Thursday, January 31, 2013

Burn, Suby, Burn

It has been a rough year for my family, with health scares, a house fire, tragic deaths, unexpected major expenses and countless other personal tragedies big and small. They seem to come regularly, just about the time I'm settling into feeling normal and thinking the worst is behind me. And then my car catches on fire.

For sale, as-is.
I've always been a little down on my Subaru. I liked driving our previous Subaru, a snappy red Outback nicknamed Ruby Suby. But Ruby was old and unreliable, and the new Outback we found was much better in every way but one: it was white. My mother had driven a white station wagon when we were kids and I wasn't thrilled to be saddled with a mom-mobile. It quickly earned the name Moby Suby, my white whale. It was a good car, though, and I got used to it. At least it wasn't a minivan.

And then yesterday. I had just exited the winding mountain Highway 17 when I noticed some white exhaust behind my car. Not much, but I knew something was wrong. The power steering started to give out as I scanned the dashboard - no oil light, engine temperature normal. I drove along slowly, hoping I could make the 3/4 mile ride home. The smoking continued so I pulled over into a driveway, wondering if I should go on, when a car coming the opposite direction stopped. I wondered why - there wasn't that much smoke. They drove away, and I decided to keep going. Suddenly brown smoke began pouring from the engine. Another car stopped, and the driver yelled out that the car was on fire. I pulled onto the shoulder - luckily there was one here, and it was asphalt. I jumped out and unbuckled Adele, placed her on the hillside and told her stay put. I turned back to grab Lucas, who had already unbuckled himself and jumped right into my arms. The man who had stopped was now dropping road flares and told me to move further away from the car. By now flames were visible under the front of the car and the smoke was dark brown and gray. I began walking down the road and called 911. A fire unit was on the way, they said. Then an SUV pulled up and I saw it was my friend Jayme. We've known each other for 8 years, long before either of us lived in the mountains, and now she lives just down the road. It was a relief, and I started crying. We got into her car and she drove a bit away to a safe spot.

Nothing to do but smile.
The fire unit took a while to arrive. Moby Suby's engine was engulfed in flames as the hood melted away. I worried the hillside might catch fire. The windshield shattered and black smoke poured into the car. I already held no hope that the car would be saved, but now I also knew everything inside would be lost as well. We were all safe though. The kids were watching a DVD in the backseat. After what seemed an eternity the fire truck arrived and it was all over. I had Jayme take the kids to her house while I waited for Philip and the CHP to arrive. Her husband Denzil came by to keep me company on the side of the road. Eventually the wrecker arrived to scrape our car off the melted asphalt and haul it away and that was that.

I have been focusing rather deliberately on the silver linings. No one was hurt. It didn't happen on the fast and shoulderless highway. I did not start a forest fire. Jayme just happened to drive by so I was not alone. And best of all, a nice discovery: I'm pretty cool under pressure. I didn't panic. I knew that despite the scary smoke and flames that engines do not immediately explode, so I was able to calmly get the kids out. They are curious about the situation but not scared or scarred by it at all. I'm shaken now but at the time I held it together fairly well.

I've managed to do this before. When Lucas' forehead was split open on the playground, my brain clicked into a practical mode and reminded me that faces bleed a lot and he was going to be just fine. When Adele began choking on a piece of plastic confetti (a week later, in the exact same spot) I did all the proper Heimlich steps that people around me were instructing, my brain calmly repeating that she as long as she was still breathing she would be just fine. These scary moments pass and I'm left with a good story. Maybe if I were in a truly hopeless situation - trapped somehow or unable to determine what to do next - I would freak out. But so far I've been pretty damn good at moving through frightening moments.

Moby Suby in better times.
There is part of me that finds it easier to deal with sudden tragic events than the everyday business of life. Getting through a day of school pick-up and errands to run, laundry to fold and dinner to make, rushing home in time for naps and running out the door late again for the next appointment. The endless cycle of activity and my inability to shape any kind of routine around it is a constant source of disappointment and frustration. I can't figure out why my daily life is so hard when it sounds simple. Food, sleep, play, housework. So how do I end each day feeling like a failure?

Yesterday I didn't feel at all like a failure. Tragedy strikes and you act and you cope and you move on. Today I'm already back to dealing with the normal stressful routine of life, the naps and meals and laundry, along with arranging the disposal of Moby Suby's charred remains and researching for this weekend's car buying expedition. A minivan may be in my future after all. It's not the end of the world. Just another day in a life.


  1. You are one of the best moms I know, I can't think WHY you would feel like a failure. How bad a person could you be when even your mother-in-law adores you? LOL Poor Moby Suby. On to the next adventure! :)

  2. I am so glad you and your kiddos are safe and sound. What a story! Imagine how fun it will be to re-tell this one in 50 years over Mint Juleps at a Moms club reunion!!!