The car started to overheat that Christmas Eve just as I passed 183 on my way out of town. “No!” I cried helplessly. Houston lay over 180 miles away and now it looked like my car wouldn’t even get me out to Bastrop.
Tonight, of all nights — Christmas Eve, when I absolutely had to get to Houston.
My 5 year old niece, Jessie, had been struggling with brain cancer since her diagnosis back in May, a roller coaster ride starting with emergency surgery and followed by months of hospitalizations and treatments. I spent months bouncing back and forth between Houston and Austin as our entire family reeled under the burden of dealing with cancer in a child.
There would be upswings where she seemed to be improving and there were downswings as well as harsh side effects to endure. Just 2 weeks before Christmas, my brother & his wife were told treatment had destroyed the tumor entirely — then 2 days later, they discovered multiple other tumors rapidly growing nearby despite all the treatments.
Jessie was dying. This would be her last Christmas and I had to get there.
I completed my work that afternoon and swung by the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar to pick up some last minute gifts. My late departure didn’t bother me as I was used to this drive. I figured on a typical nighttime drive only slightly slowed by holiday traffic. I didn’t figure on motor trouble before leaving town.
Panicked at the possibility of the car breaking down on the road, I decided to divert over to check in with my shade-tree mechanic friend, Patrick O’Connor, as I got to Del Valle. More than once, he’d been able to revive one or another of my cars to keep me going. Desperate, I described my trouble and asked if he could help.
Pat suggested we go to the corner auto shop. I’m thinking there’s no way they’ll be open this late on Christmas Eve, but Pat knows the owner and explains, “He lives upstairs — let’s just go bang on his door.”
“What if he doesn’t answer?” I asked as Pat started banging on the door to no immediate effect.
Pat shrugged, “Eventually he’ll come down just to tell us shut up at least.” He pounded again as we waited in the dark, my anxiety rising as I’m watching the whole trip end right then and there. Pat looked over at me and saw my face, and took my arm and said, “Look, we’re gonna get you down to Houston to see Jessie tonight, one way or another, so stop worrying about that. If he can’t fix your car, you’re taking mine — it’s that simple.”d
About that time, we saw a light come on in the hallway and heard hesitant steps approaching the door. Pat banged one more time and his friend opened the door. Pat quickly explains the problem and why we need help right now. The guy looked at Pat, then me, then agrees to take a quick look. A few minutes later, he determined it’s a busted thermostat, leaving 2 options. The best option would be to replace the thermostat, but he didn’t have one on hand. Or, he said, he could punch a hole in it and make it temporarily functional for driving. I would need a replacement later but not right away, due to the cold weather.
I went with option 2. I don’t remember paying the guy. Sure hope I did, because a short time later, the car was running and I was off down the highway and into the night.
I have not seen my old friend, Pat, in many years, but I think of him very Christmas Eve. If you know Pat, you might think he’s an unlikely angel. But that Christmas Eve back in 1988, in my time of desperation, that’s exactly what my buddy Pat O’Connor became: an angel of mercy, rendering aid and support and restoring my ride back for one last Christmas with Jessie.
May your angels guide you safely home, too.