Woman driving car for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale
New Perspectives

A Car for Our Future

When we bought the car, I wasn’t sure if I liked it. I was pregnant with Austin and I wasn’t comfortable behind the steering wheel and it was so much bigger than our previous car. But we were becoming a family of four, and we just didn’t fit easily in the other car. Or at least both carseats didn’t.

And so we bought a Mazda with a third row, a car big enough to fit three car seats when the time came, a car that brought both of our boys home from the hospital, a car that took us to Canada and camping and to a zillion soccer games.

It was also the car I drove to the hospital, day after day, as Shawn was undergoing treatment. It was the car he last rode in when I drove him to the hospital to die. It was the car my dad drove when we went out to the cemetery to bury Shawn that terrible day in January.

It was the car where I cried big, fat tears after almost every therapy session, the one where I screamed “FUCK!” over and over when I couldn’t do it anywhere else. It was the car where I sat with my head on the steering wheel before class every day that first year of widowhood, willing myself to go inside my school.

It was the car where I did a lot of the swiping left and right for my online dating, so the kids wouldn’t see, and the car that I drove when I first took my kids to fun places as a single mom. It was the car where I blared music with Claire one day in the spring of 2019, singing at the top of my lungs with her and willing myself to be happy. That day, it worked.

It was the car that I used to pick up Chris from the airport, before we were dating, and he was just my friend. It was the car that we drove to Maine multiple times, the only place we went during the pandemic with the kids. It was the car where we ate pizza in the back and drove to hikes around town and picked up kids from camp.

It was over a decade old when things really started to go downhill. Windows that wouldn’t roll down and seats that were impossible to sit in. Shaking when we drove too fast. Mirrors and handles that were falling off. I wasn’t a crazy driver, but this car had held a lot of life over the years.

To fix it all was more than the car was worth. It was time for something new.

I stalled throughout the fall and winter. But when it was clear that we couldn’t use the third row at all, I decided I’d had it. Finally, one day in December, we drove out to the car dealership and picked out a new car. We actually realized that without car seats (and just a booster for Tommy) we didn’t need a big car, so we got something a lot smaller.

No longer did we need to cart around a stroller and a pack-n-play and a million other things. No longer did I need to fit a bike in the back, as Chris will put a bike rack behind the car. And the kids? Claire is big enough for the front seat now.

The car fit our future.

After talking with the salesman, we sat down with the finance manager who seemed concerned as he looked at the title to our old Mazda, which we were trading in.

He asked us about Shawn’s name on the title, and I explained that he died, but that I had all the paperwork showing I was the owner. I stepped out to call my dad to get him to text us some photos of the documents needed. Before I left, I joked with the finance manager, “see, my husband Chris is never allowed to die, so this won’t happen to me again!”

When I was gone, Chris smiled and said to the finance manager, “The moral of the story is this – don’t let your spouse die!”

The finance manager deadpanned and said, “No, the moral of the story is that you need to make sure you have all your paperwork in order.”

Touche.

So I brought back all the images of the paperwork and we printed them out and I smiled under my mask to the finance manager.

But he didn’t smile back. “This doesn’t work,” he said and went on to explain that he needed Shawn’s name off of the title, and the only way to do that was to go to the DMV.

Ah, the DMV – every widow’s favorite place!

A few days later, I headed to the DMV with my big blue folder. I guess every widow has one – it’s a folder with the death certificate and social security cards and loan documents and insurance papers and it’s always at least an inch thick. I figured I’d just bring everything.

The DMV was…the DMV. It had been a while, so I forgot how they play these cartoon videos to everyone who is waiting. There seemed to be a real push for organ donation when I was there, so I got to watch a video over and over again that answered questions like, “can a doctor harvest my organs when I’m in a coma?” with cartoon images of a comatose person in a hospital bed.

Ummmmm. Not really what I needed. I tried to turn away from the video, but the poster on the wall was an informational sign about how you “can have an open casket funeral even with organ donation!”

I mean, I’m all for organ donation. But I was also extra sensitive about everything, and all this made my head spin. I was just trying to sell my car, the one I bought with my dead husband! The one with all the memories! The one I drove him to the hospital, remember, the day before he died?

But no one at the DMV cared. Eventually, I was called to the front, and I spread out all the paperwork for the DMV worker. He was kind as I explained the issue. No, he didn’t really know what to do. He needed to get his manager. And then the manager said that no, I didn’t have the right documents. I needed to get the original loan documents, the ones also in Shawn’s name.

And since we paid off the car loan before he died, I had no idea even what bank I needed to call!

I left the DMV, annoyed.

The next part of the story is so long and boring I won’t recount it to you but it involved multiple trips to the bank (I figured out the right one) and calls to the bank and finally getting the right person on the phone at the bank who listened to my story and then told me that she too was a widow (!) and was going to get this all figured out for me. Which she did, after a lot of work by both of us.

That night, I was exhausted. I was trying to figure out why. Yes, it had been a long day, but really, I have long days all the time at school or at home. But this felt different. I realized that I was feeling really emotional about letting the Mazda go. I mean, it is a terrible car, and I didn’t want to drive it anymore, but there was so much history in that car. So much of my life – a lot of it bad but a lot of it good, too.

And a new car wouldn’t have any of that. It would just have the future. I’m so excited about the future but I guess it’s also hard to say goodbye to everything in the past.

The thing is, I don’t want to go backwards. I want the life that I have now. And yet – it tugs at my heart, this experience of letting my shitty car go.

Ultimately, I got all the paperwork in order and the Mazda became someone else’s car. Or maybe it went to the scrap pile. At this point, I don’t know. I just had to let it go.

A few days later, I drove around in my new, smaller, sage green car. Claire sat in the passenger seat, playing the role of DJ and dancing. Then we sang along to the song, and I couldn’t help but smile.

Someday, she’ll learn to drive in that car.

It’s a car for our future.

13 Comments

  • Sam

    Recently widowed here… This story resonates as I visualize my life after his death as me being in the driver’s seat seat of a car, looking through the windshield at the future and glancing through the rear-view mirror as the past. I drive by the things I need to accomplish (visiting that farmer’s market in Baltimore without him, signing my name only on the refinanced mortgage papers, learning to do taxes and unclog a sink pipe…). And of course, the car itself contains too many memories to count.

    Thank you for sharing your story and your insights. They are invaluable and relatable, especially to another 40-something widow in the DMV.

    • M Brimley

      And thank you for sharing yours! Yes, cars have so many memories, and so much symbolism. I like the idea of looking both forward and backward.

  • Theresa Monroe

    Out of curiosity – could you provide a little bit more detail about what is needed at the DMV…I will be selling a car soon that has both my deceased husband and mine name on it. It is paid off.

    • M Brimley

      Sure – here’s what I know. It showed on my car title that the loan had been paid off, so I thought that was enough. But I needed the accompanying letter from the bank saying it was paid off. The bank will send this to you (you have to know what bank it is that you got the original loan at!) but it usually takes phone calls and emails and then a few days. Then you also need the death certificate, your driver’s license, the old car title. I *think* that’s it, but don’t quote me on it….the DMV is always confusing to me!

  • K

    Thank you for sharing your Car and DMV story. I still have my husband’s car in addition to mine as I have an older kid who will drive it once licensed. I remember making that decision after my husband died. I was really in the paralysis stage of grief not wanting to change anything and just knocking things off that incredibly long list of really rotten tasks that newly widowed women have to do.

    As I look back I realize there were two caring people, a clerk at the DMV and my accountant’s assistant who provided who helped most o push me through this tough process. The assistant was able to look up what paperwork I needed to have with me at the DMV to get both car’s titles in my name only. The DMV clerk was professional in his efficiency and looking past my unkept, tearful self.

    It took me a year to finally get this task checked off the list because I just couldn’t face it – my husband was good at the whole method of getting a new car and liked sparing me all of the hassle so that once he and I decided which car we wanted I check out of the scene with our young kids and he would take care of all of it. Hence, both cars were in his name only. Once I made it to the DMV with my legal size manilla folder and approached the desk, I was very brusque barely able to answer the questions of the young 20-something man who I thought didn’t deserve dealing with someone like me. I can still remember how quickly he processed and printed out all that was needed, talking to a supervisor once to make sure he had it all correct. At the end he even offered his sincere condolences which didn’t make it easier at the time but certainly does now as I recall the whole experience. It’s the strangest things that comfort you as time goes by. Memories of a car that smelled like your husband, the special key cover he used, the tire gauges in the center console, the wonderful trips experienced together. It is just a car and at the same time a keeper of some very sacred moments.

    • M Brimley

      I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. It’s all so hard, even without all the other stuff we have to do afterwards!

      It is amazing how the kindness of others will stay with you…and how it sometimes can come from the most surprising of people! I, too, had really nice people at the DMV this time around, and honestly, I bet they hear a lot of terrible stories there. Actually, now that I’m writing that, “grief and the DMV” would be an amazing blog post. Not sure how they’d let me in there to interview folks, but wow, I bet they have stories to tell.

  • Melissa

    After reading what you had to go through to get your car put in your name, I feel very fortunate that I was spared that. (Although there were many, many other glitches and difficulties that took the place of that when I became a widow.)

    When we bought my car about 12 years ago, my husband’s name was on the car title as the owner, but on the back of the title there was a spot to add my name as co-owner. Underneath where we both signed, it says in the event of the death of one of us, the other would have right of survivorship for the vehicle. This was also done when we purchased his truck and it made it so much easier when I later transferred ownership to my grandson so he would have a car to drive to college. My husband had already been planning to do that before he died and I know he would be glad his truck was being put to good use.

    This post is so valuable because it points out the things we never even thought about before we became widows can have such a huge impact even years later.

    • M Brimley

      It’s amazing how these sorts of things can come up even years later! And I’m not even done – Shawn still pays the water bill and his name is still on my Spotify account, and that’s just what I can remember at this moment.

  • Linda

    While many of your stories resonate with me, I must admit that the technically most difficult issues I faced after my husband died unexpectedly on October 24, 2020 while we were celebrating his upcoming 65th birthday had to do with the (RMV) registry of motor vehicles. It’s as if death doesn’t happen with these people and banks!! I had to bring in the title – well the banks held the titles on the cars and they wouldn’t give me a replica or a certified paper saying that they held the titles. The RMV person said – why not just pay off the cars? Oh my God!!! Now, I am in a fortunate place to do that and I actually gave up on the principal of the thing and did pay them off, but how entitled????? Most people are not in a position to do that – for heaven’s sake right after being widowed? My car was in both of our names and his car was just in his name. I later learned that if I had not dealt with the title nonsense that when my car would be up to be reregistered in just a few months that I would not have been able to reregister my car since the RMV would have figured out that he was dead and the title would not have been “correct.” Well, I did write letters to both banks, the head of the RMV, the governor – only heard back a form note from one of the banks. There has got to be an easier way to transfer a car between a deceased and a living spouse!!! We can send robots to Mars…..My husband and I married at 18 & 20, lived around the country, put each other through college/s, raised two amazing daughters and survived some hard times with lots of love. I feel grateful for what we had, but I so miss my soul mate. I am so glad that you have found happiness again. I’m now 63 and I see a potentially 20+ more years of life – looks bleak now. The loneliness is profound. I’m a teacher too and try to stay busy…..

    • M Brimley

      Ugh – it is so hard! Not just the stuff with registering cars, but the “figuring out how to do life alone” stuff. It’s brutal. But there is life ahead….GOOD life. I promise. You will get there, even if you aren’t there right now. Teaching helped me, honestly, as (along with my own children) it gave me a reason to pull myself together each day, which honestly helped my healing. Hang in there.

  • Kay

    It’s interesting what becomes hard to let go of, even if it’s the right thing. For me it was dishes. The dishes were so busted up and they needed to be replaced. I didn’t even really like them anymore! But it was the dishes we used, when there was a “we”. And there were enough of them to host the dinner parties we (really, he) threw, that I don’t do anymore. It surprised me that it was emotional to pick out plates until I let myself feel my feelings and then it wasn’t about plates at all. Congrats on the new car!

    • M Brimley

      I totally get this. I also had a hard time with the dishes – I needed to let them go even before Shawn died, but afterwards, I was like, “can I get rid of these?” It’s so strange to feel all of these feelings because of course we know it’s not about the plates or the cars or whatever. Thanks for sharing your story.

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