It had been the perfect vacation, really. The perfect get-away for Paul and me, the perfect way to celebrate twenty years of marriage. A trip to Tunisia. How exotic, we thought. The price was right and so we left our teenaged sons and Odette in Lyon and headed to the sunny beaches of Tunisia for a week in October.
We’d had plenty of warm, sunny days, with only one rain shower on Thursday night. We’d had luxurious time to laugh and love, to walk by the sea and sit by the pool and read a novel—I think it’s the first time I’ve ever read a whole book on vacation—time to talk about our sons and our work, time to enjoy a game or two of Spite and Malice at night on the green felt-covered card tables, time to dance in our room to some of our favorite ‘oldies and goldies’, time to go to the spa for all different treatments—algae treatments in the hammam, massages and hot baths. There’d of course been time to discover a bit of this country, with it’s loud music and its colorful souks, the merchants in the different stores all offering the same gaudy goods—pottery and leather goods and fake Nike Tshirts, spices and ‘shiskas’—those long metal pipes you can smoke for an hour—rugs and jewelry and chess boards made of olive wood. We’d sampled the native food—although the hotel offered a wide European variety—and we’d played it safe and drank plenty of bottled water. We’d ridden camels and visited the Berber market in a neighboring town. We’d had the perfect mix of relaxation alone and sightseeing. We’d even made friends with a cute young French couple and had several open conversations with them about faith.
Yes, it had been the perfect vacation.
Of course there were things that weren’t truly ‘perfect’—the roads and beaches were strewn with empty bottles and cans, the music at the hotel tended to be loud and obnoxious, the spa treatments and the food and the excursions all smacked of giving a little less than what you expected. But that was all fine with me. I was alone with Paul, we were together and, if the truth be told, considering the price of the ‘sejour’ and a few negative things I’d read about this hotel right before we left, I felt everything was better than I’d expected. I’d been relieved and delighted and happy and content and filled up.
Then we headed out on Saturday morning for a last walk on the beach. This was our first morning walk. Usually we waited until later in the afternoon, after our spa treatment or excursion. Today Paul and I planned to walk toward Hammamet together on the beach and then he’d go out to the road and take a jog, while I returned to the hotel via the beach.
It was going fine, truly, in spite of the empty water bottles and Coke cans being tossed along in the sand by a gentle breeze. Despite the cigarette butts we dodged as we walked in the thicker sand toward the water. And despite the camel and horse droppings that occasionally lay in dirty piles nearby. We were talking and laughing and enjoying. And then I saw it.
A rat. A dead rat laying a few feet to our left, discarded on the beach.
“Oh, Honey! Yuck!”
Paul gave a little smile and nodded and held up three fingers, signifying this was the third rat he had seen on our little walk.
“Three?!” I was astounded. And horrified.
I have never in my life had a panic attack. I’ve had plenty of other physical and psychological problems, but never a panic attack. But at the sight of that dead rat lying so gruesomely on the sand, something in me snapped. I clutched Paul’s hand and began to whimper. “I think I’m gonna throw up. There’s no way I can walk back on this beach alone. I want to go home! I’m tired of Tunisia!”
Amazing how one little helpless dead rat can bring such a violent reaction in an otherwise fairly stable woman. Paul’s reaction to the rat was mild amusement and a maddening lack of surprise. After all he’d grown up in Brazil and I guess he’d seen a lot worse things than rats on the beach.
But to me, I felt insulted in my very sensitive inner being. It didn’t help at all that we encountered three more dead rats as we progressed along the beach. I was quickly loosing touch with reality. I had visions of these rats being caught on the end of the tide and tumbling down on my toes. Perhaps one was not quite dead and would still have enough energy to sink his rabid teeth into one of my toes. “This is revolting!” I acknowledged, as if Paul had not already gotten the hint, with me gripping his hands and panting and grimacing and threatening to throw up.
“It’s okay, dear,” he soothed, which was, of course, no comfort at all at that moment.
“Easy for you to say! You’re heading out to the road, far from the rats. I have to face them all again alone on my way back! You don’t understand, Paul. The sight of those dead rats conjures up awful images from my childhood when I’d go to the barn to feed our horses and hear those rodents running above in the hayloft. Of when I’d put a hose in the water buckets and find a floating and bloated rat there, victim of the poison we’d put out. These are very traumatic memories from the past, honey!”
“But you survived,” he chuckled.
“Barely,” I seethed.
And then Paul did something he rarely does. He took my hand and squeezed it and said a bit sternly, yet with underlying humor, “Resaisis-toi! Get a hold of yourself! Calm down. Everything is going to be okay.”
It is rare that Paul reprimands me. Even though I knew this reprimand was half humor, I did not appreciate it. He didn’t understand! He didn’t remember those rancid rats in the barn, and he wasn’t at home the day the mouse ran across our kitchen floor when we were starving seminary students. He didn’t hear the ‘whack, whack, whack!’ of the neighbor’s shoe as he came to my rescue and put an end to the varmit. Even now, back in Lyon, some clever mouse was lurking in the pantry, dodging all the traps Paul had set for him.
Still, I was able to take a deep breath, accept Paul’s hug and let him jog away while I turned to face the rats of my past.
As I walked back toward the hotel, I wondered why this had upset me so much and I concluded quite simply that these rats had caught me off guard. I had prepared myself for loud music and possible diarrhea or some other intestinal aliment, had prepared myself for strange tasting food and even for empty bottles on the beach. In my over-creative mind, I had braced for the worst and when it turned out to be much better, well, I was pleasantly surprised and pleased.
But rats on the beach! Surely this went against every shiny vacation pamphlet ever printed. Enjoy a week of sun and sand on miles of white Mediterranean beaches. Find shells and camel dung and a few scattered dead rats to make your vacation complete.
Rats on the beach did not fit into any of my preconceived vacation categories. If the truth be told, they didn’t fit anywhere in my life.
But they were here in all their gray, decomposing glory and I was going to have to ‘get a hold of myself’ as Paul said.
Isn’t this how life is? We prepare ourselves for certain things and expect life to work that way. Sure there will be a few bumps along the way. But when the diagnosis is cancer or the hurricane hits our town or the unexpected expenses dry up our savings, we tend to panic.
As a Christian, I have a rock solid faith that the Lord will provide for me, for us. He always has. And over the past forty-plus years, I have gradually gotten rid of the ‘if only’ excuses in my life. ‘If only I had more money, I’d give to charity,’ ‘if only I felt stronger I’d volunteer,’ ‘if only our house was bigger, I’d open it up to the youth group…’ I’ve learned through the years that I have to start small. Jesus said, ‘He who is faithful in little will be faithful in much.’
So I’m pretty good about avoiding ‘if only’ excuses.
But I haven’t quite gotten past the ‘what if?’ questions. ‘What if Paul has a heart attack and dies?’ ‘What if something happens to one of the boys?’ ‘What if my books don’t sell?’ ‘What if there are rats on the beach?’
‘What if something I haven’t expected or calculated into my plans for my life happens?’
This morning I was reading in the book of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet of gloom and doom. His words were hard, disheartening. And then suddenly, I stumbled upon one of my favorite verses in the Bible, one of the first ones I’d memorized in college. I knew the reference by heart: Jeremiah 29: 11-13. I’d quoted it probably hundreds of times. But this morning I wasn’t paying attention to the chapter and verse as I read along and it caught me by surprise.
“For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. “Plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. In those days, when you pray, I will listen. You will find me when you seek me if you search for me with all your heart.”
I was reminded again, reassured of what I have known and believed for a long time now. The Lord knows and cares and He has something prepared.
I can hear Paul’s words again, “Resaisis-toi! Get a hold of yourself. It’s going to be okay.”
There are so many unexpected turns in this life. I cannot look ahead and prepare myself for all of them. It is a waste of time and a lack of trust in the Lord to do so. Some things will be unpleasant, they will make me want to cover my eyes and cringe or burst into tears or worse. But God has a plan and it is for good.
With this in mind, I can face the unexpected. I can walk confidently along the beach past 6 dead rats (yes, I counted them) without having a panic attack. It’s going to be okay. The vacation isn’t ruined. The rats have even provided me with a nice little anecdote to tuck inside my brain for later, for the next time I’m forced to face something unpleasant and unexpected. I’ll remember that, with the Lord’s help and presence, I got a hold of myself and I can surely do it again, even if it means confronting a dead rat on a dirty beach.
~Elizabeth Goldsmith Musser, 2005