by Beth Burrell
I stood at the end of our driveway, watching our pale blue minivan being towed away. I almost waved but stopped myself. How do you say goodbye to a car?
It was the end of an era. I knew it and had pushed back long enough. I’d had a tough time separating my feelings for the car from my feelings for my family, my life. They’d been linked for two decades.
But an accident in May changed everything. My husband and I were traveling around 65 mph on a six-lane highway when I felt a sharp pull left; in my peripheral vision I saw our left front tire spinning across two lanes of traffic. Hanging on tight to the steering wheel, I hit the emergency brake and somehow steered the hobbling van into the grass. The tire came to rest in the median between us and three oncoming lanes of traffic.
Wait, what just happened?
Had we finally asked too much of our aging van?
Amid the pandemic and quarantining this year, I haven’t seen my parents much. They both turn 85 this year, and it’s wonder through all of it, that they’re okay, living mostly on their own with minimal help. On the night of my birthday in July, I learned my dad was in the hospital after suffering a mild stroke and pneumonia among other things; he spent four days there and I did not visit. More recently, he fell and narrowly avoided shoulder surgery.
Last week, I listened as my mother cried on the other end of the phone. I’d been talking first to my dad and when he handed his cell phone to my mom, the volume on speaker was so loud, she hung up and called me back on her phone. She was frustrated he couldn’t turn off his speaker yet knew she couldn’t either. “You know I’m not very good with electronics,” she sighed, before breaking down. It had been a long day.
My mom’s always been pretty independent but also relied heavily on my dad to handle life’s gadgets, along with finances and repairs. He’s been dependable, solid. But increasingly now she asks him to do things he can’t any longer. It doesn’t always go well. I used to think her reliance on him was the vote of confidence he needed, and he’d rise to the task. Now I wonder: Is she asking too much of my dad, her stalwart for 63 years?
When I last wrote about the van here about two years ago, our young adult kids were urging us to move forward, to ditch the van. Maybe it was time, maybe we were irrationally attached to it. Our youngest would soon graduate from college and we vowed after that last load, we’d let it go. Yet we hung on. I could hop in the van and be off, encased in what felt like an old, comfy sweatshirt. One recent summer I was in the minivan so often helping move young adult children from here to there and back again, I imagined my epitaph reading: She drove herself here.
But when that wheel flew off, it felt like a sign. On the phone with my son the next day, he asked whether the van had finally let me down. Yes, it failed in the moment, I conceded, and dramatically so. But then it performed perfectly – it didn’t flip over or spin. It just veered off the highway, onto the shoulder then grass, missing signs and guard rails. No one was hurt. Everything went wrong and then everything went right. (Two other drivers even stopped to help, and one crossed the highway on foot, fetched our tire out of the median and wheeled it back to us!)
It feels odd now to compare feelings about a car to feelings about a person. Yet they seemed to have suddenly coalesced, reminding me how much we want and need things to stay the same – especially those things and people we’ve depended on most. Their failures and diminished capacities are frightening. Isn’t my mother’s growing frustration with my dad masking her true terror, that he will die first and leave her alone? Likewise, wasn’t my clinging to the van an attempt to hold onto the past it contained, the years receding inexorably in the rearview mirror?
Just before the van was towed away for donation after we repaired it, my husband and I put a handwritten card in the glove compartment wishing the new owners safe travels. As I watched the van disappear from view last week, my throat caught as I stared at empty space. It had a great run, and it’s hard to ask for more than that.