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Start Spreading the News: Even Life’s Chaos Is Good

Susan Ashby Mergler October 28, 2015
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Even in the midst of chaos, always try to enjoy or at least appreciate the madness of the journey for it will be over before you know it. All the craziness that you can’t wait to be past, if you fail to find the positives or at least the humorous while going through these times, one day you will realize that you indeed have missed half of life.

My husband likes to refer to the important women in his life, namely our daughter and me, as high maintenance. I really think what he means is that we are drama queens. From my perspective, life feels more like rolling chaos that she and I just happen to attract or more appropriately, seem to constantly wander into.

Last week after an impromptu visit which had included lots of late night city dinners and an upstate apple picking trip with my daughter the new city dweller, the Manhattan skyline once again faded behind me in a blurry and salty haze of tears, giving way to a three hour stretch of high speed asphalt in which to reflect on how well or not I had handled life’s recent chaos.

After graduating a semester early, Ashlee made her first real adult move after college to New York City to begin the pursuit of a master’s degree. Fraught with eight months post-college of living under parental law and boundaries, which at times reduced our previously independent 22 year old into a conglomeration of toddler and pre-teen rebellion, getting to the emancipation date of August 1st had required the stamina of a long distance runner, the patience of the Pope and the planning and precision of an almost brain surgeon.  On this solo ride home from my visit three months later, I reflected on how her dad and I finally launched her. Kiddo Numero Uno was out the door at last!

The early months at home, Ashlee searched the Internet, the want ads and her soul for what direction her life would go. Month after month, procrastination and indecision sabotaged career decisions and any perception of forward movement. By spring however, she had an acceptance letter into a fashion marketing program with the focus now turning to the logistical complications of affording New York City as an inevitably loan strapped grad student.

After several visits to the city for both graduate school interviews and apartment hunting and enough phone messages that would exhaust a fat stack of post it notes, days had begun to drag into weeks and then months as we waited on the last puzzle piece, a lease approval. Ashlee’s lease start date of July 15th had come and gone and now with the beginning of grad school classes just around the corner, our clock was running out while the powers that be seemed to be governed more by hands of time that just refused to move.

By mid-July, panic had long since set in and Ashlee was starting to become irrational, threatening to call off the move and just continue to live at home while thinking about pursuing a job in the DC area. Key word here is “thinking”. After dabbling in part-time retail while awaiting the start of the graduate program up north, and periodically trying to resurrect her old college partying days while under my roof, I was going to lose my mind if she didn’t move soon.

First, an eight a.m. phone call requesting Ashlee and her dad arrive mid-town within six hours to complete the final part of the application process, an in-person interview. Andy was her guarantor and had to be present as well. In the city, if you cannot prove that you earn at least 40 times the monthly rent, then you have to have someone co-sign with you. At this point, if I could, I would have signed away my soul to the devil to get her to her destination. The last step in the arduous process that had included 66 pages of application, criminal and credit checks, and more personal questions than the Spanish Inquisition, was slipping away as we would need Aladdin’s magic carpet to fly them both from DC to Manhattan in time to make the interview. The frustrating thing about property management companies in Manhattan is that they seem to be oblivious to anyone else’s time being nearly as important or even existent as theirs.

The next day another attempt yielded an interview time the following morning at 11 a.m. Luckily, that we could do! It had finally happened. In a New York minute, after waiting weeks for an answer as to when Ashlee would be able to move, with slightly more than 12 hours notice, on the next to last day of July it was time for the rubber to hit the road. The wheels were finally set in motion and eight months of struggle would soon be reduced to 30 hours behind the wheel in four days of burning up the highways and interstates to get this child fully launched into adulthood.

Because of my love of all things “city”, I can be behind the wheel faster than you can say “Manhattan” so I decided to go on the co-op interview excursion, partly because as the past months had shown, I envisioned those two needing an intervention multiple times along the way. Besides, my car got the best gas mileage of the family fleet, and it was an unspoken rule that only Mom the resident control freak knows how to correctly navigate the New York City taxi zoo. In over twenty years, only once had I relinquished control and allowed my husband the privilege of driving me out of the city and that was unavoidable because I was still high on anesthesia from an outpatient procedure. I really had nothing concrete to base a decision on whether or not he was competent to drive my firstborn baby across the many avenues of that city.

So at 5:30 a.m. on the next to last day of July, the three of us screamed out of suburbia, headed north on Interstate 95, scooting by Baltimore traffic before the bottlenecks and irritated morning drivers hit the road. The traffic moving well over the posted 65 mph speed limit, I glanced down and realized the red needle had crossed dangerously close to the 90 on the speedometer. Over the bend, I see it—an unmarked car in the median, beginning to creep out onto the interstate behind me.

Keeping an eye on which lane he chose to travel while I began slowing back down to a much more respectful speed, Ashlee begins her annoying sing song, “I sure hope that wasn’t you he just pulled out for.” But I don’t need my rearview mirror or her goading to confirm what I already know and seconds later the blue flashing lights confirm my suspicions. I hadn’t gotten a speeding ticket in almost eleven years. Not that you get any credit for good behavior in the fast lane.

Back in 2004, hurtling towards Thanksgiving vacation in an SUV packed to the roof with two small kids, two cantankerous cats, an eight week old puppy and a sleeping husband, a less than friendly state trooper had no sympathy for this frazzled and obviously distracted mom as he handed out a costly ticket. By the time the fine and three year’s worth of insurance premium hikes had taken its toll, I had cost us about a thousand dollars. So I really wasn’t looking forward to my punishment as I sat alongside I-95 awaiting the return of my driver’s license, registration and fate.

This time, I couldn’t help but count the many cars that whizzed by, surely going way over the posted speed limit especially since I had Smokey detained on the shoulder. “Don’t mention it Interstate speeders,” I thought, “happy to be the diversion.”

The State Trooper who appeared to be barely twelve years old finally returned to the side of the car and established what I already knew, even if the actual detail of exactly how fast I was going was a little hazy at the moment.  “I clocked you doing 82 in a 65 zone, ma’am,” the trooper began. Instead of the ensuing lecture of how could I not realize how fast I was traveling, he continued, “You moved to Maryland in 1999?”

I shook my head and uttered, “Yes sir.” Yes sir? He’s barely an adult. Through the rear view mirror, I glare at my husband in the backseat who is clearly entertained with the fact that my lead foot has finally once again caught up to me and I am sure is rehearsing his lecture again of how expensive my impatience and inability to follow the posted speed limit is going to cost him. After taxes, that is. Because everything that Andy calculates when it comes to cost has the inflated factor of being way more expensive that I see it costing because he has to now make X amount of money to offset what the government takes in taxes and what I just gave to the government because I can’t always obey the speed limit.

“Well, your driving record is clean so I’m going to let you go with just a warning today. But if you are pulled over again, don’t expect to get out of a ticket next time,” the baby boy cop tried to appear stern while lecturing this middle-aged mom. Point taken. Yes sir!

I guess that 2004 ticket really had disappeared. Phew! Had Ashlee who had charmed her way out of at least 5 tickets secretly winked at him while I was trying to determine how long ago he was out of diapers? She could charm her way out of just about anything much to her younger brother’s disgust. Drew had been the unlucky recipient of two tickets in one night only a few months after receiving his provisional license and was onto the blatant sexism when it came down to which gender seemed to wiggle out of more tickets. I was secretly relieved that he for once wasn’t along on this excursion.

But wait, 82 in a 65? Seriously? He was going to let me go? Maybe he had met his quota for the week already. Maybe I reminded him of his mom or his favorite aunt. Or maybe my suspicions were correct and Ashlee who looked so darn cute had actually winked me out of a ticket. Way more generous than I would have been behind that badge but whatever the reason, this speedster still had a daughter to launch and had somehow managed to beat the odds this time.

With precious minutes already wasted, I leave the cop in the dust as the pedal hits the medal again, careful that the rest of the five hour trip proceeds at a more respectable and legal speed limit, getting Ashlee and Andy to their midtown Manhattan interview destination a mere ten minutes late. I hadn’t even made my way out of midtown traffic to find a parking garage when the phone rings and Ashlee announces that the apartment is hers and all the pomp and circumstance was just a formality. Or maybe what turned out to be a quick ten minute interview was just one of those times when God is secretly testing one’s fortitude. Seems to be a recurrent theme lately.

After a celebratory lunch and quick walk down the street she soon will call her own, we scream back out of the city, down the turnpike and same interstate we had just navigated only a few hours earlier.  I am convinced that this Manhattan experience is simply boot camp for the not quite fully matured adult and a glimpse of the spanking that Ashlee will soon continue to experience all on her own as part of what my “freshly out into the adult world” daughter needs to continue onward to becoming a fully autonomous adult.
Two days later on what was the latest acceptable lease start date of August 1st, in a last minute overloaded Ford F-150 rental, the four of us crammed in like a can of sardines, we careen once again back onto the highway. Because life just seems to get more bizarre by the minute, I catch a glimpse of the tarp tied tightly over just about everything that Ashlee owns, appearing like a kite surfer beginning to take flight. The 65 mph breeze of the highway is lifting the tarp and beginning to free everything not tied down underneath, which I emphasize again, is most all of what Ashlee owns. Only a few miles from our starting point, we have stopped and started at least five times already. Each time, Andy and I braving the fierce backdraft of traffic on the side of the road as we check to see what has shifted and moved and might be close to finally falling out. Thinking that the bungee cords are finally tight enough to hold, we start out again but something red catches my eye as it bounces across three lanes of traffic, dodging cars like a wayward pinball that doesn’t want to get smacked by the paddle.

I barely have the truck safely in “Park” mode on the shoulder when I see Andy sprinting across the highway, dodging oncoming traffic. Drew is three quarters out the back window screaming for him to get back into the truck. In this moment, I actually believe that I may prematurely become a widow. With everyone and everything finally back in the truck, we decide to stop at a Lowes Home Improvement Center, a mere 20 minutes from our starting point. It has become painfully obvious that we need to figure out what has to be done to secure the cargo better known as everything Ashlee owns so that this trip can commence today instead of taking four days, which surely is our fate at this rate.

Nothing like having an Eagle Scout turned frat boy onboard to figure out the dynamics of the rushing air at speeds surpassing 65 mph. After a few minutes of surveying his father’s and my late night truck loading skills, Ashlee’s younger brother instructs his father to tape the entire cargo bed as if shrink-wrapping a large yacht for winter storage. Once that was complete, no air would be able to lift the tarp and allow any of Ashlee’s belongings to end up a roadside casualty. Geez Drew, where were you twelve hours ago when this cargo was being packed?

Squished and if not before, surely after today’s journey, claustrophobic, we rounded out a normal 3 ½ hour trip in 7 agonizing jersey shore summer traffic hours. Amazingly no squabbles or complaints were heard from the backseat. Maybe Ashlee was actually relishing her last road trip before freedom. Maybe Drew was counting down the hours until his long overdue only child status would be reinstated if only for a few remaining weeks before he headed back to campus. Maybe, just maybe, maturity had finally set in at 19 and 22. Whatever the reason, I was grateful to be able to peacefully navigate this half-ton truck without having to referee from behind the wheel, because once again, Andy is asleep in the passenger seat. What an annoying comfort that in these days of many changes, this is still a constant to be counted on.

All of the frantic packing, travel woes, traversing the steep three floors of her prewar walkup, dealing with the maddening Ikea furniture assembly with missing parts, eventually leading to the four of us passed out in various corners of her 300 square foot apartment late that move-in night —it was all over in another New York minute.

A little more than 24 hours after arriving in the city, the boxes were unpacked, the furniture assembled, the bed made and the clothes hung; although not in Ashlee approved fashion but that could be her first solo task as she attempted to make this her new home. Hugging her goodbye, I turn and walk out into the hallway leaving her dad and brother still in her doorway. Taking their turns with goodbyes and hugs, Drew turns to me and smugly grins, “You gonna cry now?”

I feel the lump forming and the desire to walk back into that tiny apartment and simply refuse to go. Before I can answer his question with what would surely be a very shaky voice, the salty tears beginning to sting the corners of my eyes, Ashlee lets me off the hook, “No, she’s done this way too many times already!”

Tripping over myself down the steep stairs, racing outside for the truck before anyone can see the distress clearly written all over my face, and before the tears spill, I outrun Andy and Drew and hop in the truck. Thankful to be the only authorized driver of the rental, I am in control of the only thing right now that matters, which is quickly getting us far from this scene. I concentrate on maneuvering the best I can out of the city, far away from the precious baby that I just left on her own.

Through the Lincoln Tunnel, onto the New Jersey Turnpike and straight off the first exit ramp to one of those cookie cutter rest centers, with the city skyline still visible, I push through the summer travelers who are moving much too slowly probably because for them their vacation is ending and there simply is no rush to be done with that. But I want this part over. And I am in the race of my life. A race against time. Once safely locked into the first available bathroom stall I can find, I finally come undone.

Bawling like a newborn baby, I secretly prove Ashlee wrong. I haven’t done these goodbyes nearly enough times to be immune from the pain of goodbye and letting go and walking away. As the dam breaks somewhere near Edison, New Jersey, hyperventilating and sure that everyone in the Ladies room must be wondering what is happening behind the doors of this stall, I realize that I will have to eventually stem the tears, exit and wander back to the truck. Surely, Drew and Andy will see the red, puffy eyes and mascara trails left down my bloated, very tired and sad face. And then they too will know that I have failed to master the goodbye after all this time. Yet another maternal failure.

This time it is really finality. The Big Launch. The goal. The End. No more guarantees that she will be coming home for holiday and summer breaks. Most of her belongings gone from her bedroom back home. So as far as Ashlee is concerned, it seems that I have finally perfected the ability to turn and walk away without embarrassing either my kid or myself. But the lump in my throat almost chokes me as my phone dings. And there she is. As if I hadn’t just left her in a city full of strangers. Her text reads, “Thank you to infinity for helping me realize one of my life dreams. I love you.” The past 8 months wrapped up with a gigantic “it was so worth raising you” ribbon.

With the Manhattan skyline quickly disappearing behind us, I pull the truck back onto the turnpike and begin the long journey home. Continually glancing behind me until I can no longer see the skyscrapers’ silhouettes, I think to myself, Ashlee is somewhere on that island of more than 8 million people. And this time, I am headed home without her.

But before I had successfully stumbled down the stairs of her apartment and out into the stifling August city air, I had managed to summons the last ounce of composure and with a shaky but as cheerful voice as I could muster, tossed a bit of lifetime advice over my shoulder and back up the stairs to my newly independent daughter, “Ashlee, go set the world on fire!”

Twenty-four hours later, back in Maryland, my cell phone begins chirping its new ringtone especially selected for my new city girl. Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” is playing “Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today…If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…” Ashlee has not yet attempted to set the world on fire, but she has successfully set her oven and adjoining wall ablaze.

For more stories please visit www.middlelifemadness.com


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  1. James Warren October 29, 2015

    LOVE this story! Thanks for sharing!


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