It’s World Gratitude Day today. (Yes, I know… we have Thanksgiving. But surely we can spread that sentiment around a little.) And so, to help celebrate that lovely sentiment on this lovely day, I have a story to share.
On July 21, 2001, I sat with my parents at a local credit union in my hometown, almost bouncing with excitement. They were about to sign the paperwork to finalize the purchase of my first real car (i.e. not one handed down from other family members for driving lessons), and I couldn’t wait. I was nineteen and a sophomore in college (two states away) — this meant no more having to depend on friends to go to the grocery store or family to drive me back and forth when I came home from school. This meant one more step toward being an actual adult. This was freedom and opportunity. This was the future. My dad had found a fantastic deal– a British couple at his work were moving back home so they basically just needed to do a quick sale, and my parents (God bless parents!) were covering the major bulk of the cost, even with me putting in what was then my life savings. The car was a beautiful dark green Hyundai Elantra, only two years old and in great shape. After everything was signed, we all left the bank together and the couple handed us the keys. The British woman lightly touched the hood of the car. “Goodbye,” she said fondly, and they went on their way. My parents handed me the keys, and the future had officially begun.
Fourteen years later to the day, I filled out the paperwork to donate the Hyundai (which I lovingly call “my Little Car”) to charity. The future was now the past, and the road between those two July days had shaped my life in hugely fundamental ways. It was time for my own goodbye, which I found was much longer, much messier, and much more bittersweet.
I think perhaps too often we say, “It’s just a house. It’s just a dog. It’s just a car.” When it comes to the things that are a big part of our daily lives, there is no “just.” My Little Car had been part of my home longer than any house, dorm room, or apartment I’ve ever lived in. I’d been in it almost every day for the past fourteen years, and it took remarkable care of me for every one of those days. I’m so grateful for that—not only that it kept me safe from harm, but also for that moment where I would come out of an appointment or a gig or errands, usually loaded down with heavy bags, etc. and feeling tired and hungry and just wanting the day to be done….that moment where I would finally catch that comforting sight of the dark green back of the car, sitting there waiting for me, and almost hear it say, “It’s okay. You’re done now. And I’m going to take you home.” And then home we would go.
I want to tell all the stories of our many adventures—like the time I did a quick-change in the backseat into a princess costume (complete with huge petticoat) in the parking lot at the Melting Pot, the time we crawled home together through Snowpocalypse (that huge snow storm that crippled Atlanta and put it on CNN), the time I drove back from college with a theater set piece crammed into the cab of the car (a fit so tight that the corner was resting on my shoulder), the time a 4-inch bolt fell out of the car’s undercarriage and the steering was shot, but somehow we still managed to navigate into a safe parking space…and so many more. That car and I had driven through six states, gone through multiple moves, attended my best friend’s wedding, and been to the homes of all kinds of people, from welfare recipients to a billionaire. We’d gazed at dazzling fireworks on the 4th of July, driven to the beach and listened to the great roar of the ocean, and sat many evenings on the top level of the airport parking deck, watching the planes take off into the darkening sky for places unknown. And then there were the times when we would be just driving along together, playing happy music, dreaming far beyond our very meager circumstances about the wonderful things in the future that must surely come from all the effort and blind faith of the present. I treasure them all– but one story sticks out in my mind above all the rest.
I was simultaneously doing direct sales with a skincare / makeup company and was assisting a director of that same company in her office, which was an hour commute each way and brought me from one edge of Atlanta to the other. Even with two jobs, finances were pretty much the opposite of great, so I was at a high level of stress. It had also been a challenging day already, and as I struggled through traffic, I realized I was most likely going to be late for the evening appointment I had with a customer on the other side of the city. I felt horribly bound up in things I couldn’t control with no solutions in sight. I really like to do things well. I have to do them well in order to feel like a success. And I felt that I was doing nothing well—not just in that moment, but at all. Then, it started to rain. Then Rain. Then RAIN. White sheets of water poured down from the sky, whipping against me and my Little Car and daring us to give up, call the client to cancel, and just pull over to wait out the storm before going home in defeat.
Then, even in the noise of the wind and the rain, I heard it. That wise little voice in my head.
“Something is trying to stop you,” it said. “Don’t let it.”
And then I felt it– that steely determination that lies at the bottom of my stomach and rises up into my chest when I need it most. And I audibly yelled at the rain.
“You will NOT stop me!!” I shouted, and I gripped the wheel with resolution as my dear little car pushed through the elements, staying steadfastly on course.
The wind and rain railed against us, as if they were angry that we hadn’t pulled off. But we persevered. Slowly, carefully, with my hands tight on the wheel the whole way, we made it through the storm and, finally, to the appointment. The lovely thing is that I don’t even remember the appointment itself—it’s that moment of choosing to not be beaten that has now become a part of the fabric of who I am, and I will forever be grateful for that.
That’s the biggest part of what this car meant to me. It never, ever quit. When I had zero money and didn’t give it an oil change for almost a year, it kept going. When one of the fans broke and the engine literally started smoking– I turned on the heater in the cab (in July!) to wick the heat away from the engine, and it kept going. When something electrical burned out and I had to start using a pen to take it out of park, it kept going. Even when there was some kind of mechanical problem that prompted the mechanic to give it a diagnosis of no hope of repair and only three months to live, it kept going. It had been rained on, snowed on, hailed on, invaded by ants, flooded by clogged sunroof drains, and blanketed every year in that neon yellow pollen we have here in Georgia. And it kept going.
So what, you may ask, finally stopped this car?
Well, I was on my way home from a late-night dance class, driving along the highway, and suddenly I felt a tremendous jolt and heard a very loud noise to my left. I realized I’d been hit and I pulled over to the side of the road.
“You’re okay,” I told myself as I entered the shoulder, “you’re okay.”
Then I tried to get out of the car, but the door couldn’t open. Then I was not okay. A feeling of panic flooded in. I was trapped in a car and I didn’t know what the damage was—was there fuel leaking? Was there anything that could spark into a flame? I tried the door again and banged on the window, but it was completely dark outside and it appeared no one was around to help. Then, luckily, the wise voice piped up.
“Try the other side,” it said. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
I climbed over the center console and tried the other door, which did open. I got out and saw that the other driver had pulled over several yards behind me. It was a semi truck.
I tried to assess the damage to my Little Car and saw that a large hole had been carved out by the truck’s lug nuts, but couldn’t see much past that. Later I would learn that both driver’s side doors were damaged beyond repair. I also learned that I had been inches away from the truck’s wheel. If my car hadn’t protected me the way it did, I might never have danced again. I might never have done anything again.
Thus began a three-month process dealing with body shops, insurance companies, etc. The truck driver’s insurance company totaled my car (a process I personally find extremely unfair if you were the one who was hit), which meant that unless I wanted to go through major personal expense and about ten months of paperwork and inspections, I’d need to let the car go. Even then, it was a struggle. This car had been the epitome of loyalty. It had never given up on me. So when it came down to it, shouldn’t I refuse to give up on it? I was obviously leading this with my heart over my head, but this was my Little Car, after all! Then my wonderful brother John stepped in to help my heart see things in a different way.
“You’re not giving up on it,” he said. “It did exactly what it wanted to do. It protected you when you needed protecting the most. And now you’re letting it go out in a blaze of glory. This way when it goes to Car Valhalla, that little sedan can brag to all the other cars, ‘Yeah–I came up against a semi truck and made the semi back down.’ ”
He helped me realize that my Little Car deserved to go out “not with a whimper, but with a bang.” And what a bang. But the best part was that the answer to the question of what finally stopped the car was not “an accident with a semi truck.” There is no answer, because even after all that, my intrepid Hyundai was still running. It knew we still had things to do together.
It was decided that we should take a last trip to the places we loved going the most—to the thrift store, to the park a few miles away, and down a long stretch of road called the East-West Connector to see the sunset paint the sky pink and purple for us one last time. And so we did. The thrift store and park jaunts went pretty smoothly, but when I attempted the East-West Connector, clouds covered the sky and no sunset could be seen.
“No,” I thought, “we can’t miss the sunset. We just can’t.”
So I drove down another road with open sky, but no luck. I decided to turn back and try East-West Connector again. I could see some light in the distance off to the right, but where we were was mostly just grey cloudiness. Then raindrops began to fall on the windshield. My heart fell for a moment. Was our last ride out in the world going to end with rain? Seriously?? My sense of poetic justice was deeply offended, and I felt like a failure.
But the light was there. It was obviously shining on something, even if that something wasn’t us.
“Let’s chase it,” the car seemed to say. “Let’s chase that sunset.”
And we did. Speeding up, slowing down, turning down side roads to see if there was a better view, and outrunning the rain the whole way. I had my inspirational music playing on the (still-working!) CD player, and the thrill of the melodies and the chase blended together until we rounded a curve, and there it was. The sky was not pink and purple after all. It was gold.
We drove toward the victory-colored sky and I felt tears streaming down my cheeks as I thought back on everything we’d been through together, so very grateful for it all, especially this. As we drove along, it was as if the car was speaking right to my heart.
“Promise,” it said, “promise you’ll never let the rain win.”
“I promise,” I said aloud.
And with that, we drove home.
So why did I take the time to write this? Why did I risk people thinking I’m absolutely insane because I feel so deeply about a car (who seems to talk to me at times and have a spirit of its own)? Well, I am a little insane. But beyond that, I believe that the people and things that have made a true difference in our lives deserve to be honored—when they’re with us, when they depart, and forever after. Even though it was made of metal and plastic, that car was (and is) a big part of why I am who I am today. It ushered me all the way from my teens to my thirties. It helped to keep me out of a desk job and build a weird, wonderful life instead. It was there on the days where I cried because I was so very frustrated or scared or lonely and there on days when I was tickled pink with joy and success. It helped teach me how to stand up to even the strongest opposition—be it rain, poverty, fear, or even a semi truck—and to know that even if you’re small, you can beat the odds and come out the other end victorious. (And I hope and pray that if anyone ever gives me a diagnosis of having three months left to live, I’ll take its lead to basically say, “Hmm. No, thank you,” and keep on going for years.) It helped me remember how important it is to be loyal and stubborn and strong. For fourteen years, wherever I was been going, whatever I was shooting for, and no matter what I asked of it, my Little Car was there for me. And that deserves a thank you.
Growing across the drive that leads to my apartment is a beautiful arbor of trees, and in the late afternoon, when the sun is starting to get low in the sky, it lights them from behind and it looks like Heaven is just beyond the hill. When I hit that stretch of the drive, I know I’m home. And so, exactly three months after my Little Car won its battle with the truck and shortly before the team from the Make-a-Wish foundation came to collect it, I gave it its “curtain call” and we drove together from one end of the drive to the other. I had the soundtrack from the movie MICHAEL in the CD player, and as we approached the crest of the hill, the chorus of “Feels Like Home to Me” was playing. There were a few drops of rain on the windshield, and as the light flooded over the car, they lit up like scattered jewels. My Little Car was not going to bow out on the side of the road in darkness, broken and defeated. It was going to glide victorious down a sunlit hill, saying a gentle goodbye to the home we’d shared for over a decade. As it did, I hit the buttons on the CD player to pull up the song I’d chosen for our “finale”. I smiled and tapped the steering wheel in rhythm as the wonderful up-tempo melody kicked in from Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road”:
Little darlin’, come with me
Won’t you help me share my load
From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road
Into this life we’re born
Baby sometimes we don’t know why
And time seems to go by so fast
In the twinkling of an eye
Let’s enjoy it while we can
Won’t you help me sing my song
From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road