that breaky-uppy feeling: on the loss of a car I loved

Recently, my office location changed, and my commute went from twelve minutes to just shy of an hour, one way. This would be annoying for anyone who was used to having work be right around the corner, but for me there was an extra concern. I drive a 1996 Honda Accord, which is a GREAT car, and if I could I’d wish it back into newness so I could get another 17 years of driving out of it, but I can’t.

The check engine light went on back in November. The first time, the emissions test computer said it was a valve that needed replacing, so I had it replaced. The light went off but came back on when I was about 20 minutes away from my mechanic, halfway home. I brought it back in to have the computer read again, and this time the only thing they could find was a gas cap issue. I replaced the gas cap. The check engine light didn’t go off.

It hasn’t been worth it to delve into deeper repairs with the car, because I’ve known since last summer that this vehicle is on its last legs, and I would rather let it die in the comfort of its own home from old age than undergo a bunch of surgeries so it can continue to limp along. So far, aside from a growl in the engine (I like to think of it as deep chest coughing) and a need for new tires, it’s still been driving fine.

That all changed on Monday. On my way home from work, in the last ten minutes of the hour-long commute, the transmission started to give me trouble. I’d come to a full stop, and when I hit the accelerator, the engine revved like it was supposed to but the car barely moved forward, crawling from its stopped state. I was turning onto a busier road, and my thought was “oh shit! the car won’t go, what if someone comes speeding along and hits me?!” and then suddenly, the car kicked into motion, jolted forward, and kept moving like it was supposed to. It was kind of like when you’re on a bike and the chain is stuck between two gears: the bike moves weirdly or barely at all at first, and then when the chain catches, boom – motion. It happened at every full stop I came to, four times from that point until I got home.

I called my dad to describe it to him; he had me check the transmission fluid, which looks exactly how it’s supposed to and hasn’t been leaking. The brakes work, the accelerator works once the car gets going initially, so my guess is the transmission. I’m pretty sure it would cost more to fix the transmission than the car is worth.

Yesterday, I had to drop Matthew off at karate so I could borrow his car to get groceries. Driving his car, I had the strangest feeling. I almost got misty-eyed, in another vehicle, realizing that this is how it’s going to be soon – I’ll no longer see the road over Cark’s dashboard and hood, I’ll no longer have that familiar feel, the absolute knowledge of my car’s handling. I’ll develop it, of course, but it’ll be with another car.

Now, Cark isn’t my first car, it’s my second, but it’s the first one that I had for more than a couple of months (the previous one, a 1994-ish Ford Taurus wagon, also died, but that was more dramatic – the transmission completely failed while I was on a highway onramp), which means that this is the first time I’m having signs of grief over a car. Driving Matt’s car, I almost felt guilty, like I was about to betray Cark’s trust, to walk away from all the good years we’d had together, and why? Because the car is dying? But I love that car! And as The Princess Bride teaches us, death cannot stop true love, only delay it for a while.

I realize that I’m not in “true love” with my car.  And like I said, I knew this was coming; I knew that Cark would need to be replaced, especially now that my commute has almost quadrupled and involves highway. My boss was cool enough to let me work from home for this week, but it means that the vague, misty future prospect of needing to buy a new car for the first time in my life (since I’m really only extended-borrowing Cark from my dad) has been thrown into sharp relief – I need one for next week’s commute. The time has come. And I’ve been talking about replacing it for almost a year now. I’ve even got it narrowed down to two cars that I’ll choose between. I’ve got a really good down payment saved up. I thought I was ready for this, but being behind another wheel was still a strange, surreal experience for me. I would almost liken it to grief, if I didn’t feel like that would cheapen the real grief I’ve been through in my life, but there’s no denying that the thought of replacing Cark gives me twinges in my feels.

The paint may be peeling, the door rubber thingies might be going, the paint may have worn off the windshield wipers causing them to be a blinding silver in the sunlight, the brakes may sometimes squeal, the engine may make funny noises and the check engine light may be on all the time, but I love that old car, and as excited as I am for a new set of wheels, I’ll be sad to see Cark go.

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