Upham's Corner Online

The Kiss of Death

Posted: February 2, 2012 Nancy J Conrad

I'm still crying over the loss of a dear friend. "You're doing what?" "They" know I'm talking about my car, not a real person.

I've had my car since 2002. She was eight years old when I took her into the family and, against the recommendations of others, I bought her sporting the color red. "Red cars have more accidents."

For me she was a wonderful work van - carrying supplies for my house, groceries, laundry and two large dogs. With the help of the warranty I was able to have the engine rebuilt at 110,000 miles and 100,000 miles later, it was still going strong. She's been stolen twice, recovered and, like the prodigal sister, rejoined her family with pride.

Though I've never given her a name, I have babied my sweet friend, encouraging her to go long distances to Philadelphia to visit my father and watch him die.
Red van damaged 1/29/12
Pretty good looking for 18 years, right?

You could see, though, that my car and my father were traveling down similar paths. Down at my father’s house, the rear hatch hinges were so rusted, the right side gave way and the hatch refused to shut, cocked to one side. Before another trip, the dealership found the gas line was leaking, so I replaced that.

Recently, I authorized two new sets of brakes and for the inspection last year, I made a trip to a "gentle" garage with a reputation for treating elderly patients kindly, all of this much to the consternation of family members.

In my heart of hearts, I knew that I had become suspicious of taking trips to what, in prior years, were favorite haunts within a short 10 miles. I argued that there was no need to travel so far. "Think, shop, live locally."

Partnering with my van was like the question I gently asked my father as I walked alongside him: "Why are you walking so slowly, Father?" His answer surprised me: "I can't walk any faster." And so it went with my van. The suspension was fully gone. The heater barely worked. The rear windshield wiper and window heater had long gone the way of useless amenities.

When you are an old van who doesn’t want to die, what counts is continuing to strengthen your relationship with those who depend on you. Can you make it to the grocery store? Can you carry the dogs to the vet appointments? Can you carry the owner to church?

The more crotchety she got, the greater her personality. It was funny watching people sit in the passenger console chair, fishing for the "missing" seat belt lock, fully collapsed to the floor below. The intricate and fragile coating of micro shrapnel pits carved into the windshield made it almost impossible to see through in some light. And I can't forget the BB gun holes almost penetrating the surface.

Of all the things I didn't think of in my waking hours, my van was one of those. I depended on her, I loved her and I took care of her. There was not a soul who could understand my attachment. "Cars," they said, "are investments - just money. It's time to get rid of that car! You are an accident waiting to happen." I didn't see it that way. No matter what anybody said, I could not imagine terminating the life of my child.

"The kiss of death" is an expression on the edges of warmth and love.

It's the kiss of the mother to a child, the outstretched arms of a partner to the other and a hearty pat to the bum of a dog to savor the moment that says: "I love you."

"The kiss of death" is an expression on the edges of horror.

Almost no one courts the castles where lives the Grim Reaper. Like Colgate’s Invisible Gardol shield from the ‘50’s, there is a thick cloudlike, swirling mist that protects me from seeing across the River Jordan. Why think about it? I don't bother.

And that is what makes "the kiss of death" so downright powerful.

On December 22, 2009 after days of delay, I finally decided today was the day to return to Boston.

One more early morning drive to the nursing home and I could greet the overwhelming figure of a man who so influenced my life but who had shrunken into a tiny, tiny person, lying in wait. I took one last sweet diversion from the straight path home and got the chance to offer a prayer and to chatter about nothing, to someone who could barely move his head, creating the musical sound of familiarity, breaking the silence and saying: "I love you."

Me and my van and the dogs, we made the trip together. We said goodbye. We made it home. My father? By the time I got home, he had left on his own, very private journey to somewhere.

So two years have passed and every trip I take in my van feels like it might be the last. The rust? The suspension? The transmission? The axles? I trust in God.

So isn't it ironic? St. Peter’s henchman came for my van at a church. "Somebody broke the window of your van and stole your dog," - two assaults in one sentence against the blood of my life.

An SUV parked across the street, had whipped to the right in reverse and plowed straight into the driver's side of my car, its mounted tire plunging through the window like a dagger.

"Why don't I feel upset?" My car had been crushed with obvious frame damage, the inside of the van was covered with broken glass and my ordinarily loud barking puppies were quiet and clearly frightened.

The power of death reminds us how important our relationships are. The shattered glass portends the onslaught of shattered nerves. Our loved ones get taken away when we least expect.
Red van damaged 1/29/12
Doesn't look too, too bad, does it?

Much like a strong magnet pulling the energy away, we are left feeling empty and dark and needing to mourn.

The "going out to dinner" gig was not going to happen. I left a message in tears. My friends extended themselves in love and if I could have listened, I would have heard the sounds of the living. But the sense of loss was too numbing and too cold. I turned inward and thought of the past.
Red van damaged 1/29/12
Looks a little worse from this angle.   The rear
wheels park closer to the curb than the front wheels. 
Red van damaged 1/29/12
Frame damage and
the car wobbles down the road.

Totaled.  Repair cost?  $3000 +++

Little by little, sleep time after shower time, break time after coffee time, the routines of the living awakened my hibernating soul. Thoughts emerged like tiny sparkling mushrooms, perspectives changed like the long afternoon shadows of cloudless skies and gratitude washed over the muddy, seaweed covered beaches of my introspection.

The man in the moon looked down at me and grinned. "Go away," I laughed. The sun danced in rainbow colors across the river Jordan's mist, and I realized I was seeing all the way across to the other side. The sun was shining. What's that? A smile?

A friend reached out with a poem that speaks of the beauty of the earth, our capacity for holding on and the importance of respecting the kiss side of the Jordan well in advance of the trip to the other side.


More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs--all this resinous, unretractable earth.

Jane Hirshfield

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