My friend, Sheryl, has Christmas gift-giving down to a science. Each member of her family of four writes down three things they would like to receive, then emails the links to the entire family.
“So, we always get exactly what we want,” my most practical friend says. “No returns, no waste.” We are walking up the street past Old Woman Cove.
“But no surprise?” I ask, trying to make criticism sound like a question while admiring the mirror-still perfection of the creek in December.
Sheryl shrugs and smiles. “The surprise is… you don’t know which person is giving you which item!”
That feels like Surprise’s second cousin twice removed. Barely a blood relative.
Surprise isn’t always welcome, of course. Sometimes it arrives with fear, jeopardy, and resignation in tow. Sometimes, it is napkin holders made out of pine needles (my paternal grandmother’s specialty one year). But if there is magic in this world, it is sourced in what cannot be predicted.
When I was in high school, my sister and her husband were living in Sulzbach, Germany and when my first niece and my mother’s first grandchild was born, Mom decided the two of us would use the opportunity to both visit family and see Europe. It was Mom’s first transatlantic trip and mine, as well. She was 49. I was 17.
As passengers boarded the aircraft, a charter flight for Army relatives, a man with a pencil and clipboard asked each of us how much we weighed. I said 110, but the real number was 115. I looked at the line behind me as he added my weight to his calculations, wondering how many liars it would take to bring down the plane.
My sister, her husband, and baby girl met us in Frankfurt, and the five of us took off on a road trip through Germany, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland–crammed in an Alpha Romeo.
One night in Lake Como, we checked into a grand but worn hotel, where the rugs were frayed and evidence of maid service scarce. My mother and I shared a room, my sister and her family shared another. These kinds of accommodations challenged Mom because she had developed a severe mouse phobia in childhood. Farm. Brother. A foot race with what the cat dragged in. I won’t say more, but it was traumatizing.
So she assessed our room warily. I dropped a shopping bag containing half a pastry, a cameo, and a coral ring I’d purchased in Venice on the nightstand, and Mom went into the bathroom with a jar of cold cream to start preparations for bed. I was pulling a nightgown from my suitcase when I turned and saw the bag on the nightstand moving as if something alive was in it, and then it sort of scooted off the table and dropped to the floor. Without investigating, I shrieked, “Mouse!” and leaped on the bed. Mom came flying out of the bathroom, and within seconds, we were both high-stepping on the mattress like it was on fire; then she jumped off, grabbed her purse, and was out the door.
Not knowing what to do, I followed her out to the car, where I found her hugging her handbag like a life jacket. “I’m not staying in a room with a mouse,” she said, looking both stubborn and like she was going to cry. She opened the door to the Alpha Romeo, climbed in, and closed it. I stood there staring at her as cars whizzed by. She grimly arranged herself in the front passenger seat, then, eyes locked on mine, she slowly reclined it.
By now, it was 10 pm and completely dark. We were off the main thoroughfare but still quite publicly parked. I heard a wolf whistle from a dark alleyway. Then another.
I weighed my options. Mouse? Mom. Mouse? Mom. “Move over,” I said through the window, then opened the door and folded myself into the backseat for the most uncomfortable night of my life.
In the morning, I woke up, looked at Mom where she lay limp and unmoving, and realized, to my horror, that she no longer appeared to be breathing. Her face, white, had aged ten years. Her chest was still. Not even an eyelid fluttered.
“Mom!” I cried out.
“What ??” She jerked awake; her eyes flew open.
“I thought you were dead,” I muttered.
“I only feel dead,” she said.
We checked out of the hotel and continued our trip, my brother-in-law driving with my sister in front, Mom, the baby, and me in the back. We rode in torrential rain, Mom and I dozing a bit, until after dark.
At some point, we crossed the border into Austria, though the view outside the car had been opaque for hours. We waited in the cramped car while my brother-in-law checked us into a lovely little hotel on the edge of town, right on a rushing river. When he signaled from the door, we covered our heads against the rain and dashed inside. Exhausted after having not slept the night before, Mom and I went straight to bed, the room heavily draped and quiet—no sound except the rushing river and pounding rain.
I awoke the next day to silence; the storm had moved on. I slipped out of bed, threw open the drapes, and stood stunned in the Austrian sunlight. Because we had arrived at night, I’d had no concept that we had been climbing into the mountains. Instead of a town square or quaint city park, alps shouldered our hotel room and towered into the sky. I h ad never seen mountains so magnificent or been so close. I could have reached out the window and touched a peak that grazed heaven. It was like waking to find the beanstalk had grown over the roof– like gazing at the Grand Canyon or Hubble’s Pillars of Creation—the shocking magnitude of size alone, humbling.
I have felt something similar under a midwestern sky, but knowing these peaks were once an ancient seabed, raised from the floor of an ocean, inch by inch into the clouds, I stood there equally astonished by their beauty and the incomprehensible evidence of geologic time. We are such fragile, brief beings. We are only sparks flung outward from one great light. It was like experiencing mortality and immortality simultaneously. It was like unexpectedly encountering the face of God.
I don’t want to remove surprise from this life–— to offer only what has been requested to preclude disappointment–because while surprise means you’ll get some things you don’t want, it also means you’ll receive gifts you don’t even know to ask for.
And some things that feel like disappointments will turn out to be gifts—that transfer, that layover, that annoying coworker you would marry again, every day, for the rest of your life. The illness that heals you.
I don’t know if there is a divine design for my life. Or yours. I’ve asked so many times. Just tell me what you want. But the answer is always and forever the same.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.e