The icy sleet angrily pecked against the glass windows as I picked up the ringing telephone. My greeting might not have been so cheery had I known an operator with the state highway patrol was on the other end of the line.
“There’s been an accident…” she started. I swayed against the door frame to the living room, watching my three-year-old daughter and her older cousin playing on the floor. I dropped to my knees on the floor, even as I looked quickly out the window to the front porch, expecting to see a state trooper slipping up the icy sidewalk.
But he’s all right, I thought to myself. They wouldn’t call if he wasn’t all right. Someone would come here to tell me.
I forced my attention back to her words.
Ice on the highway.
Rolled the vehicle.
Emergency crew cut him out.
Refused hospital treatment.
Trooper took him to a gas station to wait for someone to pick him up.
He’s okay. I kept telling myself as I called my dad. It took a while to get to Kevin that icy, snowy day. My grandmother came to stay with the girls while my dad and I slowly drove the treacherous roads for an hour to the gas station where I flung open the truck door and threw my arms around my still-shaken husband. Ten minutes later, when we drove into the wrecker’s parking lot, I could see why. His blue Explorer was totaled; smashed in doors, broken glass, outside mirrors hanging at crazy angles. We silently filled plastic bags with the bits of our life that survived the crash and walked away, thankful that he’d survived.
When the shock wore off and we could joke about it, I teased Kevin because I’d actually been up for the next new vehicle at our house. “Wrecking your truck? That’s kind of a hard way to make sure that YOU get the next new car, not me,” I told him. But I laughed because I didn’t really care about the new car, as long as I still had Kevin.
A few weeks later, after insurance claims had been filed, Kevin went looking for his new vehicle. He found a 2005 Dodge Durango, bright red, low miles and, with our insurance check and a little bit we’d squirrelled away, it was the right price. It was the base model – no frills, no bells or whistles – but it got us where we needed to go. Kev loved it; it drove a little rough for me. I told him it was like riding in a feed truck across a bumpy field, a comparison my city-bred husband didn’t really get.
I think he liked the bright red color because it felt so alive. Just a couple of months before his wreck, Kev’s oncologist had okayed a little break from the chemo that was fighting the colon cancer’s unrelenting spread through his body. Kevin had been through a lot over the last nine months – diagnosed with cancer, two surgeries, six months of chemo – and being able to walk away from that smashed-up Explorer made him realize that he had a lot to live for; the cancer hadn’t gotten him, and the wreck hadn’t killed him. He was supposed to live.
And so we did.
We piled our luggage into the Durango early one spring and headed to the airport. Destination: happiest place on Earth. And, at the end of our Disney week, the truck welcomed us back, funny mouse ears and all, and got us back to our real life.
We went to baseball games and amusement parks and church and work and the zoo and museums, and the Durango safely got us there and back, always up for whatever kind of adventure we were in the mood for.
We sang along one summer as Frank Sinatra blared from the speakers, “My kind of town, Chicago is my kind of town” and Beary passed bottles of water and cans of soda from the cooler by her side as we road-tripped to the Windy City for a conference. The following spring, I loaded the cargo area with Kevin’s oxygen concentrator, portable oxygen canisters, a wheelchair, our luggage, and Beary’s beach toys and we drove sixteen hours to Orange Beach, Alabama, so he could watch our girl play in the ocean for the first time.
It was our last family road trip.
Just a few weeks later, I drove the big, red, rough-riding Durango home from the hospital, with Kevin in the front seat. I winced at each bump, anxious not to cause him any extra pain. My dad sat squeezed into the back seat, ready to reach out and catch Kevin if he started slumping, or if he passed away on the way home, a fear my dad and I didn’t voice to each other, but felt every mile of the way home. We’d spent the night in the emergency room and, when morning came, our doctor told us time was short. I drove with one hand on the wheel and the other on Kevin’s arm, needing to touch him, keep him with me, get him home safely because I’d promised him I wouldn’t let him die in a hospital.
He died the next afternoon, laying by my side in our bed.
The truck sat in the garage for a week; in my grief, family and friends drove me to the places I needed to go.
But one day, I climbed into the driver’s seat again, and my girl fastened herself into the seat behind me, and we drove Daddy’s truck to the store. Then to church, and the park and soon, we drove Daddy’s truck everywhere. It was a way to keep him with us, to remember him seated behind the wheel, music blaring, taking us to another family adventure. We drove it to the airport, so we could get back to Disney’s magic and remember Daddy again; we drove it on the long road trip back to the beach, to be in a place of wonderful memories on the second anniversary of his death. We drove it and drove it to the zoo and museums and baseball games and amusement parks and took Kevin with us everywhere.
Two years went by and the odometer ticked steadily and I knew it wouldn’t be long until we’d have to give up the Durango. I started looking around, searching for the minivan I’d been wanting since before Kevin’s icy wreck. Finally, six years later, it was my turn for the new car, but it was hard to get too excited about it, because we’d be giving up the Durango. Losing the rough-riding truck itself didn’t bother me; but losing another piece of Kevin, a tangible something that connected us to him and our memories – that was harder.
I didn’t know it, but we had one more memory to make with Kevin’s truck.
It’s kind of like we saved the best for last.
I don’t know what my girl will remember about her childhood, but I hope she remembers the night that I woke her up at 11:30 and drove eight miles out to the middle of a bean field in the country. We layered blankets on the hood of the Durango, then leaned back with our arms crossed behind our heads and watched the stars shoot across the sky. She giggled with delight at the idea of sitting on top of the truck, then said, “I can’t believe we’re part of all that, way up there,” gesturing to the Milky Way spilling out across the heavens above us. We cried out each time we saw a glowing bit streak across the sky and burn out as quickly as it appeared. Me and my girl, on the hood of her Daddy’s truck, feeling him with us, watching God’s fireworks.
That’s what I’ll remember.
A week later, I finally traded the Durango in for a minivan. It was déjà vu on the car lot, silently filling a plastic bag with the bits of our life left in the Durango. Beary bounced with delight, trying out all the seating options, and I struggled to maneuver the new buttons and controls. I cried as I turned out onto the street and drove past Kevin’s big red truck, sitting alone on the lot. I couldn’t feel his presence in the minivan and I missed glancing over and imagining him sitting next to me. I wanted to turn around and go back and sit in his truck just one more time, spilling my tears over the steering wheel.
But then I remembered what he’d learned after his wreck: We are supposed to live.
So we will. My girl and I will keep on, because that’s what he wanted. We’ll take our new minivan and make some new memories. We’ll go on road trips and adventures. We’ll drive and drive and drive – to museums and zoos and baseball games and church and amusement parks.
We won’t be in Kevin’s truck, but that’s okay – he’ll still be with us.
He’s always with us.
My girl likes to make chalk drawings on our driveway. This is one of my favorites: Daddy’s bright red Durango.