On a Serpentine Road, With the Top Down
serpentine /’sɜːp(ə)ntaɪn/ 弯弯曲曲的;蜿蜒的;盘旋的；(Something that is serpentine is curving and winding in shape, like a snake when it moves.) ◆ the serpentine course of the river 蜿蜒曲折的河道 近义词： winding
tow truck 拖车；convertible 敞篷车；sedan 大轿车
refract /rɪ’frækt/ 使折射；(When a ray of light or a sound wave refracts or is refracted, the path it follows bends at a particular point, for example when it enters water or glass.)
snuff /snʌf/ 掐灭，闷熄；扼杀 （to stop a small flame from burning, especially by pressing it between your fingers or covering it with sth）
mob n暴民;黑社会；v.团团围住;成群围住 Her car was mobbed by the media… ◆ 她的车被媒体团团围住了。
litmus/’lɪtməs/ test 试金石；立见分晓的检验办法；(If you say that something is a litmus test of something, you mean that it is an effective and definite way of proving it or measuring it.) ◆ The outcome will be seen as a litmus test of government concern for conservation issues. 这结果将被视为检验政府是否关注自然资源保护问题的试金石。
The skies opened up as I watched the tow truck winch my teal Alfa Romeo onto the flatbed. The 30-year-old convertible again refused to run, and as I dried the rain off my arms, I thought it was probably time to get rid of it.
My husband loved this Spider, which our kids named the happy car. But before he succumbed to melanoma at 48, he specifically instructed us not to make the car a shrine. I held onto it anyway. I rarely drive it. I had intended to use it to teach our kids to drive a stick shift, but that never happened. I couldn’t bear them grinding those gears.
The downpour ended the moment the tow truck left. Steam rose from the driveway and refracted the sudden sunshine. It was a sign, I told myself. Time to let go. I tried to ignore the immediate heaviness against my breastbone.
The Alfa had to be towed 25 miles to a specialist’s shop. Years earlier, I upgraded my AAA membership to cover this recurring expense. I called the shop to describe the car’s current symptoms. The mechanic, who knows both the car and me, said: “You can’t just let it sit. A car like that, you need to either drive it or sell it.”
You’d think I’d be an expert in letting go by now.
I let go of the notion that my family could be happy only if it included my husband, with whom I had shared every thought and feeling and plan for 20 years. I let go of a different happy-family configuration when our daughter, then our son, left for college. Though I dreaded the moment when both children would leave, I also saw how ready they were. For them, letting go of one thing meant making room to grab hold of an entire universe. And even apart, we remain close. We didn’t just survive but found ways to thrive.
I let go of many other preconceived notions about how my life would play out when I forced myself to start dating again, a few years after my husband’s death. When I sat through meals with strangers whose tales of misery in love snuffed my appetite.
Each week in yoga, I obediently let my limbs go heavy when the teacher says, “Begin to practice the art of letting go.”
Why, then, is it so difficult for me to let go of this car?
Part of the answer came a few weeks later, when, on a cloudless September afternoon, I retrieved the Alfa from the shop. I was appalled at the bill and began composing for-sale ads in my head. But as I drove, the breeze warmed my cheeks. The swamp sunflowers popped in yellow clusters that I’d failed to notice from the confines of my sensible sedan. There was still a hint of honeysuckle in the air.
I downshifted, and the car hugged the cloverleaf coming off the highway. The motor hummed; the seat embraced me. Both hands, both feet, my entire body: all engaged. No fiddling with cellphone or radio. Just me and the car and the road.
I was transported to the fall day in Vermont when my husband taught me to clutch and shift in a different convertible on another serpentine road. I was studying for medical school exams. We had no money, but we splurged on a bed-and-breakfast. That was how he was: Hardship didn’t stop him from plunging into things he loved.
In the early days, an unreliable car was our only means of transportation. We eventually added a safer car, but how our daughter beamed when her dad drove her to school in the Spider! How the second-grade boys mobbed the convertible in the pickup lane! No airbags, no roll bar, metal bumpers, an open top — a bad idea to send a child off like that.
I was the kind of mom who put helmets on our kids when they learned to ice-skate. But my daughter wrote a poem about the light filtering through the trees as she and her dad flew through those moments in time. My daughter and son have grown into people who immerse themselves in the world via all their senses.
The Alfa is impractical, costly and inconvenient. My hair becomes a bird’s nest when I drive with the top down. When it rains, the fabric roof pings cold drops onto my head. It has left me stranded more than once.
And I love it.
I was raised to set aside my aspirations to be a writer because the winding path of a creative career seemed lined with risk and destitution, and my immigrant family had had enough of that. Better to cut loose the impractical and hold tight to tangible certainties, my parents advised.
My husband, raised in similar circumstances, with similar expectations, somehow flouted conventional notions of what was worth holding onto or jettisoning. He became a scientist instead of a doctor and found not only creative fulfillment but financial success in that less predictable career path. His grad school student loans partly subsidized flying lessons, and he later flew me to Ocracoke, N.C., in a twin-engine Cherokee Warrior, landing on the grass strip beside the shimmering beach, extinguishing the fear of flying I’d developed aboard much safer commercial jets.
He took safety seriously. We delayed flying back if the weather turned. He didn’t take foolish risks. But he inspired reasonable risks.
He encouraged me to keep writing and working part time as a physician, even if it meant it would take us longer to repay student debt. He advised students to ask meaningful questions, not just those considered most likely to get funded. He left letters for our kids urging them to refrain from bitterness or fear because of his fate. Remain open to the vast beauty around you, he told them. Engage. And when your mom meets someone new, as I hope she will, try to be open to him.
I did meet someone new a few years ago and had to let go in a host of unexpected ways. My partner has four children, two younger than mine, and two former wives. His children have lost not a parent but something potentially more destabilizing: their faith in the possibility of deep love.
The oldest is cynical about the odds of any relationship lasting. His 9-year-old half brother keeps his parents’ wedding photo on his desk and refers to his mother’s live-in partner as his aunt, even though the relationship has been explained to him. Some children carry into adulthood the fervent wish that their divorced parents will somehow reunite, poisoning their ability to find joy in the actual relationships that surround them.
My partner recognizes the difficulties. Early in our relationship, he questioned why I would take on the baggage of his past life, baggage he has often wished he could jettison. Not the children, of course, but the painful dynamics of the adults around them.
My husband used to say, “If it was easy, it would be done.”
Driving my Alfa Romeo reminds me that difficulty, per se, has never stopped me from pursuing something I think has true worth. Driving, I’m reminded that I, too, can shift gears, face risk, handle inconvenience — and survive tragedy. I re-experience the joy in all my senses: touch, smell, taste, hearing and not exclusively vision, as dictated by our increasingly virtual world.
I am forced to disengage: I can’t return calls, eat lunch and drive to the office all at once. Without anti-lock brakes, I scan the road ahead more mindfully. The car may look zippy, but any soccer mom in a sealed, air-conditioned six-cylinder Land Rover can easily overtake me.
It’s not the speed but the journey, I tell myself. I continue to write, even if my day job means it takes me half a decade to finish a book. And my partner and I press onward, doing our work individually and together to address the losses we’ve had, to build something together that is strong enough to withstand both nostalgia and anger.
As I consult various people on whether to sell the car, it becomes a litmus test. My in-laws say simplify: “You have so much to manage!” My kids are sad but accepting: They’re moving around the country now with college, internships and jobs, and although they love the car, they are a little afraid to sit in the driver’s seat. To be reminded of too much, and perhaps, to be compared.
My partner, eyes misting, says: “You love that car. And your husband was an extraordinary man.”
He says, “I feel so lucky that we’re together, and so sad that you two couldn’t be.”
He says: “Keep fixing it. I’ll drive it with you anytime.”
Maybe the trick is knowing when to let go, and when to hang on.