150,000 Miles

October 20, 2016

My car is a petite, silver Honda Accord with just over 150,000 miles on it. These many miles were accumulated over the course of seven years of love, dedication, faith, and heartbreak, and seven years that I would not change one second of.
My grandmother’s car was the perfect fit for her, a small and persistent car for a small and persistent woman. She stood a total of four feet and ten inches tall, and had flowing golden hair all throughout her fifties, never graying. She was energetic but warm, outgoing but compassionate, and my best friend but nearly my mother. I was seven years old when my younger sister began preschool, leaving my parents’ working hours too hectic to drive either of us to or from school, and our house too far away for a bus to stop by. My mother’s mother, my Grandma Shirley, took it upon herself to discontinue her job in order to care for us all throughout the week while my parents continued their jobs. I had a second mother, one that woke me up in the morning for school and made me breakfast every morning, one that waited an extra twenty minutes in the school parking lot so that I could be the first picked up, and one kissed my cheek goodbye every day until it became the most normal thing in the world. Every Sunday she drove from Westport to Littlerock, about a 90 minute drive, to my house, then returned every Friday afternoon to her little beach house for the weekend.
Grandma Shirley’s hair never truly grayed, and I always remember it so beautiful and blonde, but one day I recall her cutting it very short and I couldn’t imagine why. She was suddenly at my home much less, and my mother was crying much more, and still my young mind didn’t understand why. I decided to ask, to which my mother responded with salty lips and red eyes. She described to me that cancer was a disease that many people get, including my Grandma Shirley, and that she would begin to appear very tired and her hair would fall out. Then she hugged me, and told me to love my grandmother with all of my heart, but it was much later until I finally understood the severity behind those words.
The following day, I noticed that Grandma Shirley’s hair was long once more, and a different shade of blonde than it used to be. She laughed when I asked her about it and told me that she didn’t love the wig that much, so she instead wrapped a scarf around her head. Her eyelashes were gone, and her skin was much paler than it used to be, but her lack of energy was never apparent because the energy in her voice was always so illuminated. I decided to ask her why the cancer made her hair fall out, and she explained to me that the cancer she obtained was called ovarian cancer, which affected many people. She described a “treatment” called chemotherapy, in which her body was given toxic chemicals in order to kill cancerous tissue, but that these toxins also destroyed other cells, such as those that allow hair to live and grow. The next day my grandmother decided to take my sister and I wig shopping with her, so that we could relay input on her new hairstyle. For some reason, we all decided accordingly on the wig that most closely represented her previous hair, the golden hair that flowed and framed her tiny face. Sadly, that replica could never do hers justice.
Every morning we continued our routine, Grandma Shirley driving us to school in her little silver Honda that smelled of her laundry detergent because she kept her clothes in her car so often. I loved that car: the size, the smell, the color, and the seats; everything about it seemed to resemble my grandmother. From the tiny Hawaiian flowered necklace that she kept in the glove box to the Hawaiian flowered tattoo on her foot, she embodied that car, and I was content to sit in it every day and count the minutes on her clock until school or to listen to her sixties’ music. Some days I could forget all about her thinning frame and her rapid hair loss. It was as if this ferocious parasite I envisioned was simply a phase that would pass. It broke my heart that it never did.
This energetic, spunky woman never lost her light, and after years of different therapies was forced to discontinue the treatment, after her body had rejected each type. However, living a short time to its most, she believed, was better than living longer but without excitement. I recall the day when her hair began to grow long enough to curl once again, and it was as if things were easy again, her energy restored and her bouncy exterior regained along with the lively personality. We traveled for her, we danced for her, and we experienced life with her, living that last year and a half with vigor and expression. She always used to tell me she loved my voice and asked me to sing for her, but I was too embarrassed, even by the time I reached my teenage years. But we would sing together often, and she would suddenly stop just before a long note so that she could hear me sing it loudly and alone, to which we would both laugh together at her trickery.
That Christmas, Grandma Shirley was too weak to drive to our house for Christmas Eve, so we brought all the decorations and festivities into her little beach home in Westport. I recall holding her hand the next morning and realizing how small and pale it had become, so I brought over a blanket and we spent the morning laughing, eating, and reading together. Her appetite was gone, but she still smiled when she ate the cookie I had frosted her name onto
On April 19, 2011, Grandma Shirley passed away in her own bed, surrounded by her daughters and my father. I, being thirteen years old, went to school that day after spending the night at a friend’s house. I arrived that morning and fifteen minutes into first period, I received a note to come to the office. When I found my mother sitting in that chair, her eyes more wet and swollen than I’d ever seen, I could do nothing but collapse as well.
The pain that accompanies the loss of a person is not repairable. With the word “death” comes a variation of heartbreak that doesn’t leave a crack, but rather a hole, by which no bandage may ever truly heal once more. If a heart is a body, a human with arms and legs and fingers and toes, the loss of a loved one is the equivalent of losing one of those pieces. The most painful part is the phantom limb that follows, when the feeling remains but the person does not. The hole never closes and the piece never returns, but the love stays. The love never fades.
At Grandma Shirley’s celebration of life, I stood up in front of all of her loved ones and sang the song I had practiced over and over and sometimes sang with her, “Hallelujah.” I could never recall a day in my life that I cried harder.
That day, we returned home and my mother put a set of keys in my hand, keys that I recognized because strung upon the loop was a flip-flop keychain. She told me that my grandmother had left me her car, that when I reached fifteen, I could begin learning to drive it and that despite the many miles driven, nearly 150,000, the car was in beautiful condition and could last me years upon years.
My heart was too overwhelmed to register what this meant until I returned home from my first day back at school. Now, my mother rearranged her work schedule in order to drop me off in the mornings, and I rode home with a friend or stayed after for school sports until I was able to be picked up. That day, I arrived at my home and opened the front door to an empty house. My mother walked in after me, sitting down upon the couch to rest, but I strode to the kitchen drawer and pulled out a set of keys and went back outside. Fumbling because I had never before used a car key, I unlocked the silver Honda, sat down in the seat still set for a woman who stood four feet and ten inches tall, and cried.
For my sixteenth birthday, I received two gifts that I use every day. One was from my Grandma Shirley, who gave me her petite, bright car that she sits in with me everyday I drive to school. The other was from my mother, and it was a bumper sticker that read “Never drive faster than your angel can fly.” My grandmother never chose to drive fast or far, but she drove purposefully, nearly 150,000 miles that cancer could never slow.
Cassie Andresen