My husband Gary died relatively young, at 58, almost ten years ago, and his death was sudden and accidental—from a kayaking accident on a wild river in Guatemala. The love of my life was gone, and I was left with all his possessions to deal with, including some beautiful Italian suits and leather jackets, and with the animals and possessions we had owned together, including his Toyota 4Runner SUV, which I had never actually driven myself. Our two dogs, Zip and Molly, were already getting old, but they clearly had some good years left, as did the 4Runner.
Gary had bought the 4Runner used after a terrible collision that totaled his Nissan Pathfinder, but which saved his life because of its sturdy truck underbody. I was always a passenger in his 4Runner, which he had custom tweaked, with bells and whistles that included a great sound system. He had linked his iPod to the system, with at least a thousand songs, and when I was along for the ride, he would choose the songs that we both loved or that seemed to fit my mood. He was a great personal DJ.
Losing a Spouse; Keeping the Memories
It was as though Gary was speaking to me through the music played on the car stereo.
After his death, I had no desire to drive his car, but I didn’t want to sell it. It was such a visceral part of Gary that I couldn’t imagine giving it up. The first time I drove it was to my book club, and I picked up a close friend on the way. After the gathering was over, the two of us walked toward the vehicle, and the headlights suddenly came on, and it honked. Well, if you ask almost any widow about strange things that happen with their late spouses’ possessions, they will nearly all have a similar story. So that night I decided I had to keep the 4Runner.
I never felt quite comfortable driving the vehicle, as it was so much bigger than my own car, a cute and sporty Subaru WRX. But I began to rely on the 4Runner on long trips, which had become part of my pilgrimage of healing. I hesitate to tell you about the songs that came up on his iPod shuffle that were so perfectly attuned to where I was. It was as though Gary was speaking to me through his music. Now my cosmic DJ.
I think that was the main reason I couldn’t bear to consider selling the gas-guzzling SUV, even as it began to show its age. I would load up our dogs Zip and Molly in the back and head out, sometimes to visit my family on the Gulf Coast, sometimes to visit my friends in New Orleans, sometimes for a West Texas getaway.
As my WRX gave up the ghost, I kept driving the 4Runner, which was valiant in its refusal to show its age, though it kept losing functions, including the CD player. I couldn’t open the back gate anymore, so I couldn’t use the nice cargo space, and to fix it would cost too much to fix. Meanwhile my beloved dogs Zip and Molly passed away at advanced ages, and I sometimes compared their ages to that of the SUV, which were similar.
A Driving Sadness
With the arrival of the pandemic, I had even less reason to consider giving up the 4Runner, as it looked as though I wouldn’t be going anywhere anyway. I made a quick-escape trip to my favorite hangout in West Texas and was saved from getting stuck on the road in sweltering heat only by a kindly sheriff who stopped me to point out that one of my tires was dangerously low.
I was able to get it fixed, and though it was unfair perhaps to blame the SUV’s age, I began to feel ever more reluctant to drive any distance out of town. Combined with the confinement restrictions of Covid, I was beginning to wonder when I’d ever feel the joy of driving out in the country again.
I was also dreading the traumatic experience of walking into a car dealership as a single woman just waiting to get taken advantage of. But when I was explaining all this one morning to one of my savviest friends, she suggested I just do everything remotely. And with the help of my very thrifty sister, who researches everything she buys, I went into overdrive.
I knew I wanted a hybrid and a small SUV. And well, something sporty and fun to drive. So I settled on a Toyota RAV4 hybrid, which was a bit pricey. I did some comparison shopping and found a promising prospect at a local dealership. I knew exactly how much I was prepared to pay, so when I walked into the dealership, where everyone was masked, I felt safe and well armed. And after a test drive (the car was sanitized before I drove it), I knew I had found what I wanted. Plus the car was ruby red. They accepted my offer.
The Goodbye and the Hello
I didn’t want to cry in the parking lot. That would come later.
The deal included trading in the 4Runner, and I hadn’t really thought about having to clean it out before letting it go. It was really, really hot that afternoon, around 103 degrees, so when I took a couple of garbage bags outside, I knew I had to work fast.
There went the old CDs that couldn’t be played anymore, some well-worn maps of Texas and Louisiana, a towel, an umbrella, and a blanket. I paused at my hiking sticks, as memories began to rush in of adventures and places. No time to revisit or regret. I said a very quick goodbye to the trusty old warhorse, not wanting to linger, as I didn’t want to cry in the parking lot. That would come later.
My savvy friend observed that it had taken a mere eight hours from our conversation to my signing a contract and driving away with my new car, which I have since named Texas Star, as its color matches the brilliant red of my Texas Star hibiscus flowers. In a way, this seemingly impulsive purchase was an act of blind optimism that I will be able to go places again, that the virus won’t last forever.
But it was also a step in my long pilgrimage of grief, healing and recovery. “I could tell you were blocked,” said my friend. Yes, I had been in a long denial and a reluctance to let go of what I no longer needed.
When I woke up the next morning and looked out the window at Texas Star, just waiting for me to take the wheel, I felt a pang of sorrow over having to give up Gary’s old SUV. We had had so many experiences together, shared so many miles. But it was time for a change. And with the new sound system I’m able to listen to my own playlists now. Lots of the songs on the list we had enjoyed together. But many of them are songs I’ve come to love after Gary’s death. I’ve called my new playlist of songs “The Road Ahead.”