The other night around 1:15 a.m., our 19-year-old son woke us up to say there was a problem with the car he’d just driven home from work. A “predicament,” I think he said. Previous “predicaments” or “situations” involving our decrepit 2005 Honda Odyssey have usually been reported by Sam over the phone, sometimes from faraway places, as the hard-traveled minivan has suffered its protracted death throes.
My first thought, as I tried to clear my head and get my slippers on, was that at least this situation was nearby. But it turned out to be worse than usual.
Sam’s been living at home and going to college and playing in a band. This summer he got a job washing dishes at a new restaurant and he gets home late, so we worry about him in the city in that dilapidated old hulk. It has something like 180,000 miles on it, and those are hard miles — family trips with four kids, mad dashes to Grandma’s house through holiday traffic on I-95, teenagers learning to drive, and, lately, Sam hauling his band’s amplifiers and drums all over the region at all hours of the day and night. He seems to get flat tires every couple of months.
The van’s been squeaking and thumping and burning oil like crazy. Our mechanic said it would cost more than it’s worth to fix, but with college bills and our recent move from Northern Virginia to Richmond, we just couldn’t deal with the expense of replacing it yet.
So, yes, it’s been on borrowed time. And we were lucky that Sam was turning into the driveway when it finally did what it was going to do.
There’s a dip at the foot of our driveway, and the van had stalled in the dip with its rear end jutting into the narrow neighborhood street. We couldn’t push it out of the dip in either direction — it was too heavy, or we were too tired.
Sam thought it might be out of gas. Naturally, my lawn mower gas can was empty, so I had to drive my car up to Wawa and fill the can. But the gas didn’t help. We decided to try a jump-start.
That worked, for a moment, but the van cut off when Sam tried to shift into reverse. I’ll spare you any more blow-by-blow, but as 2 a.m. and then 2:30 rolled around, we kept jump-starting and trying to outsmart the dying van until smoke was pouring off the radiator and it wouldn’t turn over at all.
My wife, Joanna, had come out onto the front porch. We huddled. I tried calling tow-truck services. One after another, promising 24-hour emergency towing, either wouldn’t answer the phone or told me they had no truck available.
Sweaty, my night’s sleep ruined, sure that a car was going to hurtle down the street and smash the back of the van at any moment, I felt trapped. “I hate that van so much, I don’t even want to look at it,” I said.
The other two were quiet for a moment. “It’s actually been a pretty good car,” Joanna said. Sam agreed. “I was going to say . . .” he began. Immediately I felt like I’d kicked the dog. They were right.
The dents on all four sides of that van are a record of 13 years of swim meets, sleepovers, school meetings and snowstorms. The stains on the carpets are summertime Slurpees and maybe a few bad reactions to winding mountain roads. We literally took the brand new van from the dealership to a soccer tournament in a driving rainstorm; the new-car smell lasted less than 24 hours before it was overtaken by mud and sweat.
There’s dog hair between the seats from driving Daisy to see my sister’s dog in Pennsylvania. Beach sand everywhere. Probably 17,648 bobby pins from our daughter Caroline’s prepping as we hustled her, always late, to ballet lessons.
One compartment in the back is crammed with river rocks that our son Will must have collected over years of hikes. The other contains a sharp-pointed shiv that John carved out of a piece of wood and that miraculously never put out any eyes. Under the center console is the 2001 Rand McNally road atlas that got us everywhere before Google Maps ruined my best dad skill. It’s all there, all our lives as a family, from army men in the secret box under the floor to a folding chair in the back that was cast off from a college dorm room.
It’s just as well I couldn’t get a tow truck that night. Joanna, Sam and I finally summoned enough desperate strength to push the dead van back into the road and then park it along the curb. It was after 3 a.m., and I was thinking, as miserable as this is, there’s something magical about being out here solving this problem. The van did, one last time, what it always did — bring us together.
That’s it, though — there’s no going back. It won’t leave that spot under its own power. We’re donating the van to a charity that helps children.
We no longer have a vehicle that our whole family will fit into. Which seems sad, but honestly, there are girlfriends now and the real family couldn’t fit into anything smaller than a bus. So we’re moving on and making new memories.
But let me say this: All you new parents who moan about what you’re giving up if you buy a minivan? Get real. You have no idea how much you’ll love that thing.
Gregory S. Schneider covers Virginia from the Richmond bureau of The Washington Post. He’s on Twitter @schneiderG.
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