Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Accidents, Shame and Lies
Accidents have two essential definitions. 1) An event that happens by chance or that is without apparent or deliberate cause, and 2) An unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury. In truth, I think much of what happens to us in life is accidental. The tiniest, most insignificant twist can change the trajectory of your life path, often without acknowledgement until further down the road, when you recognize that things might have been different, absent one event or because of another. The totaled car in the photo above was the only new car my dad ever owned. A blue Chevy Bel-Air. A dream fulfilled. Dad was quite a character. Before he settled into his grownup career in his mid-40’s, he floated from job to job, sometimes working two at a time. He never finished high school, having quit to take care of his family, his father dead when he was only eight. He worked in factories, as a credit manager, a traveling salesman and an insurance agent. And he hated insurance. He thought it was a criminal conspiracy to take advantage of the poor. Sounds about right. He found it overpriced and unfair, even as he sold its products and tried to collect premiums. He hated that job. When my parents moved to live near my family, my mom told me she found a box in their basement filled with uncollected premium bills. Irrationally, he rejected the industry that employed him. In any case, he didn’t buy any auto insurance for his new ride. That decision had multiple implications. My mom never learned to drive. Having insurance for her was a non-issue. When my brother was old enough, he got a driver’s license. How he got away with that is a mystery. No insurance is no insurance. I suspect my dad gave him a testosterone pass, figuring that the two family males would somehow ensure that competence was a thing, and accidents wouldn’t happen. When my older sister turned 16, my brother decided to take her under his wing and give her a chance at the independence offered by a car. Early one Sunday morning, while the rest of us slept, the two of them slipped out of the apartment with the car keys, so he could give her a driving lesson. They weren’t gone long. My sister was anxious and crashed into a viaduct. So much for the new car.
I was about 11 years old. I have vague memories of the anger and angst that this event elicited. I remember the yelling and the crying consuming that day and then the silence. The family needed a car. My younger sister and I were still in elementary school, one which had no cafeteria. We lived too far away to walk home and back to school at lunchtime. Mom was working downtown and dad, who worked in the neighborhood, would pick us up, drive home, make our standard lunch of either scrambled eggs or salami sandwiches, and drive us back to school. Our poor little coronary arteries. In any case, a vehicle was mandatory.
So dad had a friend, the mysterious Mr. Fruchter. According to public records, he ran a half dozen five and dime stores which eventually were absorbed by larger concerns like S.S. Kresge and Woolworth’s. But my mom always implied that he and my dad, who grew up on the west side of Chicago and liked to play poker and go to the racetrack, were a tad shady, with connections to a dark cultural element.
I’ll never know their whole story. What I do know is that Irv managed to provide us with a temporary vehicle, a nice black hearse. Yup. Dad would come to our school and pick us up in one of these babies. At the time, I was innocent enough to think this was a great adventure. I’d hop in and pull down one of the little jump seats and ride away in all my glory. I had no clue that this vehicle usually carried a coffin in the rear. The difference of style, the size, the fancy interior made me feel special and I innocently took it in stride. In retrospect, I can imagine what my mom, older brother and sister felt like, driving around in this monster. But the hearse was just a temporary experience. After a while, the beneficent Mr. Fruchter again came to the rescue with a Plymouth Fury, a car my dad drove for the next 10 years, one he grew to love and which he treated as his baby. All this was pretty benign until I grew up and approached driving age. By that time, my brother and sister were young adults. He was still a driver – my sister never attempted to get a license until much later in life. So there I was, faced with the mistakes of my older siblings which would provide the blueprint for my dad’s attitude toward me driving. I took driver’s ed in school and passed the class. But dad refused to help me practice. I was going to be relegated to the ranks of those with no license, no wheels, no freedom. I was so ashamed. I hadn’t done anything wrong. The cost of insurance and the bad judgment of my siblings was going to make me an outcast, different from my classmates who were already cruising around, many in their own cars, others in their parents’ vehicles. I’d skipped a year of elementary school, so I had the advantage in senior year of high school of being only 16 almost until graduation. I could hide behind my age. Sometimes I had the nerve to ask a friend if I could try a spin in her car, but after a block or so, the fear that I might have an accident, that there was no insurance to cover me, was so overwhelming that I stopped asking. I hated the feeling. Weak and powerless. When friends volunteered to lend me a car to do something, I started to lie. Didn’t have my glasses. License is at home. Too tired. Ugh. I was heading off to college without the most basic card in my pocket, humiliated and guilty. Also ticked off. Helplessness was my least favorite feeling.
The good thing about college was that you really didn’t need a car. Mostly anywhere you needed to be was within walking distance. And I knew people who had cars. I never told anyone about my lack of license. I just slid along trying to figure out how to fix this by myself. In my sophomore year, I fell madly in love. With Al, a guy with his own car. A doctor’s kid. He had insurance, on multiple levels. We had a tempestuous romance, on and off, on and off. The summer after that year, we both headed home to Chicago for jobs. Then the unexpected happened. An accident. My boyfriend blew out his knee. I can’t remember exactly how it happened but he was confined to his house. He lived near the lake in a bustling neighborhood with lots of traffic. I took the bus after work and headed to his place to hang out. After a few hours, I got up to leave, wanting to catch the bus and get home before dark. But he had a better idea. I could just take his car and keep it since he couldn’t drive anyway. That way I could have a lot more visiting flexibility. The Hornet. A really ugly boxy car-his was a flashy neon blue.I still remember the terror in my body. Couldn’t he see my chest hammering up and down, my heart practically bursting with fear? He just assumed. Normal people know how to drive. No big deal. Take the car and go. Keep it for days, maybe even weeks. My embarrassment was boundless. So boundless, in fact, that I was willing to risk anything to stay hidden. Seven years earlier, my sister hit a viaduct. And now I was in this space and too ashamed to admit I wasn’t “normal.”
So I took the car. I had the audacity to take those keys and with virtually no practical driving experience, ease into traffic, hoping I’d be able to pull off this feat without crashing or getting arrested. And I made it. All the way to my waiting parents who were beyond appalled at my recklessness and deceit. I stuck my chin up in the air and defied them. I felt so free. I built that feeling on the incredibly shaky foundation of fear, humiliation and lies. What a load. I didn’t know how to get out from under it so I embraced it. And suffered internally. But whatever. I took my younger sister and we piled into the car and cruised the neighborhood. We laughed with glee. I was going to break the cycle of the oppressed female relegated to dependence. Sort of. Eventually I returned the car to Al, who got better. Anyway, we were in one of our breakups.
But I was intoxicated by driving. So one evening after work, I stole my dad’s keys, like my brother before me, and took the Fury from behind our apartment. The Plymouth was a much bigger car and felt unwieldy. As I drove around, I couldn’t gauge it’s width and eventually scraped a parked car. And to my shame, I sped away, quaking in fear. I was so wobbly in traffic that within minutes, I was pulled over by a cop. Through a mixture of sincere hysteria and excuses about breaking up with my boyfriend and a misplaced wallet, I talked my way out of a ticket and limped home to face my father’s wrath. No more driving that summer.
I headed back to school for junior year, still license-free and trapped by the emotional quagmire I’d created for myself. I had a few more driving opportunities in other people’s cars, still lying and feeling terrified. My relationship with Al continued its rollercoaster status. That summer I stayed in town instead of going home. That summer, I met Michael.
I’d heard about him for years through mutual friends but we’d never crossed paths. One night, we both showed up as wedding guests at a crazy all night party. We had an instantaneous connection. And we began to build on it steadily, spending a lot of time together and finding trust. After 6 months, I realized that I’d found whatever a soulmate is supposed to be. A few months later, we were living together. The weight of all my shame and lies lay like rocks on my spirit. For the first time in my young life, I felt safe enough to confess all that I’d been hiding for years, from the kid white lies to the driver’s license saga, and everything in between. What immense relief. My 21st birthday was coming. On that night Michael handed me what appeared to be a jewelry box. When I opened it, there were car keys inside. He’d scraped together $150 to buy me a car. A white Chevy Impala. He was going to help me hone my driving skills and take me for my driver’s license. Free at last, from the whole wad of accidents, shame and lies. The great irony-on the first day of owning my car, Michael was driving it and someone slammed into it. Totaled. So totaled that we got more money than he’d spent originally. Enough to buy me my first real car, the one that helped establish my independence. The car I loved. Like my dad’s first new car, a blue Chevy. Bliss.