Bitter Sweet Symphony

Earlier this year, I brought home my Dream Car, a red Mustang convertible. That full story is for another day but suffice it to say that I have wanted that car since I was 16 years old. The day I drove one home was, as you might guess, dreamy.

My Dad loved my car. LOVED. IT.

I remember the June day we drove it over to show my parents. Jim and I got out of the car and after I rang their doorbell, we stood way back (thanks, pandemic) so they could walk to the driveway and see it up close. My dad went around to the passenger side and leaned over so he could get a look at the dashboard, ooh-ing and ahh-ing. My mom went wild over the color and asked me why my phone case didn’t yet match my car. (Narrator: Her phone case now matches her car.)

They were thrilled for me; Jim and I had been talking about this car for a long time. I started it up and when it roared, my Dad yelled out this high-pitched “Ah!” that always came out of him when he was excited (or surprised) about something.

“VROOM, VROOM!” he yelled, nodding his head and smiling. “I love it! Can I have it?”

“No!” I yelled.

Every time Jim and I stopped by the house for a quick pandemic front yard visit, we went through the same ritual before driving away. I kept telling my dad that I couldn’t wait for the pandemic to be over, so I could take him for a ride.

Even during one of the final conversations I had with my dad, when he was in the hospital and on oxygen, he kept it up.

“Melisa?”

“Yes?”

“Can I have your car?”

“No!”

I laughed that evening as we hung up, so happy that he was still joking around (even though, let’s be honest, he seriously wanted my car). Dad was Dad.

Fast forward to yesterday. Jim spoke with a woman at the funeral home who told him that my dad’s urn (which had been on back order) finally arrived and we could pick up his cremains anytime. My afternoon was free of work meetings, so I decided to go so Jim didn’t need to stop after work. Shortly before I left my house, I had an idea that sounded a little crazy at first but I didn’t care: my dad never got to take that ride in my car and I was going to remedy that.

After signing the papers on behalf of my mom, I left the funeral home, walking slowly and clutching the urn to my chest. I opened up the passenger door and gingerly placed it on the seat. The vessel was the perfect choice for my dad, who was a Vietnam Veteran and eternally patriotic: silver brass with an overlay of red and blue stars and stripes, the United States Army emblem on top.

After I sat in the driver’s seat I took a few pictures of the urn and then gently wrapped the seat belt around it (safety first!). I put on my aviators, and after starting the car I revved the engine a couple of times. The outside temperature wasn’t warm enough to put the top down (though I thought about doing it anyway) and after I put my seat heater on I looked at the passenger seat. I thought, “I wonder if Dad would like his seat heater on?” Then, as clear as day, I heard him in my head, laughing and making one of his jokes: “Don’t you think I’ve experienced enough heat lately?” I laughed. No seat heater for the passenger.

Oddly enough, my dad loved electronic music. I introduced him to House and Trance years and years ago when I was teaching spin classes, and he asked me to burn a CD for him. He used to play it while driving his MINI Cooper; I got a kick out of that.

I queued up three songs that I know he enjoyed—“Spente le Stelle–Opera Trance (the Yomanda Mix featuring Emma Shaplin),” “The Saint” by Orbital, and “One Love” by The Prodigy, on repeat—and drove out of the parking lot with the volume as high as I could stand it.

I put the pedal down on the back roads (as much as I could, considering there were other cars and lots of blind hills: safety first!) for about twenty minutes, and my dad finally got to ride in my car. The experience was cathartic: after that seat heater laugh I cried for most of the drive. At one point I noticed that my right hand was on the urn, gently pressed against the curve of it; I didn’t remember reaching over at all, but I kept it there.

I had been able to spend only about 12 hours (total, in short spurts) with my dad over the past ten months because of the pandemic. I’m extremely angry about it. So many of us who have done our best to take precautions against getting and spreading the virus have been robbed of irreplaceable time, memories, and hugs. Adding insult to injury, those of us who have lost loved ones to the virus (nearly 400,000 people have died from COVID-19 so far!) have also been cheated out of the ability to conduct certain “normal” grieving practices, as well as a future promise of togetherness with our people. I’m so glad it occurred to me to take this drive and make this memory; it was a final opportunity to connect with my dad, just him and me.

The destination at the end of the drive was my parents’ house, where I carefully handed the urn over to my mom. She and my sister and I cried together and Mom put the urn on the base of the fireplace where it will stay until we take Dad to a national military cemetery for interment.

The drive with my dad was an experience of a lifetime.

While I will always think of my dad from now on when I hear the three songs I played in the car at full blast, the one that I can’t get out of my head is actually this one, which was too slow to play while speeding around on country roads with my dad’s cremains riding shotgun, but ever so perfect for this moment in time.

“It’s a bitter sweet symphony, this life…”

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