My father taught me how to drive on a little, white Datsun pick-up truck with a manual transmission. I practiced in our backyard, a large rectangular acre, perfect for going around in sweeping circles, changing gears, and backing up – all the fundamentals. I used two Weeping Willow trees as the starting point and then zig-zagged in and around a straight line of giant Pines as though it were an obstacle course. I blasted the radio and sang along to the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and other 70’s music, as I repeated my route over and over.
When I finally got my license and went for that first ride by myself, it was amazing! Cliché, I know, but I had such a sense of freedom. The road, my life, stretched out in front of me. (More clichés, sorry.) I could go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted! This was huge.
There was a downside, of course. Not for me, but for my quiet mother, a nervous, backseat driver who never drove herself. Her rosary beads were already worn down and now the number of novenas Mom offered up each day increased dramatically. I was affronted. Why call in the big guns? I knew what I was doing!
Well, fast forward several decades. I was in my late 30’s, Mom and Dad were in their late 70’s. They were an active pair, dancing, working, socializing and driving, a lifestyle which happily continued into their mid-80’s. But now I start to worry about Dad’s driving. What if his reflexes are too slow? What if the roads are too slick? What if he suddenly doesn’t feel well?
And so it began. I would call on some banal pretext when I thought they should be home from shopping. I called my mother to “chat” right at the time when Dad should be coming in from work. I would hear a traffic report on the radio that there’s an accident near their house so I call, praying I don’t get the machine. I was my mother’s daughter.
Mom and Dad are gone now, and due to Dad’s illness, my brother and I did not have to approach him about relinquishing his car keys. And honestly, I don’t know how we would have done that. My father loved to drive. It was his thing. In his younger days in Ireland, he started a small taxi business when few people in his town had cars. At 85, he was still driving to work, taking Mom to get her hair done, food shop, doctor’s appointments and social events, etc.
To take that away, his and my mother’s independence, would have been devastating. No child wants to become the parent of their parents. It’s so unsettling. To see your parents, your mighty, wise and loving parents become diminished is tough. Then to assault their dignity further by “telling” them they can’t drive? Very difficult.
We were not alone, of course. Many aging parents and their children face this dilemma every day. As such, The NYS Office of the Aging has produced a handbook, “When You are Concerned.” It includes the experiences of families and others who have successfully resolved an unsafe aging driver situation. For a printed copy, call the New York State Office for the Aging Help Line at 1-800-342-9871.
I taught my daughter how to drive this year… on a little, black Jeep truck with a manual transmission. She got her license this summer and is now privy to that feeling of freedom and adventure that only the open road can evoke!
As for me? I’m looking for my mother’s Rosary beads!