Grieving the loss of my dad – and his Jeep

Photo-Illustration: Cut; Photos courtesy of Katie C. Reilly

“Why does our car look so dirty?” asked my 5-year-old daughter, Fianna, recently after jumping into the back seat of our Jeep at school pickup. We saw her friend slip into one Back to the Future– looked at the side door of the blue Tesla in front of us before answering, “This the car is super special.”

We are both right. There are deep white lines on the passenger side from scraping the car against the mailbox when trying to back out of our driveway. The cracks in the rear leather seats are filled with cheesy crackers, applesauce and pretzels. Baby wipes, small Frozen dolls and a Baby shark the book is stuffed into the back pockets and empty water bottles, used masks and lollipops fill the side pockets.

But it’s not just about looks. The tailgate opens randomly when the key is in your hand or pocket. The hydraulic suspension is damaged, causing the car to growl an angry hum when you drive it. The windshield wipers only work on the driver’s side, the blind spot alarm goes off when you turn left and inside the car it’s always 20 degrees warmer than the daily forecast even with the air conditioning on.

The key does not lock or unlock the car. Some days the button inside the car door won’t lock either, but that’s not really a problem since no one has tried to steal it yet…even though we live in an area with some of the highest motor vehicle theft rates in the country.

“Because it’s Grandpa Jack’s?” Fianna asked as we pulled out of the school parking lot. I smiled and nodded. My father, Grandfather Jack, died eight years ago, before I married or had children. I inherited his now 12-year-old green Grand Jeep Cherokee. It has kept him alive ever since.

All my life my dad owned Jeeps. As a child he would drive me to school and sing old Del-Vikings or Fats Domino songs on the ride. The soft tenor sound of his voice, the ease with which he carried a song and his gentle presence calmed me.

On the weekends we went to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We stopped at the Bay Bridge – halfway through our road trip from our home in Washington, DC – to eat Happy Meals in the “wayback” of his car with my sister and some of our friends. We always ordered a Big Mac, fries and a Coke with too many ketchup packets. Later, he let me and my friends sit on the roof of the jeep as he slowly drove around my parents’ farm. (We did it so often the roof folded in.) We drove over mud, shorelines and snow, bumping up and down in our seats and squealing with delight.

We spent entire weekends driving to soccer tournaments when I was in high school. Dad always packed several maps for different routes to the game and complained when I stretched my feet and made footprints on the windshield. A mix CD I made for him was usually in the car and we listened to the songs together. I would always include some oldies from the likes of Sam Cooke or spaniels, some father-daughter songs and a song I thought he would like – like Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love.” I would explain why I chose each song, and he would listen and hum along.

When I was old enough to drive, Dad rolled his eyes at my clue about how to put antifreeze in the car. Then he would take the key and come back in an hour. “It’s winterized,” he would say. I still haven’t learned how to do without him.

When I drove home to DC from college in Maine in his old Jeep, which then became my car, he checked in the day before and reminded me to fill up the tank and sleep, which I never did. When I was in law school at his alma mater, he made excuses to fly in for football games and spend time together.

In my third year, my mother was diagnosed with ALS. Soon after, I moved home to take care of her. “Thank you for everything you did,” he had told me repeatedly after my mother died—a year after I graduated from law school.

After her death, the two of us drank too many bottles of wine, cried on our family steps, and went for long walks together. When it felt like the world expected me to move on from my grief—and when I still struggled with ALS-fueled nightmares and anxiety and depression from grief—he let me fall apart. When others asked why I didn’t work or socialize more, he thanked me over and over again for taking care of my mother.

A year after she died, I moved away after a crush, but months later, Dad was diagnosed with cancer. My crush became a partner and I moved back to DC again and lived there until my dad passed away four years after my mom on her birthday. After my parents died, their presence felt inescapable or, at that point, unbearable. I passed by the restaurant where my father told me that he no longer felt safe living alone at home because his health had deteriorated so much. Or I drove past the hospital where mom took her last breath.

Months after he died, I walked down the aisle alone at my wedding. Several months later, the Jeep carried my husband, Peter, and me across the country to California, where we now live. Here are few reminders of my parents, few connections to the most educated people and years of my life. Except for the jeep.

In the first few years after we moved, the Jeep was full of surprises. I found my dad’s little coin purse filled with quarters that he kept for tolls tucked into the armrest. His favorite Patsy Cline CD in the glove compartment. Several neatly folded maps that he used to navigate the highways of the East Coast. I was wracked with grief, but these little reminders of my father’s existence kept me going.

The Jeep has brought my dad into my new life without him. Peter and I drove the car to the hospital for the birth of our two daughters. Peter took the car to pick up our dog, Decoy, for the first time. Decoy, who now weighs 50 pounds, is often in the passenger seat as I squeeze into the middle seat in the back with the girls. The car accompanies us on family trips along the West Coast and for quick trips to the store. When I go over a bump or near a beach in California, I’m brought back by the way the car hits me.

For Fianna, Grandpa Jack is a concept, not a real person she knows. There are still many days when hearing her say his name takes my breath away, as it reminds me of his current absence. It is then – and all the times I miss his warm hugs or the gentle tone of his voice – that the car comforts me. It is proof on wheels that my father existed and that for a period (albeit too short) he filled my life with love.

He would have told me to sell it. There are too many good reasons to get rid of it. It costs almost $120 to fill the tank, and it is not environmentally friendly and will soon be more expensive to own than to sell.

Every two months Peter says, “I don’t think the car will last much longer, Katie.”

“It’s okay. We can get rid of it,” I say, trying to sound calm and relaxed. But he knows how much it means to me, and somehow the car manages to drag on a little longer.

One recent morning I pulled up our driveway after dropping Fianna off at school. I bumped up and down as I drove over the broken cement that lines the entrance and is in desperate need of paving. Then I parked, played Ben King’s “Stand By Me” loud over the old speakers and got in the driver’s seat.

I let every memory of my dad as the song and the Jeep conjured sit with me in the car. I wish I never had to say goodbye to my father. At least I still have time to learn how to say goodbye to a car.

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