Over the weekend, we suffered a loss in our family.
We all knew it was coming. The signs had been obvious for years. But in the end, it still seemed like a surprise. You think you’re ready, then the moment comes when you have to make the call to just end things with some dignity. In a way, it just seemed right that I was the one who had to make the decision to simply let go. It lent a certain circle of life quality to the whole experience. Especially since I’m the one who test-drove her first.
I’m speaking, of course, about our 1997 Ford Windstar.
She died on a Saturday. My oldest son Jack was getting ready to take her to work. He turned the ignition (it’s literally been years since you needed the actual key to start it) and the engine made a noise that immediately caused me to bound out of my seat in the sunroom. It sounded vaguely like a load of ball peen hammers being spun around by an industrial clothes dryer. On high. I ran out to the driveway screaming at him to cut the engine. We popped the hood but couldn’t see any outward signs of engine distress. My younger son suggested it was a loose belt, but since he often says things that make no sense, I ignored him. I checked the oil, discovered it was low, and poured in a couple of quarts. Afterwards, I started it myself, and the ungodly clanking and banging did not abate in the least. In fact, the entire vehicle was shaking so much I could’ve churned butter like a pioneer right on her hood .
Recognizing that this issue was way beyond my troubleshooting abilities, I nervously drove the van to the mechanic. It was the most nerve-racking ten minutes of my life since the doctor said to my wife, “Push!” Although, in that case, my wife’s check engine light wasn’t blinking and I felt secure that a piston wouldn’t blow out of her at any moment to kill me. As a fledgling driver, one way to gauge the severity of a car problem is by how loud you have to turn up the radio to pretend its not there. By the time I pulled into the station, I had the volume cranked. As soon as the technician heard the death rattle of the motor, I could see it in his eyes that there was no hope. His snap diagnosis was no less painful for being expected.
We conferred quickly and quietly, employing the special tone men use when discussing such serious matters as nuclear arms treaties, hurricane evacuation routes and which actor was the best James Bond (Connery). The odds were not in my favor that the van would survive the trip home, so the mechanic generously offered his parking lot for the viewing before the boys from Goodwill picked her up. Preparing for the worst, my wife had followed me there in our other car in the likely event I would need a ride home. She half-jokingly asked if I wanted one last picture taken in front of the minivan. I told her yes.
As I stood next to the sliding passenger door, a wave of real sadness struck me just as she snapped the shutter. A single memory had come unbidden to mind that left me thoroughly and instantly depressed. If you were to ask my wife which specific recollection it was, she would certainly have a number to choose from. Eighteen years of our lives as a family had gone by since we first bought that minivan. We’ve gone through five different home addressees, vacations across twenty-nine states, and unknown quantities of food through the driver’s side window. That is until it stopped rolling down in late 2013. With two hundred thousand plus miles on the odometer, we had almost made it to the moon while seated on its fabric covered seats. Guessing what I was thinking would be next to impossible.
It could have been one of the tales connected to the outside of the vehicle. The driver’s side rear view mirror that I fashioned out of a reflective wall tile and attached with velcro. The windows I had replaced after they were shot out on two separate occasions coming home from school. The paint which bubbled up and peeled like a Canadian on spring break. The piece of duct tape that held the rear vent window shut. The headlight covers gone almost completely opaque from age and exposure. The list of candidates for my melancholy would only start with those.
A quick glance through the cracked windshield offered many more possibilities that could account for my moment of grief. The remnants of crayons melted by the blazing California sun next to where we once strapped in Daniel’s car seat. The auxiliary controls for the radio where Jack would magically mute the station anytime he wanted to be heard from his booster seat. The many, many scrape marks along the interior walls from the dozens of sheets of plywood, the hundreds of 2X4s, and the literally ten of thousands of screws used in the building of sets over my sixteen years of directing plays from Little Women to The Little Mermaid. The cigarette lighter which over the years had powered refrigerated coolers on our annual road trips from the West Coast to Northwest Ohio; VCRs that replayed Thomas the Tank Engine videos until they wore out; and a short-lived experiment in converting a Playstation 2 to DC current. The outlet itself served faithfully until the fatal insertion of a penny into its silver chamber. Yet, my heartbreak wasn’t tied to any of those things.
I was ready to leave all those recollections behind with no regrets. All except one. It might seem strange that only one incident associated with this minivan could awaken this sensation of mourning inside me. Stranger still, this particular episode was only a few weeks old. What had gotten me so upset was the memory that I had just spent over seven hundred dollars replacing the water pump. For nothing.
Rust in peace, van.