Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Baby You Can Drive My Car!

When Brian died, we were living in a house in the suburbs of Des Moines, a typical DINK situation (dual income, no kids). We had two cars -- he drove a 2006 Mitsubishi Endeavor SUV, and I drove a 2005 Ford Taurus. We had bought the cars a year after we started our jobs (attorney for me, operations manager at a large insurance firm for him) and bought our house. Mine was used, but his was brand new -- a first for both of us.

Brian died in the middle of January during the worst winter in Iowa history (at least in terms of snow and ice accumulation). I don't think I drove at all for two weeks after he died -- I was a numb shell of a human being transported around to meetings, visitations, etc., pretty oblivious to the terrible weather and road conditions. Eventually, though, I started to leave the house on my own and had to resume driving again. Because his vehicle was nicer, safer, and better in the winter weather, I started driving his car. I know I surprised some people and caught them off guard -- people weren't expecting to see his car pull up in front of their houses when I would visit; it was a bit of a shock, I'm sure. I felt a little weird about it too -- would people think I was immediately claiming his car as "mine"? He was a little possessive with "his" things (he didn't even like to share toothpaste when we'd travel!), and I wondered what he would think about me commandeering his vehicle. I don't think he would have liked it, but then again, I wouldn't have liked traveling along on sheets of ice and two feet of snow in my little car all winter long. So pragmatism won, and I really never used my car again after I adapted to (or got spoiled by) the SUV driving experience.

Brian loved music and had a mix of CDs -- some purchased, but mostly burned discs he or friends had made and exchanged over the years -- scattered about the car. The glove box was bulging with papers, snacks, and manufacturer information about the car. That was all before I started using the car. My day-to-day use then led to an accumulation of travel mugs, soda cans, banana peels, apple cores, and food wrappers on the floor. (What? Who doesn't eat on the go?!) Then, realizing that a return to the daily grind at the law office in the dead of winter at the height of my depression just wasn't working out for me, I started to use the vehicle for other things. I took thousand-mile and weekend trips. I hauled funeral home plants around to friends and family. I road-tripped to Austin for South by Southwest. I spent muddy afternoons at the cemetery and then climbed back into the car. I bawled my eyes out, creating mountains of used tissues. I packed up and moved to Austin for the summer, thinking a short-term "leave of absence" from life would help. Friends and I brought lake water, pool water, and spring water into the car on our wet clothes.

After deciding that I needed to live in Austin and get a fresh start on life, I packed up at the end of last summer and drove back to Iowa. Then, the SUV was relegated to "helper vehicle" -- loads and loads of things were taken to Goodwill to be donated as I went through the house, bags of mulch and soil were hauled for landscaping projects, sweaty workers made countless trips to the hardware store for paint and supplies. More stuff was taken back to our hometown, for our parents to have or to store. Along the way, I found a kitten and brought her back home with me in that car. While my house was for sale, she and I did a lot of driving around while people were viewing the house -- which meant I was keeping a small litter box in the car for a while. Eventually, the house sold and I again packed up the SUV for multiple trips -- 1,000 miles each way. Each time, there was stuff packed up, snacks and drinks consumed on the road, and more general messiness added to the mix -- receipts from gas stations, junk mail grabbed on the way out the door, etc. On one trip between Des Moines and Austin, Mittons was with me, riding shotgun -- perfectly content to sit on the passenger seat, litter box on the floor below her. On another trip, the ice/sleet/snow mixture that stayed with me for about 700 miles (combined with the salt mixture being constantly dumped by the slow-moving plows) wreaked such havoc on the outside of the vehicle that a drive-thru worker in Dallas asked me if someone had thrown white paint on my car!

In short, I've used the heck out of this car in the past 15 months. I've stopped considering it Brian's car, and now I call it my own (especially since I sold the Taurus last fall). Yet, I never got around to properly cleaning it out. Part of this was probably because I couldn't really do it right away -- it was far to cold to be out sifting through and organizing the contents of a car when Brian died, even in a garage. The other part is probably laziness, combined with the fact that I was always moving and on the go last year. I somehow never found the time to get to the car -- especially not when the house needed so much work.

After moving to Austin in December, I took a long time getting Texas license plates. Part of it was because of the process -- getting insured in the state first, then getting the car inspected, etc. -- but I also think there was a part of me that wanted to leave something the same as it used to be. The car still looked much the same as it did when Brian died. Same license plates, same CDs, same jam-packed glove compartment, etc. I don't think that was a conscious thing, but I realized that it probably tied in when I kept putting off a car wash, actually turning around and driving home in tears one day because I couldn't decide if I should have strangers touch the garbage on the floorboards. That afternoon, I finally made myself go through the car and throw out all the trash; most importantly, I made myself go through the glove box.

I opened the glove compartment, and papers spilled out. Typical -- much like a lot of us, Brian would throw in the latest registration documents or oil change receipt, close it up, and that was that. However, he never would get rid of outdated documents or old directions, etc. I found every insurance card, every oil change receipt, every hotel confirmation for road trips we'd taken, etc., dating back for years. I found granola bars -- probably packed for breakfast and then discarded in the glove box in favor of a fast food or cafeteria option -- so hard and smashed that they no longer resembled a "bar" shape. There were a couple flashlights, some medicine, toilet paper, straws, etc. Some things brought back unlikely memories -- the handful of straws, for example, I had grabbed at a fast food place because the McDonald's by our house always seemed to forget at least one straw when we'd go through the drive-thru and I remember once we had to take turns using the one straw we were given.

One thing really struck me -- I found a hotel reservation confirmation and directions for a hotel in Austin dated March 2009 -- the last time we were in Austin together, for a friend's wedding. It overwhelmed me to see that -- there I was, standing in my apartment complex parking lot, about 6 miles from a crummy apartment I lived in with my parents a quarter-century ago when they gave this city a run, holding a remnant of my last visit to this city with the man I loved and who made me love this city. And now I live here alone, because I married him and because he died. It was one of those moments where memories come rushing in and you see life coming full circle, and the enormity of fate seems to really strike a chord. I had to abandon my "to do" list in favor of some quiet reflection time at Zilker Park that afternoon -- a place that I loved as a child, and love even more as an adult.

After that emotional experience, I was finally emotionally ready to really claim the car as my own. The next day, I took it to one of those car washes where they do the inside and outside of your car as you wait. This place even has someone that offers chair massages inside, so I signed up for 10 minutes of that while the vehicular transformation was taking place. What a pleasant way to spend time waiting! After getting it all cleaned up, I went and finally got those Texas license plates. Now it feels like my car, not like I am driving his. But I did leave the Chicago Bears bobblehead guy he had hanging from the rear view mirror in place. I might be traveling the road of life on my own now, making my own way, but I still want to see things that remind me of him and make me smile when I look at my life in the rear view mirror.

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