A hard lesson to accept is that often times there are no simple answers. I know that I had to encounter that lesson earlier in life; at latest when my paternal grandfather passed away from cancer when I was 7 years old. The lesson hit home, however, the summer between my 8th grade year and the start of high school. The reason for the event is irrelevant, but at a formal social reception my mother collapsed and went into convulsions. Despite what a few said, I did not see her fall but had entered that room only in time to see her surrounded by a crowd and moving uncontrollably on the floor. I raced down a flight of stairs to a small office I remembered upon entering that church building. There I pulled a card from my wallet that had the 1-800 emergency phone number for the area ambulance service and requested that an ambulance be dispatched. The only reason I had that card in my wallet was that I was not old enough to have a driver’s license. My wallet was an inexpensive one with a Velcro strap to keep it closed. Since it only contained a few dollars in the best of times, work and home phone numbers, change for a pay phone, and a house key, the Acadian ambulance card gave the wallet a consistent shape as I kept it in the driver’s license pocket. That shape was important because I often carried my wallet in my sock. Keep in mind that those were the days of real short pants and not shorts that hang below your knees, and you typically pulled your socks up to just beneath the knee. Of course without a wallet, the sock tops were often pushed down in a Pete Maravich style, but regardless the longer the sock the better as socks were easiest way to dry the sweat from your hands in the South Louisiana heat.
My Dad obviously went in the ambulance with my Mom, and the father of a school friend happened to be driving by the church building and saw me outside by the ambulance. He stopped to find out what was wrong and drove me the approximately 10 mile ride home. There I walked back to my grandparents and seeing my grandmother first, working outside by the clothes line I related the events to her. She listened and went into the house where she relayed a brief version to my grandfather who had been eating before picking up the house phone and making a quick call in the Hungarian language. By that time my grandfather emerged with 2 glass bottles of Barqs Root Beer and motioned me to the packing shed where I told him what I knew while drinking from the bottle he had given me. Family and friends had responded to my grandmother’s phone alarm and began appearing down the gravel road or coming across the fields for information because nobody dared to tie up the phone line to my grandparents house.
What I remember vividly, however, is not the number of people who arrived to ask how they could help but the actions of my grandfather in that packing shed after he listened to my account of what happened. Instead of words such as everything will be OK and such, he told me that this was one of those situations in life where he never found a simple answer. He felt that waiting without knowing was one of the hardest things in life that we must learn to handle in the manner that is best for us. He spoke of days past when messages came by way of telegram and that feeling of panic, hopelessness, and sorrow one felt just seeing a messenger from the War Department. He spoke of hearing a phone ring in the middle of the night or hearing the words “long distance” from the operator. He spoke of waiting rooms in hospitals, or just sitting somewhere anxiously awaiting the sound of an engine or the sight of someone walking toward you. Often, he related, the news learned turned out to be positive. Even a telegram once brought word that my grandmother’s brother was no longer classified as MIA and was being transported back stateside. Still, that period of unknown never became easier no matter how many times you experienced it.
I learned that day that even the smartest man did not know every answer. Every problem might not have an answer or might only be solved through a multitude of steps each having their own distinct solutions. What mattered was taking caution not to separate the questions from the answers. The answer might be good, but can it be correct if it does not address the question? Can a problem be simplified or can a solution be found without first traversing a multitude of paths and distances unknown?
Years ago I had hoped that my grandfather would give me some simple answers and would tell me how I was supposed to feel. Instead, he gave me additional questions to consider which created a complexity when I sought simplicity. Still, he did assure me that I was not alone in any feelings of weakness or fear I might have about the unknown.
Too often we desire easy answers and embrace those who claim that they can provide the solutions to the problems we see. Unfortunately, however, their solution might not be applicable. Often it is the individual who is forthright about the difficulties and the challenges ahead who has the greater understanding and our best interests at heart. We just need to accept that in many situations what we think we need actually leads us farther away from discovering a solution. We cannot let our wants for simplicity become an excuse to vilify someone who relates not what we want to hear but what will serve us best in our journeys to find our own paths and place.
By the way, my Mom was released from the ER that night. We never had a phone call, but learned of the events from the time of the ambulance arrival to the present after my Dad turned off the highway into the gravel road with my Mom sitting beside him in the pickup truck.