We are driving down Freestate Parkway, or rather, Jon is driving and I am passenger-ing, away from Carmax in Laurel, Maryland. Jon is wondering about lunch.
“What do you think? West End Grill?” he asks, turning slightly toward me from the wheel of our “denim” blue Ford Explorer.
I don’t answer. I can’t. Giant sad-emoji tears are cresting my lower lids and skittering down my cheeks. My throat is tighter than a welded lug nut. My chest begins to heave.
Jon jumps a little in his seat. His eyes widen.
“What’s wrong?” The SUV swerves a bit as he looks for a place to pull over. I am now guffawing in full abdominal sobs. I am not generally prone to tearful outbursts. He hadn’t seen this coming. Neither had I.
Carmax is a no-negotiation, this-is-the-dough-we-will-hand-over-for-your-automobile, multiplex where we have left my car, Betty Blue Bug, in our rearview mirror.
“Do you want to go buy back the car?” he asks, confused. We had talked about it. This was the plan. We had one too many cars. We would get rid of my cute blue Volkswagen bug because we were tired of juggling positions in the driveway and the remaining two were the obvious, practical choices: the Explorer for the girls (dogs if you’re new here) and me, and the Jaguar for Jon and, say, our date nights.
I shake my head no.
“It’s just….” I inhale, then blurt, “The bug was the last thing I had!” I start sobbing all over again.
“What are you talking about?”
“It was…” More deep breathing, a bit of snot “…the last thing that was just mine!”
So went our first marital automotive transaction. When I was single, I had bought the bug because it fulfilled my long-time ambition of having a dog car– a very well-worn, hairy, muddy well-suited for Ridgebacks, Jeep Liberty–and a cute car, in which I could arrive places free of mud and hair not belonging to me. It had taken me a lot of years to afford two cars, even if one was paid off. But I had done it. The Jeep and the Volkswagen sat in my driveway as testimony to my achievement. Chalk up another she-woman, single girl accomplishment. I hadn’t realized it during Jon’s and my personal car-talks, but selling that car was like handing off yet another shred of my disintegrating identity. Who was I, if not the person who could alone manage a single family home, a business, two cars, and as many large dogs?
The Jeep had gone belly up. We’d rented the house. And now, a year into our marriage, I would drive a Ford Explorer and Jon would drive the Jag. The Explorer was actually the nicer vehicle. We’d upgraded the upholstery and the engine and nearly everything else. The seats and steering wheel are heated. Lillian and Delilah could occupy the entire rear section and I’d still have room for groceries, girlfriends, and 40-pound bags of dog food in the back seat. L & D had their own A/C controls and windows to slobber up. I could arrive places fairly clean, given the distance between the front seat and the dog-wagon. It’s a good ride. I needed (and still do) a ground crew with flags and cones to park it properly, but I rarely went downtown anymore anyway. Still, the Explorer just wasn’t me. Or it wasn’t the me I’d spent 54 years constructing.
Dr. Kathy Gabriel, PHD, is a clinical psychologist. She says very early on, we begin to develop ways to protect our own essence, that with which we’re born. Some people the shield is a career. For others it’s a relationship. We need those things to get through our lives, but we tend to over-identify with them.
“We mistake ourselves for the objects we attach ourselves to,” Dr. Gabriel tells me. “When those things are threatened or lost, we immediately try to reconstruct them.” That’s part of what causes the suffering.
So there I was, a very independent person, balancing all my “protections” (really not all that well, but I wasn’t in jail or anything) and then I get married and POOF. My house, GONE. My cute powder blue Volkswagen bug, GONE. Autonomy, GONE! Identity…GONE!
People say those who marry late in life may be “too set in their ways.” That’s a tad too diplomatic. We’re too set in our made-up, bricked up, mortared, slap-a-sold-sign on it, manufactured photo we have of ourselves. It’s real, but at the same time, it’s produced. And sometimes it all changes, with or without our permission. We’re all glued up with bumper stickers declaring our beliefs, our loves, indeed ourselves, authentic or not. Ripping those off our fenders is jarring and painful.
Six weeks ago another chunk fell off. My sweet Delilah died. You’ve all heard it by now. The loss has turned us sideways with grief. I knew the vacancy would be loud and uncomfortable. What I’d forgotten was Lillian and Delilah were a cornerstone in my identity construction. Lillian is a beautiful girl, and together, they were real head-turners. The three of us entered a room as a chaotic, mischievous unit. We were a harmonious, well-muscled, love triangle. I couldn’t see one without thinking of the other. “Where’s your sister?” had become my constant refrain. And even though I am married to a loving and dedicated step-dad, they were still “my girls.” I managed them. I monitored food and exercise, administered medicines and took them for their regular vet visits. They looked to me for instruction and discipline more so than their beloved Papa Jon. Jon has always joked that I was A-dog, Lilly was B, Delilah was C and he was D.
I couldn’t see one without the other.
Now “C” is gone. So goes my grip, my last bit of control, the category in which I still excelled, where I was still strong. One Ridgeback is so much easier, so much more ordinary than two. And that means the ‘ol superwoman folk-hero has to face yet another rehab. The worst part is the gutting, which, I hope, is nearly over. But please, someone, pass the botox.
Lilly is settling in to being a single dog, with two parents. This morning she climbed into our bed and snuggled up to me. I scratched behind her ear for a minute before she threw her head onto Jon’s leg. She’s divvying herself up. She understands the new dynamic, the new triangle. She is so much smarter than I.
My husband is no dummy either. He drives the Explorer now. I dart about in a convertible Mini Cooper. We both know that most times, Lillian is at the wheel.