Do you remember “The Final Drive”–my post about the sudden and unexpected death of my 2013 Jeep Wrangler?
If you do, I daresay that you will enjoy the backstory just as much, if not more, than the original post. The first part of the backstory is straight forward. Even so, it requires close attention. The second part is chilling–never before shared except with a few close family members and a few close friends. It requires even closer attention.
I started the original essay with my Creative Writing students in March of 2020, just when COVID started showing its nastiness. I needed a topic, something to write about. I was up against one of my own “good-professor” assignments with one of my own “good-professor” deadlines. I knew that I had to deliver the goods or suffer class embarrassment.
I had lots of ideas, but I wanted to write a humorous essay.
At the time, the only thing remotely funny to me was what I did when my Jeep’s sound system failed. A mouse or a chipmunk or some other critter had gotten under the hood and had chewed unseen wires in unseen places. The repair cost was far pricier than I chose to pay. Instead I figured out with great speed and with zero cost how to jerry-rig my iPod to a Bluetooth speaker. Voila! I had perfect surround-sound gospel music wherever I went.
For me, that was funny. Here I was a college professor who could have afforded the repair. But here I was choosing to do what I had often chosen to do throughout my life: make do with making do, especially with things that are of little consequence in the greater scheme of things.
But my chosen course of action became funnier to me when the day came that I forgot to recharge my jerry-rigged sound system and I had no music at all. Instead, I had the sounds of silence. I started hearing an unusual noise coming from under the hood. The noise was hard for me to describe. Knocking? No. Pinging? No. Tapping? Yes. Tapping. A rhythmic tapping, tapping, tapping, growing louder and louder and louder as I climbed my mountain, homeward. Neighbors stared. Dogs ran. This was a palpable noise that required reckoning.
I knew the very moment that I watched the dogs run–the very moment that I watched my neighbors watching their dogs run–that writing about the reality of what was happening to my Jeep might elevate my essay to the humorous level that I desired. I had an angle that I thought would work.
But when I took my Jeep in for service, the humor started to lessen. The lesson that I would come to learn took on a more serious tone.
My mechanic’s fear was that the Jeep had faulty hydraulic lifters.
“How could that be?” I questioned, especially since the Jeep had relatively low mileage and especially since I had followed the service plan to the letter.
“Sometimes those things just happen.”
Despite his fairly certain preliminary diagnosis, he suggested that a heavier oil with an additive might reduce the friction, lower the noise, and extend the engine’s life. I tend to trust experts, so I followed my mechanic’s advice.
Sadly, his remedy didn’t last long. The tapping grew louder and louder. Eventually, he told me that the hydraulic lifters had to be replaced. But before the job was even finished, my mechanic delivered worse news. The engine was shot. Nothing could be done. That was it for the Jeep that I had loved so much and had taken care of so faithfully.
As these things were unfolding with my Jeep, I was drafting my essay with my students. I shifted my angle to a more serious one.
I focused on the simple observation that what was happening to my Jeep paralleled, in many ways, what happens to human beings, especially as we grow older. Even if we faithfully follow the most recent and up-to-date edition of life’s unpublished user-manual, we all reach a point where even the experts can’t fix our brokenness.
I liked that angle a lot and set about revising the essay to make the parallels between a Jeep’s engine and a person’s heart as clear as I could without hitting my readers over the head with a skillet.
To my surprise, when I workshopped the essay with my students, their comments made it clear that they had not gotten my intended message. I had not delivered the message clearly, even though I thought that the takeaway–wrangling with mortality: the Jeep’s; mine; yours–was abundantly obvious. It wasn’t.
As I continued to revise, I did two things.
First, I decided to end the essay with some email snippets, exchanged with a friend.
“’Does this mean your poor Wrangler is in the shop getting that rattle fixed? Or worse …???’ she probed.
“’Worse,’ I answered. ‘It looks like the engine is shot.‘
“‘Aww. I’m sorry. Jeeps are sort of human, aren’t they?‘
“‘Yes,’ I mused. ‘Both are wrangling for the final drive.‘”
Second, I decided to change the title. “The Wrangler” became “Wrangling” and that became “Wrangling for Life.” Then I changed the title one last time so that it mirrored the last three words in the essay: “The Final Drive.”
“The Final Drive.” I liked that title a lot. It worked for me. By then, the semester was over, I had given the essay all the thought and energy that I cared to give it, and, besides, Allen–my partner–and I were enjoying my new, four-door 2020 Jeep Sahara.
From this point forward, what I am about to share with you today–right here in this post–will be met with full belief or full disbelief. A middle ground cannot be taken because it does not exist.
I never discussed that essay–or any of my essays–with Allen. Nor did I ever share that essay–or any of the others–with him.
We were so immersed in all the other rich dimensions of our daily lives together that my private-time writing always struck me as comparable to his private-time reading: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wallstreet Journal.
Be that as it may, toward the end of 2020–the week before Thanksgiving–Allen thought that he had a cold or maybe pneumonia. Unfortunately, our family doctor discovered otherwise. Her diagnosis, to our mutual alarm, was Stage 3 Lung Cancer. Allen’s cancer team developed a comprehensive treatment plan: thirty days of chemo and radiation. A month later, they would operate to remove the upper left lobe of his lung.
The treatments were agressive, taking a far heavier toll on Allen than anyone expected. Naturally, when we got back home after his last treatments on January 25, 2021–struggling to make our way from the driveway to inside–we hugged and hugged and hugged, tearfully celebrating the fact that chemo and radiation were over.
The very next day, however, I had to call the rescue squad to rush Allen to the hospital where he was placed in intensive care.
At that point, he and I both knew the seriousness of his condition, but we were optimistic, so much so that we talked about his surgery scheduled for late February, and we even chatted about new linen drapes for the living room and about renovation plans for the guest bathroom.
I spent most of the next day at the hospital with Allen before coming home for dinner.
When I returned for my evening visit, Allen looked at me and said:
“When you come back tomorrow, bring a can of gasoline.”
“Gasoline? What on earth for?” I asked.
“We need to make sure that we have enough gas in the Jeep to go for the final drive.”
Allen died suddenly and unexpectedly the next morning.