can leave us in distant silence. So did many days early on in the pandemic, as joy after joy was cancelled and life, school, and work had to pivot to home. I will never forget the grief of our multiple miscarriages, how personal and heaving the grief came, and how it always sent us deep within ourselves at first. It felt like whitewater to find each other. These times were miserable alone and later felt so discouraging.
The irony is that neuroscientists now know that coping alone, self soothing in isolation, is far less effective at bringing comfort than the presence of another. We are wired to find calm with each other. Sure, sometimes you have to get through something alone for a time. And the breathing and the calming and the coping are such important skills. But we aren’t made to suffer alone for long. So there at a truck stop in the middle of Mystery Landscape, New Mexico, we hugged. Not knowing what we would do next with our vacation plans but holding each other.
This is a small story bordering on trivial. I’m not even telling you the rest of the story – an adventure in itself – because what happened after that hug matters much less. We did what we struggle to do: We kept each other as we lost the way.