As I was careening and swerving around cars too rude to go fast enough for me, I realized that the biggest insubstantial fights I had with Billy were about my driving. I've always approach driving as if it were one long, interactive video game. The goal is to get there first. Being a worse passenger than driver, I always insisted we take my car. And Billy would yell, "Slow down! I'm scared!" but that couldn't come close to squelching my impulse to win. "Don't worry, honey, I'm not going to hurt my precious cargo," I'd jokingly retort and reach for his hand. When Bob was in the back seat with us, he'd be scooted from side to side lacking the inertia to settle down and rest. "Stop knocking Bob around!"
After one particularly rancorous travel experience and the dust from the road had settled, Billy explained something to me that resonated.
"My biggest fear is getting killed in a car crash," his look made me believe him, "Ever since Charlie got killed."
Billy was the youngest of five kids. When he was eight, his big brother Charlie was in a car that got stuck on the train tracks and was broadsided by an oncoming locomotive. He died instantly. Charlie was fourteen. Charlie's picture was always a fixture in our home on top of the upstairs TV, in a nice gilded frame. Billy idolized Charlie and often thought aloud what different turns his life may have taken had Charlie not been killed. Maybe he wouldn't have joined the Navy, a teen-aged decision he always second-guessed.
His next oldest brother, Bub is a no-account good-for-nothin'. When Billy was fifteen, he saved enough money for his class' field trip to Florida by working at the local IGA as a bag boy. He saved up three hundred dollars over the course of two years. A week before the trip, Bub had discovered Billy's cash stash and stole the all of his money. Billy went on his trip after borrowing a little from his best friend Jay and scrimping the whole way. One of his older sisters, Debbie was even worse to him but we'll get to that another day.
But last night as my pedal was to the metal, I thought of Billy holding on to the side bar, bracing himself against the dashboard and generally sweating through any car trip we took. I'd get lectures on how bad it is for my brakes or the terrible gas mileage from sudden acceleration or simply he was afraid. It was a conversation we had at least three hundred times. Did that stop me from driving fast? No. I would just reach over, take his hand and condescendingly say, "Don't worry, honey, I've never had an accident before. You're my precious cargo!"
A little over a month before Billy passed away, I was almost killed in a head-on collision on the freeway. I was by myself at the time after giving some friends a ride to their work. After I swerved just at the right moment to avoid the disaster and I caught my breath, I called Billy. I explained what had just happened and told him it wasn't my fault. Really. It wasn't.
"Don't scare me like that! I don't want to lose my precious cargo!" he echoed my words, I'm certain with a relieved smile on his face.