The day started well, and then it collapsed into ruin.
I took Adrienne to Robinson, to buy a Christmas present for her father with her allowance. We got there with no trouble. I’m finally almost used to driving there. The mall was lovely. She picked out just the right thing, and bought a soccer ball themed blanket for herself as well.
It wasn’t until we were back in Ohio that something in Serendipity started to go haywire.
First, the brake light and the battery light on the dashboard started to flicker every time I drove over a pot hole. The pot holes in Steubenville are legion, so I had quite the Christmas light display. As I parked at home, Serendipity made a new agonized whine.
I told Adrienne to run in with her bags and wrap Daddy’s present while I drove around the block to see if I could make it whine again, to see if it was only a fluke or a new problem.
I got two blocks before the antilock brake light and the skid light came on, even though the car wasn’t skidding. It did grind to a stop though, going only two miles an hour even when I floored the accelerator. And then it stopped entirely. I was lucky to steer Serendipity into a crooked but parked position by the curb.
I turned off the car, got on Facebook to ask for help, and when I tried the ignition again I got nothing but a noise. I tried several times before the car turned on, and then it would only drive backwards and not forwards. I put it in park, and it started shaking violently.
I started to panic.
It couldn’t be the transmission again. Anything but the transmission.
My first car had a bad transmission and those cost a fortune to fix. I just got Serendipity. I had nothing saved up for a disaster. Less than half of the presents Adrienne asked for had come in the mail from friends; I was going to take the bit of money we had and buy Christmas treats and a few more presents. She wanted a guinea pig themed wall calendar and a page-a-day animal calendar. She wanted soccer shoes and Minecraft-themed decorations for her room. Most of all she wants a second small cage sot that we can get a rescue guinea pig as a companion for McFluff. Now I was sitting in a tin can that wouldn’t even roll home unless I drove it all the way in reverse, feeling that Christmas was ruined.
On social media, everyone was saying “that’s the alternator. All of those problems come from the alternator. The alternator sends electricity to the computer which tells the transmission to shift. It’s a quick fix.” But I didn’t know how to fix it. I didn’t have money for a tow to the mechanic and I was unreasonably panicked that a big tip in my tip jar at the very end of the year would make us owe taxes or lose our Medicaid, which we’re probably losing soon anyway. My OCD started to spiral.
My friend saw my Facebook post and came out and gave the battery a jump, which made it so I could start the car, but it still wouldn’t drive. And then I got out of the car to talk to her and closed the door, and the keyless entry stopped working. I couldn’t get back in. The headlights flickered comically and went out.
We left the car parked two blocks from home. My friend has heated seats in her car, so I warmed up and chatted with her outside my house for half an hour. She’s a very kind person and a therapist by profession. I admitted to her that the OCD and panic is worse this year than it’s been in the longest time. With the situation with the stalker neighbor, and all the news about Franciscan University in town, and the accident in Columbus this fall, I’ve been having surging panic and terrible spiraling thoughts that won’t stop. She told me to picture a big red stop sign whenever I started an OCD spiral, and to get offline and do something else when the urge to google things over and over hits. She’s sending me the number for a doctor who can help as well.
I got psychiatric medication but not therapy when I was first diagnosed with OCD, at Adrienne’s age. This was the first I’d heard of the big red stop sign trick. I closed my eyes and envisioned it, scarlet against a bright blue sky.
The worry spirals faded when I did.
When I got back inside and turned on the computer, my dear friend the Lost Girl who I’ve been helping said it’s got to be the alternator, the same thing happened to her own car recently. She said her uncle could replace it if we could pay for the part and it wasn’t as expensive as I thought, as long as it’s just the alternator. I said I’d pay for gas to get him out to LaBelle and give him Christmas cookies if he could.
I looked at Adrienne’s Christmas list on Amazon, but anything ordered right now arrives after Christmas.
I wondered if someone would try to have my car impounded out of spite. The city ordinance says that they have to wait 72 hours, but sometimes people claim it’s been that long just to be cruel.
We were supposed to go to Pittsburgh to see the Christmas trees at the museum and the conservatory on Wednesday.
We were supposed to go to visit Holly the Witch in Columbus the day after Christmas.
I pictured that big red stop sign again, and took a hot bath.
I played with McFluff and Adrienne upstairs far into the night.
When I woke up, the Lost Girl was trying to call her uncle but he hadn’t answered yet. I have been picturing that big red stop sign every time I panic about what will happen if he can’t come and I have to spring for a tow to the mechanic.
Someone else posted a video for me, demonstrating that a keyless entry fob usually has a secret key inside, though the keyhole might not be easy to find, so I can still open my car and pop the hood, or put it in neutral for a tow truck if I must.
And then the Lost Girl texted me, saying her property manager just called. They won’t let her file a grievance and they’re going ahead with the lease termination over Christmas anyway. The Lost Girl is due with her fifth child in March. Her other children are under the age of eight. They keep asking about Christmas presents. They don’t know they’re liable to be homeless if we don’t work a miracle fast.
Panic rose like vomit in my throat.
I pictured the big red stop sign.
I am picturing it now.
I am also picturing the Holy Family making their way to Bethlehem at the worst possible time, because they had to. The baby coming at the least convenient moment for a baby to arrive. Poor Saint Joseph running to find them help. That Eastern Christian legend I love, the one that says he came back with two midwives at the very last minute. Mary lying on the straw, exhausted. The baby lying in the manger. Shepherds terrified by Heavenly visions on the darkest night of the year. Magi going to the wrong person to try and find the Christ Child, inadvertently causing a massacre.
Everything always goes wrong at the least convenient time, and this, too, is a participation in the Life of Christ.
That’s all I have today.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.