A daughter finds her own road to healing in dad’s car

As it was once her late father’s vehicle, the 2011 Toyota RAV4 she now drives reminds Wanda O’Brien of him all the time.

By Liz Beddall Wheels.ca

Mar 10, 2023 5 min. read

Article was updated 9 months ago

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She thinks about him a lot when she is driving. Tom O’Brien was a high school teacher with a hot-red Toyota Tercel stick shift. In the years before he retired, having become chaplain of Senator O’Connor College School in North York, the father of four, who was born in Ireland, decided he needed to size up his set of wheels. There was but one requirement for the new vehicle: extra space.

Space to transport the many things that might keep a community close-knit: food for a communal dinner, equipment for a Sunday singalong, a back seat ready to give any neighbour a ride.

Perhaps Tom O’Brien was not thinking of himself when he bought his 2011 Toyota RAV4, but of everyone else.

why i love my car rav4

His daughter Wanda, who now owns the SUV, agrees and adds that was just her dad.

“I remember back then being really excited to see this new car that my dad had bought.

“And then I saw it,” recalls Wanda O’Brien, whose late father Tom bought the 2011 Toyota RAV4 second-hand.

“I saw this brown machine in my parents’ driveway and I thought, ‘Ew, dad! If you’re going to spend money on a new car, first of all, why brown?’ I was living overseas at the time, and, on the occasion that I’d be home, I’d use the RAV for errands and such.

“It just felt too big, too uncomfortable. It wasn’t for me, but my dad.

"He just loved it.

"A few years later — three years ago now, this January — my dad died unexpectedly at the age of 72. He had gone in for a routine surgery and things just went very wrong.

"The loss of my father has been the first major grief I’ve experienced in my life. The pain of it has been so vast and enormous.

"My family and I feel it was a grace that my father passed away right before the pandemic hit. I feel terrible for those who suffered a loss during that chaotic time. But then there I was, stuck in Toronto and in deep grief from the loss of my father. I desperately needed an escape and I discovered one, that same summer, in camping.

"I had a Mazda at the time, but it was always just so tight to pack it up for those trips into the wild that I needed so badly. My thoughts started turning to the RAV for the same reason my dad had considered it: for its sheer amount of space. I put my hand up to say that I wanted it and took over the ownership in 2022.

"The first time picking it up and getting into it as my own was in my childhood driveway. I remember getting into it and feeling a bit emotional. Sitting there in the driver’s seat I thought, ‘Hey, Dad. Thanks! I really appreciate it.’

why i love my car rav4

"The car, in I suppose more ways than one, enabled me to move again. I’ve learned that grief doesn’t just have to be painful. And now having this vehicle available to me, and having experienced this slow burn of coming to absolutely love it … I feel so safe and comfortable in that car and I know that’s so clearly linked to the safety and comfort that he always provided. I even love the colour now.

"I think whenever the time inevitably comes that it’s time for this car to go — will that be hard? Yes, but I almost feel like I’m at a different stage where I’m thinking it is just a thing and I’m so grateful I had it. I’m genuinely just really grateful to have it for the time that I do.

"One of the last things my father said, in the hospital before he passed away was, ‘Ah life, there’s great pain, but there’s great joy, too.’ With grief, I’m at that point where, yes, there is pain, but there is so much joy.

"This car, in its connection to my father, brings me so much joy."

why i love my car rav4

“I listen to my dad sing while I drive”

Being an older car, this RAV has a CD player. My dad was a very humble singer and guitar player who had actually written some of his own songs. As a retirement gift, we had purchased him some studio time and when he passed away we used those recordings to produce a CD. I listen to it often when I drive, and I do cry sometimes. But it helps ground me in the loss, because, although no one I meet going forward will ever have a chance to truly know him, we have his voice and his words. They can get to know him through his music.

“There’s room enough for anything”

The fact that you can bring the seats fully down in this car means you can really load it up. It has made packing for camping so much easier and does things like enable me to have easy access to my cooler while I’m out there — I like to keep it safely tucked away as I’m a bit bear-paranoid. My mom actually said to me recently, ‘You know, they don’t make them like that anymore.’ Apparently the new RAVs are much shorter than this one. She said, ‘That’s why your father got it’ and I thought, ‘That’s why I love it.’

why i love my car rav4

“Who knew how fast it could go?”

Several times since his passing, friends of my father’s have found out he drove this particular car and been shocked that he would drive something so speedy. This car, I’ve discovered, has a 3.5-litre 2GR-FE V6 engine, which means it can go very fast. But it surprises everyone, because my dad presented as such a gentle man. I actually wonder if he ever really knew the capability of it. Me, I’m a pedal-to-the-metal person, and often when I drive now I can hear him saying, ‘Wanda, would ya slow down?’ and I say with a loving eye roll, ‘Yes dad. I see that car, Dad. Thank you.’ ”

Do you love your vehicle? Email us at wheels@thestar.ca with “Why I Love My Car” in the subject line and tell us, briefly, why you do!

Correction — March 8, 2023: Tom O’Brien was a high school teacher and chaplain at Senator O’Connor College School in North York, and he drove a Toyota Tercel. A previous version of this article misstated the location of the school the and the model of the car.




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