I bought my nifty green Prius last September. I learned last March that I bought the car two weeks before the federal tax rebate for buying hybrids expired. I received only a partial credit, because the quota for Priuses on the road was reached sometime in late 2007. The tax credit was created to encourage Americans to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, but various pressures, anticipated and unanticipated, have worked to make the Prius one of the most ubiquitous cars on the road today. Not only that, but man, you sure see a lot of them on the road.
I bought a Prius for two reasons: I needed reliable wheels (20% of my motivation) and I wanted a brand-new car with lots of bells and whistles that reminded me of Katie (80%). When we bought our Focus in 2006, we briefly looked at Priuses and hybrid Civics, before deciding that they were too expensive, and that the gas mileage trade-off was not significant enough to justify the sticker price differential. In Romania, we used to talk regularly about buying a Prius, as part of a general plan to eventually settle in or near Chicago. I don’t know that we would have actually ever done that. As Judy noted last summer, Katie and I eventually always found a reason to get on the road and move to a new place.
I like the idea of myself as someone who has the freedom to always uproot and relocate, while keeping strong ties in a couple of places. At the same time, much of my identity is wrapped up in traditional ideas of domesticity—settling down, settling in, growing old—that, in theory at least, have always seemed more attractive than being on the move. Any time I hear Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Our House,” I think of this mix that I made Katie right before she went to Romania for her (then) internship. The mix included a series of songs that I imagined would make the soundtrack of happy Miami domesticity among so much Eastern European relocation. If we never quite got to a place where either of us said “mortgage” or “babies” with much comfort, it was at least part of how we thought about ourselves, individually and together.
Some street toughs stole my wallet and CDs out of the Prius last night. It was in the driveway, I left the doors unlocked, so I left myself exposed. Four other neighbor's cars had items stolen from them, too, including laptops, iPods, and cell phones. Mostly, it’s just a major inconvenience to not have my Cubs wallet-and-money-clip, which is of significant sentimental value. Katie bought it for me in December 2006, as a shout-out to the Cubs and because it is easier to carry Romanian lei (each bill is a different size) with a clip rather than inside of a bi-fold. I want to work up a head of steam about the injustice done to me in Katie’s memory, and the awful timing, but self-pity is self-pity, no matter how you cut it. These things happen, and much worse is happening everywhere, all of the time.
I have been thinking about the night of Katie’s death regularly these last couple of weeks, and feeling no small amount of anxiety about her death anniversary, June 23rd. Katie’s death puts in perspective that old adage about the things you can control and the things you can’t—which is ironic, as Katie absolutely hated The Serenity Prayer. As a second grader, someone bought me a plaque of this prayer, which I have hung up in my various living spaces, before taking it down upon our moving into the apartment in Uptown in 2003. I’m still not sure that I really believe there are things you cannot change. It’s the hardest part of the night of Katie’s death, to think that the whole situation was helpless and hopeless, that there wasn’t something, still, that, had I acted differently, I could have done to change things. This thought runs over and over in my mind, as I replay that evening, and whatever the circumstance, however I categorize it—control freak, obsession, typical grief reaction—it’s a challenge.
I found, in the Romania boxes, a series of postcards that Katie had written from Busteni, and then never mailed, when she visited that same mountaintop in May 2006. It was the beginning of her internship, and I remember talking with her after the trip—her first away from Bucharest—and how she said that we would never need to go back to that city, because it was desolate and unattractive. Last June 23rd, it was neither. The mountainside was in full bloom, after a long thunderstorm. We crossed waterfalls, rope bridges, and patches of fresh berries. There was even a stretch of rock, toward the top, that required us to climb hand over hand with these harnesses. Not dramatic climbing, but exhausting. I remember feeling, at that moment, in addition to intense pain in my arthritic toes, a kind of exhausted wonderment at the long haul up, that we were each separated, one by one, in our various efforts, but also bound by the collective experience of that day.
For me, the experience of grief is pretty much that day’s hike. Absurd and unsatisfying questions, the wrong questions, run through my mind constantly, as do some immediate and equally unsatisfying answers. Am I going to make it? (Sure looks like it—you were just playing Mario Kart with Chase an hour ago.) Why does it hurt so much? (It would suck more if it didn’t.) What does it all mean? (Why does it have to mean anything? How does a can opener work?) Then, the things you can ask people for don’t really do much to help with the central challenge of just withstanding and trusting that it will probably get better in a while. Ask someone for water, get a fresh pair of socks, put on some sun screen, take a rest—but ultimately, you gotta keep going up and no one can really help you do that (and, hey, no one’s going to carry a 6’6”, 250lb. man very far). Your feet hurt because you have arthritis, and anyway feet hurt when you hike. Everything makes a kind of logical sense, but intuitively is incredibly unsatisfying. The best that friends and family can offer is support, patience, and just a really wide margin of error—all of which I really need at the moment.
I read once where grief is a marathon, you gotta train for it and train for it, and then it still kicks your ass. That seems about right. I was going back and forth on whether to say something to the police officer this morning about the wallet. We were talking about my Barack Obama bumper sticker; he was a political science major in college, and a fellow election buff, and we got to talking about who his union would end up endorsing and why (“Man, this is Carmel. They’ll back McCain!”). It was enough of a connection that I felt okay mentioning that the wallet had sentimental value, that Katie had given it to me, and that if it turns up it would mean a lot to get it back, in whatever condition. He said they’d do their best, and mentioned that, in all likelihood, the kids who were stealing stuff out of cars had probably dumped the wallet elsewhere in the yard or neighborhood—that my best bet to recover it was just to do a careful search of the surrounding area, which Chloe and Beth immediately offered to do, while I left, already an hour late, to teach my last full week of classes at IUPUI.