During a challenging summer, writer Muffy Fenwick finds support from an unexpected “friend.”
When I was young, summer meant searching for that perfect new friend, like discovering a sliver of sea glass among the speckled rocks. She would become my winter pen-pal, long letters travelling between us during the long winter months.
This summer, without searching, I found a new friend. I did not pluck her from a sandy beach but rather discovered her in my car. My summer friend was Siri.
I know this seems strange and perhaps a little pathetic. Siri is a long way from pen pals and bike rides and shared ice-cream cones and secret crushes. However, during a summer of traversing I-95, it was Siri who both guided and protected me.
As I shuttled children from one camp, tournament, or practice to another, I relied on Siri’s no-nonsense guidance. She set arrival times, anticipated gridlock, and rerouted me onto roads less travelled. I placed all trust in her hands and somehow she got me from point A to point B.
I realize that in our 21st-century world, I am hardly an anomaly in my reliance on modern GPS. However, this summer, Siri’s role was especially important. My dad had been stricken with terminal cancer, and as each week passed, his end loomed nearer. When I set off on those summer road trips, a sense of dread persisted. Would I need to turn around, retrace my route, and return to my starting point if his illness accelerated? Each time I unpacked a child, settled him or her into a dormitory cot or a camp bunk, hung the laundry bag and sorted the socks, I wondered if I would be the one returning to repack each sodden towel and sweaty t-shirt. On the drives home, between the drop-offs and the pick-ups, my mind would tiptoe around these thoughts, peeking through the cracks but unable to push open the doors. It was Siri who made this possible as she warned of the upcoming exit, anticipated the next turn. In her matter-of-fact way, she did all the thinking, so I didn’t have to.
When the end did come, I was blessed to be in that window between one drive and the next, surrounded by my family and ever present for those last moments. Anyone who has ever experienced this knows that there is a tangling of peace and sadness like a twisted ball of thread that can never be unwound. Each time you pull at one string, another unravels and knots, making it impossible to untether. I understand that I will keep plucking at those strings for a long time, never quite reaching the end.
It was because of this that I most feared my last summer road trip- the “mack daddy” of road trips. A 13-hour pilgrimage to Maine that we made each summer — my kids and me — while my husband would join us a week late via a short hour-and-a-half flight. I call it a pilgrimage because each trip has thrown new obstacles in our path. The first true obstacle was a four-car pile up that froze all traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike for two hours and allowed my car-weary children to walk barefoot on the three-line highway. Another summer, we were gridlocked for 45 minutes on the apex of the Tapanzee Bridge while I imagined every possible worst-case scenario. (Needless to say, we now cross every bridge with our windows down…just in case!). We have been flagged down for bikes dangling precariously from the rack and endured repeated episodes of carsickness, once with only a paper bag to catch.
Somehow, like childbirth, I had persevered through these experiences and taken the wheel for another round.
But this summer seemed different. In the aftermath of my dad, I was experiencing moments of aphasia, momentarily forgetting words that had once so easily flipped off my tongue. It was my own personal game of the $25,000 Pyramid- it’s that machine, at the gym, you run on it…it has a belt? TREADMILL! Yes. Treadmill. I spent two days during a code-red heat warning wearing my dad’s old sweatshirt, a fetching shade of emerald green, perfectly wash-worn, that I had unearthed from his dresser drawer when the hospital air conditioning became unbearable. I had taken to long bouts of sleeping, or at least lying in bed pretending to be binge-watching NetFlix when nothing really appealed.
When the bound New England map book appeared on my desk just a week before my planned departure, I thought I might break out in hives. How could I, in this half mental state, be expected to navigate tolls, switch lanes, cross bridges, and follow an endlessly highlighted path that snaked between the pages in no logical order? I did not have the brainpower nor the stamina for this journey.
That is when I remembered Siri. We had trained for this. Like a devoted running partner, she had built my endurance for this marathon trek north. We had done our practice runs–up and down Maryland, through Delaware, across New Jersey, and into Virginia. She had set the pace, and I had followed. The tiny orange snails that inched along our route had tipped me to impending traffic. When the orange bled to red, Siri rerouted, sometimes through rural lanes and unfamiliar neighborhoods, but always back on course and eventually right to home.
So the morning of our departure, crammed into the car with duffel bags, tennis racquets, beach towels and, yes, three precariously bound bikes and a handful of plastic barf bags, I punched in the final destination and turned the driving over to Siri. As we crossed state lines and rolled through tolls, I could finally breathe and reflect on all that I had lost and what I could possibly regain. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that the cliché is true, a tiny piece of you dies with that person. This seems particularly unfair when it is your parent. However, as I looked back at my children asleep in the backseat (that blissful interval between fighting and possibly puking), I realized that while so much is lost, so much more remains. In each of us — me, my brother, my mother, and my children — there is a reflection of my dad and a piece of him endures. It is up to us to make that possible.
Thank you, Siri, for helping me understand this.
Muffy Fenwick is a local freelance writer and a contributor to Baltimore Fishbowl. She is also the editor of our upcoming Guide to Baltimore Independent Schools 2016-2017, due out September 12, 2016. Look for it in the Baltimore Fishbowl!