We were married in 1972. Butch had to be on duty for the Army days later. The car we owned at that point in time was a 1958 Ford. The car was very special. First, it would not start if I was in it. When we went for our interview with the pastor that was going to marry us, he walked us to the door when it was time to leave. I stopped at the door and Butch continued to the car. “Aren’t you going with him?” he asked. “No, the car won’t start with me in it so I have to wait here until it is running.” He looked at me like I was crazy, shook his head, and walked back into the church. This was not a joke. The car would literally not start with me inside. I carried jumper cables everywhere so I could get it started when Butch was not around. Even crazier, if you passed a speed limit sign and were going faster than the posted limit, the car would die until you were going the right speed and then start back up. That car died in the west Texas desert on our way home from visiting Butch’s uncle a year later.
Next, we bought the only new car we would ever own. It was a 1972 VW Beetle. We paid $2650 out the door. It was the first year that they claimed that VWs would float. I proved that one day during a Texas downpour when I drive through a flooded intersection. The car, lifted by the too deep water, floated lazily across the intersection carried by the momentum, caught traction on the other side and continued down the road. When we moved to Minnesota after Butch left the Army, we thought we were off Scott free because we did not have a radiator that would freeze. We had much to learn about living in freezing Minnesota. Little did we know that oil will freeze below a certain temperature. Fortunately, a neighbor explained that to us before we blew up the engine. We could not afford an oil pan heater until he got his first paycheck. Every morning for 10 days, Butch would wake up, light a couple of charcoals in our tiny hibachi, slide it under the oil pan, then go back inside to finish dressing while the oil thawed so he could drive to work. We bought the car in Texas in the spring, planning to move back to Sacramento. To save money, and because we had not originally planned to move to Minnesota, we did not buy a heater. Mild California winters would have made the natural flow of the warm air from the engine, which we could blow in with a fan, work well enough. As we drove around on freezing Minnesota nights, however, there would be a small semi-circle of clear windshield on each side while the rest of the windows were frosted up inside the car. I would have to use an ice scraper on the inside windows for visibility.
His favorite car of all was his Jeep. He loved to drive around with the windows and doors off in the summer with his dog. He got her a sun visor, which she patiently wore. Not long after he got it, he had his first back surgery because of being clipped by a car on his bicycle and landing on his head—thank goodness for helmets. The only car he could get in and out of without a lot of pain was mine, so I was driving the jeep to and from work most days. In the boredom of convalescence, and against my request not to, he insisted on taking the doors and roof off in April, despite the very strong possibility that it could still rain. As I was driving it home from work the next day, it did just that. The bikini top popped a snap, which allowed the other snaps to come undone one by one. It would have made a great America’s Funniest Home Videos prize winner if someone had been filming it. I was quite the sight, as the bikini top progressively came unsnapped, then tore, and began flapping against my head as I was completely drenched. The subsequent discussion was not one of our happier moments. Our youngest son has it now. He loves it as much as his father.
I have not managed to sell his pickup truck despite its having been more than a year since his death. He loved that truck. It makes me very sad to drive it. I am consistently flooded with memories of him driving it and our trips together. I delivered bicycles and kayaks at transition points for practices and races for years in that truck helping him do what he loved so much. I hear his music playing, his talk shows yammering on, his voice as we drove along. His dog still stops and sniffs at the door as she walks past it, hoping he will open the door and get out. She was his dog through and through and will happily jump into any pickup truck that parks in the driveway and go home with any man who shows up. We knew he was home when we heard the beep of his door locking. It is hard to hear that sound when I lock it myself. There is no part of driving the truck that is not a reminder that he is gone. I figured out how to load it for trips to the dump with the tricks he used to get more in each load, using the knots it took forever to learn, and even backing into narrow spaces between other trucks. I have also been proud of myself for asking the people next to me for help with the heaviest stuff rather than killing myself being a tough guy. The truck and the dog are the last pieces of him that I have left. I have trimmed all the trees, cleared out all the junk, hauled away everything that is going, and still it sits in the driveway.
So much of the story of us is written in our cars. So many places we travel now, we traveled together in the past. So many trips we will take in the future will be the fulfillment of plans we made together. Even if we go places we never went with them, never talked about together, or planned to go, we are not guaranteed that the sadness will not find us. Enjoying something amazing without them is still just that, us without them. How many times have we thought, “I can’t wait to tell them about…..” “I wish he/she was here to see………….” “I can’t wait to get home to see them……….” How long will it take before our car really feels like our car and not a car without them? When will arriving at an airport or train station, pulling in the driveway, or walking into the house not include that sinking feeling that comes with not being greeted by them? Ever again. We are told by those who are farther into this journey that such a time does come. We are promised that as the pain of the loss grows more faint, the sweetness of the memories intensifies. The pain, they say, grows softer but does not go away. Becoming us without them means making peace with the pain, not escaping from it. It means accepting the pain as a new companion rather than wasting time trying to get rid of it. Ultimately, we use what we have learned and what we have become to help others.
God tells us that we are to be light and salt in the world. Surviving this will make us just that.