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The Titanic

by Liz O’Hara

The day I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I bought a 1985, 735i, five-speed BMW, the Humvee of worn out sedans. That morning, my surgeon had been scribbling the nitty gritty of my situation on the exam table's tissue-paper sheet. She might as well have been playing me a game of Hangman; her notes swam before my eyes.

In shock, the only question I could think to ask was whether I should buy this car or not. She said go for it.

I'd had my eye on the car for a while, and I was so sure my lump would prove benign I'd planned the purchase as a celebration. Now, it was the talisman of my future. The allure of power everything -- windows, sunroof, seats, mirrors and God knows, maybe ashtrays -- seduced. The protection of several tons of car metal between me and the world calmed. I was in for a long tour of treatment, and this car would get me through it all. It was my yang mobile, my knight in bronze armor, my bodyguard.

Like other men before it, I chose to forgive its early indiscretions because I was still fantasizing about how good I looked behind the wheel. Then the power door locks froze and with it the driver's side door. Surgery had affected my left side, and now I was straddling the gear shift and clambering over to the drivers seat, a maneuver not very therapeutic on a fresh axillary lymph node dissection. I took my knight to the mechanic, who sort of fixed it. From then on, to unlock the car I had to stick the key in the trunk lock. There was something vaguely rectal about this invention and I confess I lost some respect for my Bavarian bodyguard.

I gave the BMW a nickname. I called him the Titanic because he plied the road like an ocean liner and was starting to seem like a loser.

The Titanic ferried me to four rounds of chemo and 33 nukes of radiation. It cruised the streets of my Oakland, California, hometown, getting me to and from work and launching me onto a dozen adventures with a whole crew of alternative therapists, from my acupuncturist to my African healer. Together we navigated my cancer treatment full steam ahead. After many months, we both started to list.

I couldn't wait for the weekend yoga retreat at the Russian River. It was organized by the divine Barbara Voinar, who taught a special class for women encountering cancer, every Monday, free of charge, at a local yoga studio.

That Friday in August was the smoggiest, hottest day of the year, and I administered a couple of quarts of oil to the Titanic and took him through the car wash in honor of the drive ahead. I left work at noon, stopped for snacks and drinks and detoured to the music store to get some easy listening. I wore a long, cool, turquoise-blue linen shift. I hit headed toward the San Rafael Bridge, desperate to get out of town, to feel the wind on my bald scalp.

We joined a jillion other deluded drivers, all gridlocked in the bottleneck just outside of San Rafael. Traffic was diabolical. The heat and car exhaust cooked up a gluey mirage, blurring the horizon into glare and red taillights, and melting the pavement into an oily slick like mercury from a broken thermometer. For a while, all the drivers in my quadrant looked calm and air conditioned, their windows rolled up against the elements. But I sensed that this was about to change.

It was a delicate sounding "pop," but it unleashed a torrent of steam both inside and outside the Titanic when the radiator blew. Stinking of coolant, the car was suddenly a Turkish bath inside. How peculiar, I thought, that there should be steam inside the car, hissing out the vents like Yellowstone. Switching on the wipers, the outer windshield cleared briefly and I could see, gushing out of the hood, a geyser of steam that could have sold tickets.

Mercifully, traffic was barely moving, and I tried to feel my way off to the shoulder as I couldn't see the nose on my face, let alone the pavement. The next thing I heard was a crunch where I'd wobbled back into a lane of traffic and fender bended somebody.

Inside, the steam cleared enough for me to steer to the shoulder and shut off the engine. I opened the car door and lurched out, coughing, enveloped in a noxious cloud like I'd just reentered Earth's atmosphere.

The guy I'd hit had already pulled over and was coming toward me. He must have seen by the look on my face that my car's meltdown was just a preview of what I might do if pressed. He got back in his car and slunk off.

Feeling extraterrestrial, standing there on shoulder of the two lane highway, I stared balefully at the drivers inching by. Almost all made the universal hand sign meaning, "do you want me to make a cell phone call," thumb at ear and little finger at mouth. A heartwarming but futile gesture, as it was plain it would take Triple A the rest of the weekend to get through traffic to me.

I gave up on making it to the yoga retreat. I gave up on entertaining passersby with my beseeching demeanor. I gave up on pushing myself through the sinking ship of my life. Maybe I kicked the Titanic. And then, suddenly, I became calm, and I knew things would turn out okay. Whatever the day's outcome, I knew that what mattered was that I nurture tender feelings in my mind and heart where before there had been aggravation and self doubt.

The smog was so bad that it took a while for me to believe my eyes. Off in the distance, lumbering along the shoulder coming my way, was the biggest, shiniest, whitest tow truck I had ever seen. It was the size of... well ... an ocean liner. It pulled up behind me and the driver's door opened. Out hopped my true knight, whom I'll call Clarence the Angel, with missing teeth, a three-day stubble and a pack of Chesterfield's rolled in the sleeve of his tee-shirt.

"Be needin' some help?" he asked.

"Waaaah," I replied.

"Glub glub," gurgled the Titanic.

"Hop up," he said, "while I get you out of here."

I climbed up, up, up into the cab of his shining tow truck and surveyed the blue, blue skies above the smog line. In mere minutes Clarence was parting the traffic and ushering the Titanic to a mechanic near by. He told me he worked for Caltrans Towing and that he was on his way to work when he got the radio call about my predicament. A Good Samaritan must have called the Highway Patrol. Clarence said my call put him on the time clock, a good thing as he was running late that day.

The mechanic said they could get the Titanic fixed by Sunday and I could pick the car up on my way home. Clarence gave me a receipt for the free tow, and then he was gone. I may still have the receipt, but I'm not convinced there really is a Caltrans Towing Service. I'd rather think of Clarence as a bona fide angel. I have never before or since seen another one of those trucks.

Within the hour I was in a rental car on my way to the yoga retreat. I arrived at dusk, and Barbara came down to the parking area and helped me carry my things to my room. The retreat house was surrounded by lush fruit trees and cool, green redwoods. There was birdsong and the good smells of dinner being served.

I told and retold my story of the miracle of the tow truck. A woman said, "I drove past you back there! I remember thinking, ‘that's a nice dress she has on.'"

"Sometimes you just have to push through obstacles," Barbara said.

True, I thought, and other times you just have to let go.

"Titanic" was previously published in Skirt Magazine (2002), Survivor's Magazine, Stanford University (2002), Under Our Skin Anthology, Michigan University Ohio (2006).

Elizabeth O'Hara was born and raised in Oakland, California. She attended UC Davis and San Francisco State University in Journalism and has written extensively for and about architects and architecture since 1980. Her personal essays are included in a volume entitled "Wings, Stories from my 50th Year" (2002). She has been cancer free since completion of treatment in 1998.