Years ago, on a beautiful summer day, I drove home to Virginia after a visit to New England. I was enjoying the peaceful drive as I headed over the Tappan Zee Bridge, glancing at the vista of the Hudson River. In a surreal second, my heart started to race as fear swept my body. I didn’t think I would…or even could…make it to shore. My hands shook as I gripped the steering wheel and locked my eyes on the car in front of mine, using that tether to carry me across the bridge.
Once I crossed to safety, all I could think about was how I was going to make it over the next bridge. I had never had a panic attack before and never wanted to again. It may have been irrational, but the fear was debilitatingly real. Sure enough, the next bridge was worse than the first. For years after that, I drove miles out of my way to avoid a bridge. My mantra became
one bridge at a time.
The truth is, the bridge wasn’t the problem, it was my life. I was deep in mid-life muck. Our home seemed to be in chaos. My husband worked long hours, I was going to night school, my daughter was hitting puberty, my son had learning problems, and I was miserable. I wanted out of the whole mess and didn’t know how to get there. In other words, I didn’t know how to get to shore.
Not unlike how I worry today about fording the swift cultural current raging on the daily news: Columbine-Newtown-Parkland-…and the list goes on. How do we get to shore? We tremble as we cross shaking, swaying bridges.
Two years ago I took care of my sister who was crossing a bridge of a different kind–the one that carries us to the other side, that shore of which we are so unsure. In Jean’s last week, her husband and I sat in her hospital room with bated breath, watching her erratic breathing become increasingly shallow. Food would no longer go down, and we could see her pain was beyond tolerable.
The Do Not Disturb sign on the door reminded us that Jean was crossing the final bridge. We were alone with her as she drifted into deeper sleep. Softly the door opened; a nurse adjusted the pain pump, an aide brought new ice chips, the chaplain said a prayer. We crowded onto the bridge, gently releasing Jean to shore, where the waiting hand of love took her soul to safety. Then, turning, we packed her things and trudged across the long bridge out of the hospital. It was not an easy walk, but we knew Jean had not crossed her final bridge alone.
What do we do to help people over their bridges? Not long ago, I crossed a bridge and saw a sign that read, “If you need help, call the Bridge Suicide Hotline 1-800-…” All along the side of the bridge was netting, preventing a fall—or a jump. On the Chesapeake Bay Bridge there is drive-over service available for those who can’t manage the drive themselves.
When I was in India, I saw a dangerous, bubbling waterhole in the hills overlooking Nepal. A wizened grandmother who looked to be about 110-years-old was crossing a high bridge above the water with a boy no older than four. He stopped to fearfully look down at the percolating water below. His grandmother prodded him forward with her stick, moving him slowly onto the safe path beyond the bridge.
We prod and poke each other to safety, one bridge at a time, helping each other across the raging rivers below until, bit-by-bit, we can cross those bridges ourselves. Thanks to many pokes and prods helping me to face and fix my broken spirit, I no longer need to tether myself to the car in front of me; I can finally enjoy the view.
Today, I look out my window at the small wooden arched bridge over the running brook behind our house and smile at the beautiful reminder of my crossing to safety.