My father had a blue Mustang.
He bought it the first year of what would be 13 years of cancer diagnoses and fleeting remissions.
This was not the car for the sick. It got stuck in the heavy New England snowfall every winter. It caught the eye of every cop. It needed fancy oil changes.
At the time, I was almost finished with college; I was newly married; I had Budgeting and Practicality and the Right Thing on my side and I didn’t understand why he bought it.
In the last few years of his life, he spent staggering amounts of time in this car driving to Boston for treatment. He would call me sometimes with the latest updates. “Hi, Kate, it’s Dad. Just got some new scans and the results should be in next week. Love you. Bye.”
When my father passed away three years ago, my brother became custodian of the Mustang. Last week he went out of town and needed a place to park. Waking Friday morning, I saw its sapphire-shine in the driveway.
That day I had to go to a workshop. It was a gray day, moist with fog and the smoke of newly-lit woodstoves. Copper and scarlet leaves wisped across the road. How brief these outrageous colors, I thought. Time to live, to be alive.
I’ll take Dad’s car.
It roared to life — full throated, purring and growling beneath me, champing at the bit to be let onto the road. I slid into first and thundered away.
The more I drove, the more I felt Dad. The arms on the steering wheel weren’t my own, they were his muscular Portuguese arms with the lovely broad, smooth fingernails. I wasn’t reclining on that low seat, he was, in a suit and wingtips. The leather seats really did smell like his pipe tobacco, and I was seeing his journey, his road ahead of me.
And it was lonely.
It was hours on the road to Boston, to turn and careen himself back home for a short sleep before work the next day. It was filling this gas-hungry car, and the oil tank, and the refrigerator, and receiving the incomprehensible bills for his last treatment. It was staring at the road and wondering how many days were left to stare at the road.
It was calling his daughter, amid this loneliness, and having her not answer.
It’s not that I never answered. I often did. But there were times – dinnertime, my husband on the way home, three small children tugging at my legs, a baby crying to be held – that I saw the call and told myself I’d call him back. There were times where, a product of my generation, I figured it would be easier to just text him a quick note. I was young, having the scabs of selfishness plucked off as I learned the demands of living for my family. I was often hotly overwhelmed; depleted. He was my father, in control at all times; what could I give or say or do for him?
So he’d leave a message, and I’d call back. Sometimes.
That was fine until his diagnosis became terminal. Then those phone calls couldn’t happen anyway as he lost ability to carry on conversations or even see where his phone was.
As I drove the Mustang that day, I understood to my sorrow how simple it would’ve been to pick up the phone, and have this dark, lonely cab lightened with the pure light of human interaction.
I could have done that, and I didn’t.
I cried to him as river and farmland flew by. Dad, I’m sorry. You were always so strong, but I know, now, some little bit about adulthood, about suffering, about how you could have felt scared and lonely too. And Dad, and oh God, I am sorry because I didn’t pick up the phone.
Life has so few big choices, but so many of these small ones – to choose the little act of love over the little indifference.
Maybe there wouldn’t have been life-altering conversations if I’d answered more often. But I would have opened a door to both gift and receipt – to just saying “I’m with you” to Dad, as Christ, the ever-Presence, says to us – and of having him do the same to me.
You who are like me – the anxious, overburdened young mother, the bittersweet wife, grappling with life not as you pictured it – pick up the phone. Talk to the elderly, the difficult neighbor, the manipulative family member. Talk not in spite of the fact that you are empty, but because you are. Do what I did not – abandon control and let Christ in. He who Is – Is in your moment, Is in your empty — He will supply.