Before every big trip I make preparations that tend to mix things momentous with things minute. I hug all the people I’m leaving behind, gather my passport and my boarding passes, pack suitcases. But I also tidy up, do some laundry, and figure out what to do with the last few things in the fridge.
The days before our recent departure from the US were no exception–I worked on cleaning up in our flat and wrote last Saturday’s blog post. I showed my mom how to set up a google chat with us in Spain, in case she wanted to get in touch in a more real-time way than an email generally does. I hosted a Tapas Fiesta for my parents and siblings, said goodbye to a bunch of friends at church, finished laundry and packing, gave both Fiddler and Ninja haircuts, and tried to think of the sorts of things I was most likely to forget. I printed boarding passes and arranged for a ride to the airport. It was a busy couple of days.
I slept badly Sunday night and woke (for about the tenth time) before 4 am, and was soon headed to the airport. Around 26 hours later, El Guapo and I were swaying on our feet in a flat in the Cabanyal district of Valencia. He went off to try to arrange for Spanish cellphone coverage, and I went to get a few things at the market so we would have something to eat for dinner. Not knowing when he was likely to be back, I hung around the apartment with the only set of keys so I could let him in, finished the novel I had begun on my first flight, and resisted the urge to nap. At some point I looked at my cellphone and saw that there were various notifications.
When we’re in the US, I don’t have any sort of phone plan. I communicate primary with my laptop; I use the phone as an alarm, as a camera, and as a place to look up scriptures when I’ve got wifi, but I don’t use it for much else. I don’t generally get messages there, so I never check for them.
That afternoon I saw that there was a google message, and when I opened it, it was from my mom, and it said, “Are you there? Ninja broke his leg.” Nothing more.
Adrenalin instantly flooded my system, though it couldn’t really dissipate my sleep-deprived mental fog. How could this have happened on our first day in Spain? How much pain was he in? What would it mean for us? How would my parents cope? Would I have to turn around and fly back to the US? How much was it all going to cost? It looked like the message was from about an hour before. But how could that be? I didn’t have wifi; I certainly couldn’t call or text or email to get more details. I couldn’t reach El Guapo, and I didn’t want to leave the house in case he arrived while I was out and couldn’t get in. (The last thing I needed on top of the present crisis was a “we can’t find each other” crisis.) There wasn’t any place I could go, in any case.
In a haze, helpless and horrified, I tried to think how such an accident might have happened. Ninja and Fiddler are currently in a tree-climbing phase, an ideal activity for increasing the chances of broken limbs, but they wouldn’t have been climbing at 8:30 in the morning. Ninja has also been doing exercises at home, running up and down stairs and doing pull-ups from a bar that hangs from the joists in the garage. Could he have fallen?
Of course I prayed. And I wondered if this could all be some sort of mistake, but couldn’t figure out how that would be. And I waited, in my exhaustion, for El Guapo to come home, and help me figure it all out. He had been gone a long time—I pictured him on the phone with my parents as they sat in a hospital emergency room somewhere.
When he finally did come home, I met him at the door, my face full of foreboding. “Did you talk with my parents? I got a message that Ninja broke his leg.” He looked aghast, said he’d heard nothing, but he had spotty cell coverage, at least in the street, so he would go out and try to reach them. He was back in twenty minutes with the news that my parents said everything was fine, and they had sent no message. Ninja was at school, and someone would have contacted them if he had been injured. It was a mystery.
I was overcome with relief—everything was going to be fine! (This is perhaps the only time I can recall a happy ending after a “Please just make it so this whole disaster never happened!” prayer.) I told El Guapo about my hours of distracted worry and my helplessness. I felt dizzy now that my worst fears had evaporated, and kept exclaiming things like, “Oh! I’m so glad nothing’s wrong!” In the midst of rejoicing, we puzzled about what a weird thing the false message was. What could have happened?
It’s hard to describe what it felt like when it dawned on me that I had done this. I had put myself through this whole, horrible experience.
Understanding did not come all at once. At first it was just a tiny inkling. I half-remembered something about having once typed that line, “Ninja broke his leg.” I grabbed hold of the thought and followed, and soon I remembered my little teaching session showing my mom how to set up a chat. We were signed into her account, so that any message we sent would look like it was from her. I remembered telling her, “let’s say there’s some emergency that you need help with. You might say, ‘Are you there? Ninja broke his leg.’” Why, OH, WHY hadn’t I chosen any other message? I could have said, “let’s say you want to let us know that a wedding announcement has arrived from a close friend,” or “let’s say Ninja wants to tell us about his new favorite book.” Why hadn’t I typed, “This is a test”? That would have been a dandy idea. Why hadn’t I typed, “How’s everything in Valencia?” Or “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”? Almost anything would have been better than the message I sent.
I felt like I was getting whiplash between extreme emotions: from despair to complete relief to utter incredulity that I could have been so addlepated as to have sent such a dangerous message, and then that I could have completely forgotten sending such a dangerous message.
To the list of unanswered questions, let’s add this one: Why hadn’t that message shown up at any time on the Saturday morning when it was written, when I would have remembered typing it, or been sitting with Mark next to me, or had immediate access to my mom who could have assured me that nothing was wrong?
It’s another mystery, but it’s not unprecedented. We send messages out into the ether every day, and expect that they’ll arrive in seconds. I once got an email from an aunt asking me how we had managed the cool animation we used in a Christmas greeting, two years after she had sent it. A couple of months back my niece Katie texted to tell me she’d pick me up in a few minutes, and that message arrived three weeks later.
Maybe my not seeing the dreaded “Ninja broke his leg” message earlier, when it wouldn’t have petrified me, was due to something like that. Whatever the cause, the perfect storm of stupid bad luck, a complete inability to get in contact with anyone that could confirm or deny, coupled with crippling exhaustion and the accompanying befuddlement, meant that it took ages before I could finally think my way through it all. And it meant that the first few hours I spent in Spain I also spent in torment.
One thing is certain: nothing makes you grateful that your kids are safe and unharmed like really, truly believing that one of them has broken a leg, and then learning that each one of them is fine. The feeling of relief keeps recurring. It makes me actually glad about the whole sorry mix-up. Ninja hasn’t broken anything at all!
[Images: Pepi Merisio, Anjana Iyer, tudosobremusicais.wordpress.com, pics-about-space.com]