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life, death, and faulty brake calipers

The roads were icy Sunday morning. The car fishtailed a few times on the drive to church, so I developed a gentle rhythm. First gear for turns, early braking for red lights.

But on the way home the brakes failed. I could feel it well before the intersection. I pressed my foot down harder. I pumped the brakes up and down. Still I slid irrevocably forward through the red light. Someone honked from the line of oncoming traffic. Thank you, I thought. I should have done that myself.

Fifty yards past the intersection the car finally came to a stop. I restarted the engine before easing it slowly forward. My breathing had grown long and deep, but I could feel a quiver working its way up from my bones. Just before the entrance to the highway I spotted a Firestone. I pulled into the parking lot and dialed David. I kept my voice calm long enough to say that I was okay, that the car was okay. Then I began sobbing.

While the mechanics wheeled the car into the bay, I hunkered down in the lobby, trying to journal while listening to a local news show. An hour later the manager printed out a list: $1300 of recommended services.

He took me into the bay to look at the brakes. The driver’s side front caliper had locked up, wearing the brake pad to almost nothing. (Why have I always imagined brake pads looking somehow . . . soft? They aren’t.) The alignment of the front tires was significantly askew, so they’d worn unevenly and needed to be replaced. He wasn’t sure it would be advisable to realign the tires: the car’s undercarriage was so rusty that something might fall apart.

The message was clear: I won’t be driving my little Neon much longer. I’ve had it for 13 years, so this didn’t come as a huge shock. The manager and I went line by line through the recommended services, deciding which were truly necessary for another 6-12 months on the road. I felt like I was beside a hospital bed, witnessing a loved one draw close to death. Instead of asking “What can we do to make her comfortable?” I asked, “What can we do to make her drivable?”

the car

David came to pick me up as the mechanics started in on $610 of necessary repairs. We embraced and he repeated how relieved he was that I hadn’t been hurt. I wanted to feel that: simple gratitude for my wellbeing. Instead I started sobbing again. “I wish I had a full time job,” I sputtered. “I wish Mom hadn’t already ordered the boots I want for Christmas. I feel so frivolous. We just need the money.” David spoke words of gentle reassurance as my tears dwindled down.

The amazing thing about the morning was that I’d dreamed it at least a dozen times. The dreams started back in the summer. There have been many variations, but the punch line is always the same: I’m at the wheel of a car, and I’m unable to control the car.

the wheel

It’s taken a few days for the wonder to fully set in: I lived my nightmare, and I am okay. On Monday afternoon I drove through the same intersection and glanced around at the heavy traffic. If I’d gone to the late service on Sunday morning (as I often do), surely there would have been more cars. How did I get through the entire experience without a single vehicle coming anywhere close to mine?

I unpack the gift slowly. This season of my life has felt much like the nightmare: I’m sitting in the driver’s seat but I don’t have control.

I fantasize about finding a steady teaching job next year. I’ll keep writing, of course, but I’m weary of sending out essays and watching them return with rejection letters. I’ve known all along that this is how the world of writing works, but I didn’t know how disheartening it would feel in real life. We’re scraping by financially, but we won’t make any headway against our student loans until I’m bringing in more money. If we want to buy a car or a house or have kids someday (maybe before I’m 40?), the financial picture has to change.

While long term planning is all well and good, I don’t want to rob myself of the opportunity I have this year. I don’t want to see David off in the morning and feel guilty that I’m still in my pajamas. I’m still in my pajamas, for heaven’s sake. It’s a gift, not a curse. I want to sit down with my cup of tea and not fret over the future. (It goes without saying that fretting over the future is pretty distracting when you’re trying to write.)

cup o tea, writing implements

Not far from the intersection where I skidded out of control, there’s a cement bridge engraved with quotes. One reads, “It’s Time: Pursue Your Dreams.” Whenever I pass beneath it I remember that I’m pursuing my dreams this year. It feels thoroughly unromantic 95% of the time, but still. It’s what I’m doing.

I never would have guessed that before any writing dreams came true I’d see a nightmare come true. The more I reflect upon it, the more grateful I feel. Being out of control is a fundamental reality of being alive. We may be able to manipulate a million intricacies of our daily existence, but the big stuff (life, death, love, faulty brake calipers) lies outside our grasp.

I knew that before. Something tells me I’ll be relearning it my whole life long. Rumi writes,

Copper does not know it’s copper,
until it is changing into gold.
Your loving does not know its majesty,
until it knows its helplessness.

Here in the midst of my helplessness I’m sensing a majesty that is much larger than me. Here in my pajamas with my cup of tea, I watch the sun overtake the darkness.


5 thoughts on “life, death, and faulty brake calipers”

  1. Eeep! So glad you’re okay! That’s my nightmare too. Actually pretty much all of my bad dreams are about losing control in one way or another, but the faulty brakes is definitely the most frequent!

    There’s a ducky in your tea! Is that a ducky-topped tea ball? If so, I love it!

    1. Thanks, Lauren! I hope this nightmare never comes true for you! My “normal” recurring nightmare involves theatre: I’m asked to perform a role and I think I can do it but realize I’m not prepared . . . that sort of thing. I guess we’re all terrified of being out of control! (And yes, it’s a ducky-topped tea ball. How cool is that?)

  2. I love the way you express yourself. Keep writing and putting yourself out there – good things are bound to come!

  3. Dearest Hannah, it seems we’re writing two sides of a similar coin. How to truly live the now while waiting or planning for the future? I am so glad you are safe.

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