Thoughts from the journey… Excerpts from a day in the life of Sherry McLaughlin

3Dec/091

The Joy of Driving a Station Wagon

To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children

…to leave the world a better place

…to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded.

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Becoming a physician is no small feat. Four years of pre-med undergraduate work, surviving the MCAT, four years of medical school and then unbelievable hours spent working for practically nothing for the next several years of your life as an intern and resident.

After the years of sacrificing, you can’t fault a physician for wanting to drive a really nice car. They’ve definitely earned it.

I remember the times we used to stop at the hospital to drop off some dinner for my father on the nights he worked long shifts. Pulling into the doctor’s parking lot was a virtual feast for the eyes. BMW’s, Mercedes Benz, Jaguars and convertible sport cars blanketed the lot. It was like being at your own private auto show. Ooh’s and ahh’s would escape the lips of my siblings and I as we rode past the shiny, souped-up vehicles.

And then our eyes would come to rest on the most unique ride in the doctor’s parking lot. The one sign that assured us we were in the right place—my dad’s station wagon.

He owned several in his lifetime. First it was one of the super-long ones with wood paneling on the side and the rear seat that faced backwards. Then he upgraded to a sleeker looking model. It was green, I think. The final model he owned was a light brown version that I would ultimately inherit as my first official mode of independent motorized transportation.

The funny thing is, for as far back as I can remember, he dreamed of driving a Lincoln Towne car. Being the dreamer that he was, we heard about it often. He would bring home brochures and check out the latest model every year at the auto show. When I became old enough to drive, those brochures were passed on to me.

“You should buy this car, Shei,” he would say with a dreamy tone in his voice. “Look at the inside. It’s nice. Really nice.”

I looked at the brochure, every year, out of respect for my father, but deep down inside I knew I’d never own one. The vehicle had “old and boring” written all over it. I needed something fun and exciting. After all, your ride is an expression of who you are, isn’t it? Just ask everyone in Hollywood.

“It is nice, Dad,” I would say. “Maybe one day.”

After several years of such an exchange, I finally said to him, “If you like the car so much, why don’t you just buy one for yourself?”

I never got an answer. I would see a little gleam in his eye and a faint smile would cross his face. But I never really got an answer.

That was right around the time I was in college and my tuition at a private university was about $240 a credit—and I was taking a full load. When I graduated in 1990 with my Master’s degree, I realized that I never once had to stand in a financial aid line at registration. All I had to do was sign up for classes, call home with the amount of my tuition and skip off to class.

Well, I didn’t really skip, but it was relatively effortless.

Years later, I realized what a gift that was. To be able to study hard and then get a job and not owe the amount of a small mortgage in student loans as a young adult. As a result, the Lincoln Towne car purchase was put on hold.

Three weeks after I graduated, I got married. My father threw me the wedding of the century, complete with four days of pre-wedding festivities that included big family barbecues at our house. Guests arrived from Canada, the Philippines, Texas, California, Virginia and all over Michigan. It was an international event of huge proportions and there was food. Lots of it. There was also an abundance of love and conversation as families and friends were reunited in the name of the big event.

People still talk about our wedding. It would be years before I realized that little “celebration” cost almost as much as my college education. The Lincoln Towne car would have to wait again.

I imagine there were many times in my father’s life that he could have afforded that car. I secretly vowed that once I landed a job and could get financially stable, I would buy him a Towne car myself, as a token of my appreciation for all he had done for me.

It never happened. You know how that goes. Real life takes over. Debt. A family. How on earth did he ever do all that? I would ask myself.

And then, one day in 1995, he was driving home from work and lost his vision. The diabetes he had been dealing with for years had won the battle over his eyesight. A couple of laser surgeries would only serve to restore his ability to see shadows. My father had become legally blind.

He would spend the rest of his days being chauffeured  around by friends and family, unable to fully enjoy the scenery flying by him. You wouldn’t know it by the look on his face, though. He would get in someone’s car and lean back in the seat, a serene look of enjoyment crossing his face. “This is a nice car,” he would say, “Have you ever ridden in a Lincoln Towne car?”

I was disappointed in myself. There was a part of me that wished I would have purchased that vehicle just so I could drive him around town and see the look of pure pleasure on his face.

In the next several years, the complications of diabetes would require him to have his legs amputated. First his right foot, the one that would have pushed the gas pedal down on his favorite car, then the rest of his right lower leg and finally left leg.

In the last eight years of his life, he was hospitalized numerous times, several of which we thought would be his last. I would race to the hospital on those days thinking about all the things I would say. Fear, dread and remorse settling on my heart.

Upon arriving at the hospital, I never had a hard time finding his room. There were usually people milling about. A whole lot of them. As I walked up to the crowd, people would recognize me and say, “Shei, it is good to see you…” and the stories of my dad would begin to tumble out.

“Your dad gave us the down payment to our first home,” one couple said.

“He loaned me money to start my printing business,” another would add.

“Your dad paid part of my college tuition.”

“One Christmas, we were so poor, we didn’t have any money for presents and then, we received a card in mail from your father with $25 in it. We were so happy, we cried.”

“I got to travel to Washington DC for the Cherry Blossom Festival on this big Greyhound bus…”

The stories would flow out of people, some of whom I’d met before and others who were complete strangers to me. Relatives. Friends. Strangers…but only for a moment.

Our lives were united by the generosity of one man. A man who gave so willingly of his time and money, so that others might experience freedom, joy and opportunity. A man who saw value in investing in the human spirit.

By the time I made it through the throng of people and into his room, I was a different person. The fear and sadness replaced by a sense of awe and gratitude for the man who was my father. He always looked so small in that hospital bed, his body being whittled away by disease. But that was my dad.

Small in stature. Larger than life. Surrounded by the ones he loved.

And he drove a station wagon.

Life Lesson #6

Despite what people say,

You aren’t what you drive.

You are the legacy you leave behind.

So, don’t smirk at the station wagons…

There just might be a dignitary inside.

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  1. Excellent! I “see” your dad in your description and I “hear” your heart.


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