IT'S BEEN two weeks now since Silver Shadow - my 2003 Toyota Camry - went on life support. Even in her last moments, she was dignified.
When I took her to three separate mechanics and they each told me that she needed a new engine, I knew I had to let her go. But even as I took her for her last car wash and drove her to the dealer for the trade-in, I was sad.
I held her steering wheel for the last time as she wheezed and leaked antifreeze. Then I got out and took a final glance at her. She looked at me with those big clear headlights and asked a simple question: "Why?"
That last accusing glance has stuck with me even as I've tried to bond with my new ride - a 2013 Camry we've named Quiet Storm. Despite her new-car smell and powerful engine, her big-car looks and gadget-happy display, I'm just not feeling it yet, and I think I know why.
I'm still grieving.
In an attempt to try to get through it, I've begun to study what grief is all about, and I've discovered that grief, like almost everything else in life, has stages.
The first is denial. That's what happened when Silver Shadow's "check engine" light came on, and I told myself that it was nothing - that maybe I hadn't screwed the gas cap on tightly. I lied to myself like an 80-year-old millionaire who thinks that young hottie likes his comb-over. I denied Silver Shadow's terminal illness, and I still regret it today.
The second stage is anger. That's what I felt when I bought Quiet Storm and realized that I'd once again be tied down by a car payment. OK, maybe I was just angry because I'm in my mid-40s and increasingly thrifty. Whatever the reason, I was peeved, and in truth, I'm angry still.
I've told myself that I wouldn't feel so bad if I could just see Silver Shadow one more time. I guess that's the bargaining stage. Unfortunately, mine is a fool's bargain. Why? Because there are so many Silver Shadows still on the road that I see them four or five times a day. And each time I see one, I think it's her, because the headlights look at me - look through me, really - and pose the same question that Silver Shadow asked the last time I saw her: "Why?"
That makes me feel depressed, which happens to be the fourth stage of grief. I'm depressed because I miss those ground-in coffee stains I could never quite get out of her carpet. I miss the way her little dashboard lights would flicker because I was too lazy to replace the fuse.
I miss that unique, old-car smell that comes from raising two kids who've sat in the back seat soiling their diapers and Pull-Ups. Quite simply, I miss Silver Shadow.
But the source of my depression goes deeper, far deeper, than that. I'm depressed because I feel guilty for replacing her, and I've tried to rationalize my actions.
Yes, I got someone younger and prettier as soon as I had the chance to do so, but that doesn't make me a bad guy. Just because I've already washed my new car with the same towels I used for Silver Shadow, I'm not some kind of scoundrel.
Parking my new ride in Silver Shadow's old space even before her old antifreeze stains were dry does not make me a monster. I'm simply a man with needs, and from now on, Quiet Storm will have to fulfill them.
I finally accepted that the other night, when I was on my way back from a book event in Maryland. Oh, sure, the 200 or so readers who watched me smile and laugh my way through an author panel thought everything was fine. On the inside, however, I was like Smokey Robinson, crying the tears of a clown, when there's no one around.
That night when I got behind the wheel of Quiet Storm for the drive back to Philly, I decided I was ready to stop crying. I think Quiet Storm sensed it, because when I allowed my foot to press harder on the gas, I could feel her engine warming to the task. It was almost as if we were one; like she knew what I needed and was anxious to give.
I still miss Silver Shadow, but I can let her go now, because acceptance is the final stage of grief. Besides, it never hurts to have a young hottie who aims to please.