In my car's youth, I left the driving to her. I’d adjust the heat or air to my liking, select tunes to fit my mood, put my hands on the wheel, and trust her to get me to my destination. She always did.
Once she passed her ten-year birthday, however, things began to go. I get it; we’re on somewhat the same track in the aging department. I identify with her creaks, groans and slow days. I am sensitive to her sounds, and to other elements almost indefinable, tremors of communication between her accelerator and my foot. Almost before they occur, I can sense a catch, a rev of engine, a hint of hesitation. I ease off, and she rallies.
Starting has always been her forte. Believe me, I’ve had cars where I approached every departure with an anxious intake of breath. But this old girl, my Caravan, like a faithful dog who greets the negligent master with smiles and a wagging tail, starts right up, even if she’s been left idle for weeks.
Last week, she climbed the hills to Wildlife in Crisis, chugging and coughing, hitching and revving, to help me deliver a wounded woodchuck into caring hands and then brought me safely home. Once there, I had a story to write about injured animals and a refuge in the woods, so my valiant car’s deteriorating health slipped my mind.
Despite the frigid temperature, she started right up this morning, feigning cheer, determined to take me to Mercy Learning Center. As is our way, we took it slow, pulling over to let other drivers pass, gliding where we could, two old girls, out for a roller-coaster ride. But a string of traffic lights and the peaks and valleys of Park Avenue nearly broke her. She thumped painfully and shuddered as if to stall. I tapped the brake, then lightly pressed the accelerator. “Please Sweetie. You can do it,” I urged, holding my breath. As the road leveled out, she did as well.
In “Castaway,” when Tom Hanks befriended Wilson the soccer ball and sobbed when it floated away, I cried with him. I’ve been weepy more than once knowing the demise of my mobile womb is imminent.
She has been a refuge, a place for solitude, tears and reflection. When I had cancer, and during my father’s illness and death, she surrounded me with songs cheerful to soulful – “The Little Mermaid” to “Les Miserables,” music to feed my sorrow if that felt right, or something to banish the blues if it seemed a possibility. Not that we shared sad times only; when the weather was warm, I’d roll her windows down and we’d zip along our way, breezy, belting out “Life is a Highway” and “Shanty.”
When we nosed into the lot at Mercy Learning Center, she gave a chassis-shaking shudder. “Oh Sweetie. Rest a bit,” I said and left her, wondering what the return trip would bring.
Two hours later, I drew near her comforting, matronly form, a sight that has awaited and welcomed me in parking lots and unfamiliar places for eleven years. I was mentally preparing to make the call to Triple A, with the resulting chilly roadside wait, and a bevy of calls to figure out my next step. But, when I got into the car, gave her a pat, and said, “Can we do this?” she started right up, dear old friend. With tears in my eyes, I guided her gingerly out of the lot onto the road.
It was a painful trip home. The effort was huge on both our parts. Abdomen, (mine), clenched tight; breath held; posture, rigid, with a slight tilt forward as if to push, to will her onward. Our fellow travelers showed amazing restraint: no one honked as we plodded on, lurching and gasping, pulling over periodically. “You’re doing great, Sweetie, just great.”
As the gap closed between our trembling progress and home, I stroked her armrest, mindful that this might be our last ride. When we pulled into my spot in front of the house, I leaned against her steering wheel and cried.