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a life well lived [narrative]

saying goodbye to my first car

If you were to go through my search history right now, you would find the following question, posed on a Tuesday night at 8:36 p.m.: How do you write a good eulogy? 

According to my research, an effective eulogy should highlight the experiences of your loved one’s life that matter the most. You should commemorate their personality traits, repeat their most memorable stories, and honor their accomplishments. You should try to capture their “ripple”: how they effected change in their community.

TJ—Thomas Jefferson, formally—was my family’s 2004 silver BMW station wagon. He was my dad’s greatest love, and the car in which my brother and I learned to drive. But everyone who knew him, regardless of the intimacy of their relationship, agrees that he was a bit dysfunctional. There’s no use sugar-coating it; I think he would’ve wanted us to be honest.

Take the gear shift, for example. When we pushed the shifter forward to park him, the entire knob and the panel keeping it in place would pop out of its socket. My brother always made a show of slamming the shift back into place with a smack of his closed fist, like he was playing Whack-a-Mole. 

TJ was also a hypochondriac. Every time I put the key in the ignition, a dazzling array of emergency lights would flash red and yellow. My brother and I quickly learned which of them signaled true emergencies and which ones were just manifestations of TJ’s oversensitivity. (Red? Bad. Orange and flashing? Just a cry for attention.) 

He had plenty of physical quirks that set him apart from other beat-up, well-loved family vehicles. His volume control lost its plastic knob years ago, leaving only a protruding metal stick that you had to twist with your fingernails in order to turn the music up or down. Given that TJ had no AUX capacity, he only ever played Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange (the two CDs we had). Along with a reliable soundtrack, TJ had a reliable scent: the tangy fusion of two “20 questions” categories (animal and mineral) from when, in 2010, my dog Jupiter ate an entire roll of zinc tablets on a road trip and vomited them up in the back seat. 

And of course, TJ was nothing if not a collection of memorable stories. In particular, he was known for encountering near-death experiences and somehow, miraculously, surviving. 

One year, we drove him up to Wyoming to visit my grandfather during a record-breaking February blizzard. My grandfather’s ranch was eight miles down a dirt road from the nearest town: TJ made it seven before he became lodged in a deep bank. As night quickly fell, his tractionless tires spun desperately against the snow. My brother and I pushed against his back bumper while my mom put her foot on the gas, but he refused to budge. We eventually abandoned TJ and traipsed the last mile toward my grandfather’s house, our weak phone flashlights swinging back and forth. We returned the next day, bundled in parkas and snow boots, to find TJ right where we left him, battered but still in high spirits. After a few hours of shoveling, little TJ was up and over the bank, over the snow-packed cattle guard, and on his way toward the house.

Then, a few years ago, my dad rear-ended somebody with such momentum that TJ was totaled. The insurance company ruled him irreparable. We were given a consolation check, which we were supposed to use to lay ol’ Thomas Jefferson to rest and find ourselves a newer, more reliable vehicle. But—call him what you will—TJ wasn’t a quitter. Instead, we redirected the money from the insurance company toward healing his wounds and replacing his dander-crusted steering wheel. Before you could say “misplaced investment,” TJ was back on the road again.

Most recently, my boyfriend and I took TJ downtown to receive our second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. The city of Denver offered free vaccination in our baseball stadium, and hundreds of cars were lined up outside, stalling, waiting for their turns to receive shots through their rolled-down windows. We were slowly rolling forward in line, chatting and listening to Rumours when we suddenly heard a deafening bang, and a cloud of thick gray steam washed over the windshield. I prayed that the steam was coming from the car in front of me, but I knew, given TJ’s past transgressions, that I was engaging in wishful thinking. I turned off the engine, and my boyfriend and I stepped outside of the car to find steam pouring out from under TJ’s front hood. Other people got out of their cars too, craning their necks to identify the source of the excitement. 

As it often did, TJ’s misfortune—and, by extension, my own—led to some powerful community building. Within minutes, several passersby had gathered around his trunk, ready to push TJ through the rest of the line. I scrambled into the driver’s seat to put him in neutral and steer him through the tent at the entrance of the stadium, where a nurse reached through the window and administered our vaccines while the car was rolling. Soon we were through the line, leaving a surge of hot steam in our wake.

That day, just like today, we reflected on TJ’s life as we waited for the tow truck to flatbed him out of the stadium. Like so many times before, we thought we were witnessing TJ's last few seconds of life, and we talked about him as if he were already gone, with a healthy mixture of fondness and frustration. Little did we know that another year would go by before we would say our final goodbye. 

At 4 p.m. on February 21, TJ was found unresponsive in an overnight parking lot under Grand Central Station in New York City. The garage attendant told us that he was discovered lying in a puddle of his own coolant. The mechanic told us that the hose under the coolant reservoir somehow detached, that he was undrivable. The receptionist on the phone told us the repair estimate was $415.41. My dad told us to say goodbye to TJ forever. 

His death was a rather anticlimactic affair, and when the ordeal was over, I had the chance to reflect for the last time on what TJ has meant to me. I could lie and say that he was a perfect car, but he wasn’t. He was a huge pain in the ass. I could lie and say that I wish he could have stayed around a bit longer, but that’s not true, either—it was time for him to move on to his next chapter (albeit as a collection of spare parts).

But I will say that TJ had the remarkable ability to bring people together. When I recall my memories of TJ, they are all filled with kind people: two women who helped me push him out of a parking spot at the local SuperTarget, a young man who got out of his car in a busy intersection to help us get TJ to the side of the road when he got stuck at a green light. So when I think about his “ripple”—how he effected change in his community—I think about how TJ called upon the compassion of strangers. He brought out the best in people, and he will be missed dearly. 

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