Newman's Notions | January 24, 2024 | FREE
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The palliative car consult

A conversation with an expert helps a family make a big decision.

Minnie is a member of the family. She joined it the day the Smiths discovered they were going to have a child. She was their first real adult vehicle, after a collection of used wrecks with floorboard holes and rusty sports cars with wonky air conditioners. A minivan, who'd a thunk it? Soon they were driving home from the hospital with a baby firmly strapped into the clean, spacious back seat. Over the next few years Minnie hauled diaper bags and strollers, then swim bags, coolers, and kids from the soccer team wherever they needed to go. All three children eventually passed their drivers' tests with Minnie's assistance.

Illustration by David Rosenman
Illustration by David Rosenman

Now it's been over 20 years and 200,000 miles since the new car smell was replaced by the rank aroma of wet sneakers, road-trip emesis, and aged French fries. There have been a variety of fender benders and flat tires. The radio broke somewhere along the way, stuck permanently to play only the local public radio station. Major problems were covered by the extended warranty the first 10 years, but in the last few, the cost of maintenance and the frequency of repairs have been increasing. Minnie is burning oil and belching smoke from the tailpipe, but she's still a member of the family and it's hard for the Smiths to imagine life without her.

One morning, Minnie is unresponsive to anyone's efforts to start her. A jolt of electricity from jumper cables eventually gets her going, but the Smiths feel a sense of dread as they leave her with their mechanic, Mike.

The next afternoon, Mike calls. Minnie's battery needs to be replaced, and that's the least of it. The alternator, whatever that is, has to go, and one of her valves is not opening properly, and there is a leakage issue. There is a lot of automotive terminology, and the list of potential repairs is confusing to the Smiths. Mike says he could patch her up, but it's uncertain how successful it will be and definitely not a permanent fix. Something else is sure to go wrong at her mileage. Mike asks for a decision, but it's a lot to process, and the Smiths aren't sure what to do.

Mike suggests that he have his new colleague take a look at Minnie and see what she thinks. Later that day, Mr. and Mrs. Smith sit in the waiting room, and the new mechanic comes out to talk to them. She takes her time and sits down after she introduces herself. She asks about the family and their history of good times in the van.

Then she details all the problems, the potential repairs, and the chances of a successful outcome, in the short term and the long term. She invites questions, like what an alternator actually is, what a valve does, and more, allowing the Smiths to think through the family's goals of car.

They could get a new car, of course. Maybe even a convertible, now that the kids are grown. They talk about driving down a country road on a sunny day, wind flowing through their hair. It's been a dream for years.

But the Smiths know this is about more than just the car. It's about how they see themselves, and their lives. And what would Minnie want if she were sentient? Would she want to keep on driving?

In the end, the choice is clear. They'll make the immediate smaller repairs Minnie requires, take her home, and keep on driving, although maybe not on a long road trip. And when Minnie inevitably expires, the Smiths will do what seems most fitting, hoping that as a donation to the public radio station's fundraising auction, her parts can help others keep moving.