This past weekend my husband and I went to Memphis to spend some time with family. The fellowship was good but there were problems.
Our hotel was not 5 star. Or 4 star. Or 3 star. Unless elephant dancing in the halls accompanied by loud screaming, laughing, yelling, and pounding on doors from 10 p.m. to midnight is considered desirable. We're not into any of those things so we'd give the hotel a 2 star rating at best. In one Muppet movie, the characters stay at a seedy, run-down, no frills place called the Happiness Hotel. Suffice it to say that after the first night in this miserable abode, my husband and I started referring to it as the Happiness Hotel of Memphis. Will we ever go back? No. Does any one memory stand out from our time at that place? Yes. I distinctly remember lying in bed our first night there, about 11 p.m., while my husband looked through the security peephole into the hallway. I prayed while he tried to decide whether to call the desk and risk retaliation from our rowdy neighbors for turning them in or to just let well enough alone and move to another room the next day. (We moved to a quieter floor the next afternoon after complaining about the ambiance (or lack thereof) on the first floor). Praying for physical safety and wisdom in the dead of night in a strange place could have been pivotal - but it wasn't.
We did dine at a 5 star hotel the first night of our weekend "vacation". The servers acted as if we (a rather large but quiet group) were an imposition and maintained that attitude throughout the first hour of waiting for our pricey food. When we had to leave before eating all our food (the kids in the group needed to get to bed), we had to ask 4 different servers before we finally got a to-go box. This experience was an expensive pain for the one who paid for all of us but not pivotal.
Our first full day in Memphis was much, much better. We were gone from the hotel almost all day, we had fun visiting with family, we did a bit of site-seeing, and we got to watch competitive fencing. Our "luck" had changed. Or so it seemed. Until my husband woke up at 1 a.m. and had to make a run for the bathroom. Clearly something he had eaten that day hadn't agreed with him. Once again, we felt like strangers in a strange land. But no epiphanies. Just questions about what would happen to us next.
We found out at 8:30 a.m. the next day. I managed to trip over an uneven sidewalk and nearly found myself in the ER, a specimen under glass so-to-speak while they checked me out for a possible concussion. Thankfully I never had any signs of concussion so the medic at the convention center finally let me go back to the hotel with a check list of things to watch for. We felt angst for a short duration. I felt some pain. The future was topsy-turvy there for a bit. But even that experience passed with no pivotal memory that would stand out after the event had calmed down and things were back to "normal".
The ride home on Sunday was pivotal.
The skies were a leaden grey when we left Memphis. Over the next four hours, the temperature would drop from 65 degrees to 40 degrees. We started off in a light, intermittent rain which worried my husband because both of our wipers were badly torn. It was one of those things we meant to take care of but in the hurry of getting away on Thursday, we just forgot to do it. Half way home, we stopped to eat and in the providence of God, after we got inside the burger place, the sky opened up and the winds began to howl. As we watched people struggle against the wind and the rain to get inside the restaurant, my husband told me there was no way we could drive in that type of torrent. So we chatted and waited for the storm to blow over. We waited a good forty minutes before venturing out onto the freeway again, in the middle of nowhere. Fields in every direction and not much else. My husband fretted - where would he find windshield wipers in this desolate place? Where would we even find a parking lot to pull onto if we had to wait out another blustery squall? There wasn't any place.
Finally we came across a wide spot in the road where a sign proclaimed that there was a burger joint, a gas station, and a Fred's store. We exited and then had to drive on down the road a ways (as we say in the South) to find the Fred's store. Phil ran inside, hoping against hope that they would have windshield wipers that would fit our car. While he was inside the store, the rain started pouring again and a couple of gusts shook the car so hard that once again I was praying, debating, considering my options.
To our relief, this small store in the middle of miles and miles of dirt had two wipers that fit our car - they weren't the same length - one was a little shorter than the other - but they worked! We got back on the road and then Phil noticed that the car was pulling to the right. He thought it was probably the wind pushing the car slightly but he wasn't sure. Still out in the middle of nowhere with the temps steadily dropping and everything around us colored either a sodden grey or a nondescript brown, we decided to pull off at the next place where Phil could park the car long enough to check out the tires. We passed two exits before we came upon a paved area - a cemetery no less, divided into quarters by a narrow asphalt lane, out in the middle of acres of cultivated dirt,with no chapel, farm, or any living thing in sight. Just tombstones and a dilapidated shed that was falling in on itself.
At that moment I had a flashback. In 1997 I had caravaned with other mourners to a cemetery in the same general area to attend a graveside service for a beloved neighbor. I wasn't sure but I thought this might be the very place. So Phil and I did something we never planned to do: after he checked the tires we followed that black ribbon of asphalt, broken in some places by tree roots, all around that cemetery, trying to read as many tombstone names as we could, hoping to find the name of our friend.
We saw tombstones that dated back to the civil war, some looking a bit tipsy with the passing of time. We made out a reference to a "sweet life" that "returned to God" after only a few days. We saw modern tombstones set among ancient white markers with the wording long since vanished. And we saw some flat markers that were mostly under water.
And we each silently had our moment of epiphany, unknown to the other.
Each stone represented a real person, most of whom had lived long enough to struggle with worry. Was their house big enough? Their mode of transportation adequate? Were they able to keep up with the Jones's? Or perhaps were they worried about just keeping body and soul together until the next crop could come in? Could they pay their taxes? Did they face illness, loss, or grief?
The point is: they did.
I can't explain it but in that quiet, still place both of us suddenly realized what is and what isn't important. And we understood that all the things that had irritated us on the trip, frightened us even, would some day be long forgotten while we ourselves would be with God.
It may sound morbid but it wasn't.
The next day I looked up my friend's grave site on the net and realized that we didn't have the right cemetery. Same area but a few miles further east, back the way we had already come. In other words we had already passed it in the downpour before we ever stopped. I apologized to my husband and to my surprise he told me that he was glad we had stopped, that it had put things in perspective and lifted some of the cares from his shoulders, just as it had done for me. At that point we realized that the time we spent driving around that plot of ground had been pivotal for both of us.
Epiphanies come in the strangest of ways, unannounced and unbidden. They change our perspective in a moment of time, stripping away illusions and distractions. Ours came in the middle of a rainstorm somewhere in the middle of nowhere and we know God was in it.