This is my friend Lisa Morgan, the cutie in pink.
Lisa and I have been buddies since our high school band days. We met as freshmen in the marching band. She was the tiniest flutist; I was the klutzy girl drummer. And by the time we were seniors, she was the editor of the yearbook; I was the editor of the newspaper. To say that we’ve been through a lot together is an understatement. Here’s the important part: We’re there for each other in that special way that longtime friends are: through sickness and in health, through death and Porsches.
When my husband Cliff died in 2001, it was Lisa who saw the neatly arranged pieces of a classic Porsche engine on the dining room floor and knew what to do with them. She’s been a car girl since birth, thanks to her father’s and brother’s love of cars. Cliff was in the process of slowly restoring a 1958 Porsche 356A, and he was preparing to reassemble the engine when he died.
Honestly, that day, I didn’t know which was worse: a husband who had died in his handmade Stickley reproduction recliner in the living room, or all the engine parts on the dining room floor. I didn’t know what to do with either one. What I learned was that when big crises happen, angels appear—one in the form of a coroner who so very kindly helped with the husband, and the other in the form of my friend Lisa, who not only named most of the engine parts but also knew what to do with them.
“We’ll take them to Stuart,” she said.
Stuart Morgan is Lisa’s brother, three years younger than we are (and a former trumpet player in the band, by the way), who grew up to be a civilian engineer who works for the Navy in San Diego. Stuart has been tearing things apart and putting them back together since boyhood, and Lisa knew that an old Porsche engine (which is not far from a Volkswagen Bug engine of the same era) was right up his alley. This man tackles gigantic challenges about ships and submarines in his day job; working on cars is great fun for him.
A few months after Cliff died, Lisa and I put all the engine parts in the back of Cliff’s red pickup and drove them to San Diego. Poor Stuart had no idea that he was getting into a long-term relationship with this car and me, but because this is the kind of guy he is, and despite his full-time job and other obligations, he had that engine assembled and running on his workbench in less than a year. And that’s where it’s lived all these years (16 and a half, if you’re counting). The body of the Porsche and all its interior parts have lived in my garage all this time.
I had the idea that I’d find someone to unite engine and body and get the Porsche on the road. A friend, Scott Lorenzo, painted the body a lovely inside-of-banana cream for me. Other people gave me advice, but I never pulled a team together. I always thought Stuart should have the whole car—I figured we were co-parents living in different cities. Earlier this year I said to Stuart, “It’s time. Come get it and take it to your place.” The only reason he hadn’t done so sooner was because he didn’t have a place for the car. Stuart rejiggered some of his four-wheeled friends and one airplane, and we set a date for him to take the 356 home.
Before departure day came, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about all this. I did what I often do: I checked in with Cliff about it. I’ve called him my companion spirit since he died, and he periodically makes appearances—sometimes I smell him when I walk in the house; sometimes I hear him in my head. In the days before Stuart arrived, I was pulling things out of the garage to make room for us to move around, and I said aloud, “This is good, right? It’s time.” And I got nothing. “Clifford?” I tried. Zilch.
I hate when I can’t reach him. I’ve never learned the area code for heaven.
I figured it had to be OK. I was finally ready to let this car go. On the appointed day my partner Dick showed up ready to help and (as he so kindly does) to photograph the operation. Lisa and her partner Mick arrived, and soon after came Stuart driving a massive rental truck and car trailer. He parked it across the street in a kind neighbor’s driveway, and he and I together went to the garage to peel off three layers of car covers and old quilt that had swaddled the 356 for years. Stuart and I walked around the naked body missing its innards and eyes and engine, touching it gently. Then he, Mick and I slooooowly pushed it onto my driveway for the last time.
Stuart put more air in the tires and got out a new winch to coax the old girl onto the trailer.
Lisa, Mick and I put our backs into it to help a bit, though, truthfully, Stuart was doing all the heavy winching.
Finally it was on the trailer, and we started loading the truck with innards—seats and windows and carpet and headliner—and outtards—headlights, bumpers and more.
I thought about how long it had taken us to get to this point, about the fact that we are all 16 and a half years older now than when we started this collaboration. And when I started to silently bemoan that fact, I reminded myself that the man who started this project died when he was 48 years old. We who are left are all older than that now—which means that, yes, we are aging faster than we like—but we got more time on the planet than Cliff, who, I know without a doubt, desperately wanted more. Our job is to be grateful for this time, in this place, together.
Part of me feels as if I failed Cliff (in more ways than I can count), especially where the 356 is concerned. I never did complete this project. But, I told myself, walking back to the garage to get another armload of stuff (and maybe channeling a little Walter Cronkite), that’s the way it is. “I am so sloooooow,” I thought, not for the first time.
And that’s when I heard in my head: “It takes as long as it takes, Toots.”
I know that voice. (It’s not Walter Cronkite.) That voice of the man I married in 1983 comes to me in dreams, and I awaken sometimes knowing that we’ve been together, doing heaven only knows what, and I smile because he’s made an appearance. The companion spirit is alive and well in my life, and he is in death what he was in life—one of my biggest cheerleaders, a nonjudgmental supporter, one of my biggest fans.
“I’m letting the car go to Stuart,” I said aloud, standing in the garage, looking at the sign on the back wall that reads, “Reserved for Cliff’s Porsche.” (That’s staying.) I looked at my right ring finger, at the thin band with the word “Clifford” etched into it. “It’s his now.”
And I got a lump in my throat at the same time the word ping-ponged around my head, “Yes.”
I gave Stuart the fat file folder with Porsche stuff we’d collected over the years, and Lisa said, “Keys!” (which I’d forgotten but went to fetch). And when I handed Stuart the little key collection with its masking tape bearing Cliff’s handwriting—”Porsche”—I felt an even bigger “yes,” the kind that comes when letting go to the right person is absolutely the right thing.
It takes as long as it takes sometimes—with a little help from my friends. How lovely is that?
Photos by Dick Schmidt (thanks, Dickie!)