A Tribute to a Dear Friend

Keith and I met the spring before I turned seventeen. He was somewhat younger than me—but not by much—but I knew from the moment I first saw him that we were meant to be together. Technically my older sister had first pick of him, but she opted for the sleeker and sportier type, leaving Keith free for me to snatch up.

Now before any weird rumors get started about my how my family works, I think it’s important that I clarify: Keith is not a human. He is, in fact, my car… well, he was my car. Until about last Thursday.

While quite a few people—especially girls, I’ve noticed—do have some kind of name for their vehicle, Keith admittedly is not the most natural appellation for a 2001 maroon Nissan Pathfinder.  I think I got into the habit of referring to my car as Keith because of my love for Irish singer/surfer/songwriter Keith Harkin. In the early days of my driving, it was rare that I didn’t have Keith Harkin playing in the background.  Actually, I think two of his albums still have permanent spots in my 6-CD shuffler, and that’s valuable real estate, considering that the competition is Switchfoot, Disney, Broadway tunes, Celtic Thunder, Michael Buble, and Coldplay.

A year or so after I bought the car, he was officially christened Keith, whether I originally meant to call him that or not. Here’s how it happened: As I was leaving the dorms for the summer after finishing my first year of college, Ashley, one of my crazy college friends, wanted to send me off in style. I think her idea was modeled after that famous image of breaking a bottle of champagne against a ship as it sails away on its maiden voyage. She asked me the name of my car, and I replied, a little noncommittal, “Uh, well I guess I call it Keith, sometimes.” So as I drove away, Ashley yelled, “We bless you Keith!” And with that, she threw a Styrofoam cup half full of fruit slushy at my car.  It bounced off the bumper, splattering a bit of sticky sweet syrup on the back, and henceforth his name was officially Keith.

My roommate told me once that if Keith were a person rather than an SUV, he’d be a tall man in his late 20s/early 30s, with long hair, an easygoing personality, and a love of backpacking. He’d wear Chacos, of course, regardless of the weather, and would probably play guitar.  Human Keith would have tattoos, for sure. There were three stickers on the back window–which my mom joked were basically tattoos for a car: one was the logo of my favorite local coffee shop and sported a 4-legged octopus (quadropus?) with a mustache and a monocle. One was the logo of a hand-woven bracelet company, and the third, of course, said Chaco. I think it’s safe to say that a human manifestation of Keith’s personality would be a bit of a hippie.

Last Thursday, I drove Keith for the last time. I was on my way home from work, in rush hour traffic, listening to music like I do every day. Traffic slowed in front of me, and I hit the breaks. “I’m a fighter, fighting for control,” Jon Foreman bawled from the speakers of my stereo system. And then suddenly I was. The song became reality and I was fighting for control as a truck crashed into me from behind. There was a flash of movement in the rear view mirror, a jolt, a shock, a horrible crunch, and the smell of burnt rubber, and then suddenly I was in the grass, the highway buzzing along behind me.

To my credit, I didn’t scream. In fact, the first (and beautifully eloquent) thought through my mind was: Well that just happened. For a second everything was really quiet, just me sitting in shock. Then in the back of the car, the CD player started to whirr sporadically, as if Jon Foreman was making a valiant effort to try to finish his song but couldn’t quite remember the words.

Eventually, I collected myself enough to turn the car off, get out, and call my mom. The police and tow trucks were already on their way. The other driver and I were both fine, so there’s a lot to be thankful for. But Keith was a casualty, and I knew it the second I walked around the back. If I could describe it in a word, it’s crumpled. Like a first draft about to be tossed in the trash bin. The entire frame of the car was buckled, the tires all askew, the bumper beyond recognition. There was no more back window, or at least I never found it. The only hint that there ever had been a window was the faithful Chaco sticker, which miraculously stayed in one piece and was picked up by a police officer who was sweeping up debris. When the insurance agent asked me over the phone if the car was drivable, I actually almost laughed. Drivable, really?

Every single person I’ve told about the wreck has had the same two things to say about it. 1.) Are you okay? And once that’s answered in the affirmative, 2.) I’m so sorry, I know how much you loved that car.

And it’s true. It was a great car. When I realized I’d have to buy a new car, (after I cried for a little bit) I drafted up a wishlist of all the features my new car needed to have… then I realized I’d basically just described a reincarnation of Keith.

Keith was made for adventure. I’ve trekked a lot of miles with a lot of people in that car. He’s taken me safely to Chicago and back, stayed faithful through four years of college driving (and college students are not known for being exactly easy on their cars), taken spontaneous road trips to nowhere along country roads, camped out for summer drive-in movies, flexed his four-wheel drive power in the snow and ice, transported all my worldly goods back and forth when I’d move to and from school twice a year, and showed off for at least one off-roading adventure in the woods.  Having a car like Keith is what gave me confidence as a driver and as an adult, helped me help my friends move big loads of stuff, and even enabled me to buy the Ellie Sparrow — that’s my kayak, in case you haven’t read my previous posts– and transport her safely strapped to his top.

If cars could talk, Keith would have stories to tell. I’ve talked to myself, pushed the limits of my opera range, plotted my novel with my sister, had heart to hearts with friends, and made long-term life decisions all from that driver’s seat.  One of the funniest things I remember doing in that car was when I was cast in a play where my character was scripted to let out a bloodcurdling scream. I lived in a dorm and had nowhere on campus to practice screaming without the risk of someone calling the police. Solution? I hopped in my car and went for a drive down a lonely highway, just screaming to myself as loud and long as I could.

One of my favorite things to do was put all the seats down in the back, park somewhere nice, and have a picnic in the back of the car. I actually did that on Wednesday night, just me and my car. Of course I didn’t know it was the last day Keith and I would have the chance for a car picnic, but I’m so glad I did it. I read a line in a book once that said “Yesterday remains perfect.” No matter what happened to Keith on Thursday, it can’t taint my car picnic of Wednesday. Or any of the good memories before that.

Thanks for all the great memories, Keith. We had some larks in our day, didn’t we? Of course I’ll miss you, and I hope you’ll forgive me for checking out all the nice CRVs and Xterras I see on the road.  I’ll soon have a shiny new adventure buddy, but no matter what I drive in the future, you’ll always be my first car.

Keith and Ellie
Taken last September on the day we picked up the kayak. Such a great adventure car!

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