The Grandmother Story:
My grandmother is sitting behind the wheel of her black 1948 Ford. She is barely tall enough to see over the dashboard. Beside her sits her portly, even shorter sister, my great aunt Josephine. I am a kid, darting around the back seat like a hummingbird. We are tooting across Parkers Prairie to pick up a cherry pie.
“Any cars coming?” my grandmother calls out. She has forgotten her glasses. But it doesn’t matter. Her glasses don’t work anymore. She needs a new prescription.
Her sister, Pheenie, swivels to the right, then to the left. “The coast is clear!” she says.
My grandmother couldn’t see or hear, so she used her passenger’s ears and eyes. Fortunately in a town of 900 people, the roads were wide and almost deserted. Fortunately people looked out for her.
The Uncle Story:
And then there was Lloyd, my 90-year old bachelor uncle. One afternoon about fifteen years ago, he serenely announced to me on the phone that he had collided with a freight train.
The damage was minimal, Uncle Lloyd told me in his sandpapery voice. He lived alone in the basement of the house in Pipestone, Minnesota that had once belonged to his mother and father. I imagined him perched on a folding chair with his knees pressed together. For months at a time, no one visited him, but occasionally he drove to the feed store or to his farm to talk to his tenants. My husband and I took volunteered to phone him to make sure he was still alive.
After Uncle Lloyd told me about his collision with the train, I fretted about whether his encroaching macular degeneration was serious enough to make him dangerous on the road. Finally I called the Minnesota Department of Public Safety How often did Uncle Lloyd need to renew his driver’s license? Every four years. With a new eye exam? Yes, every time he renewed his license.
But I had no idea when Uncle Lloyd’s license would expire. What if his vision was already bad enough to make his car a lethal weapon? I knew that he would never voluntarily give up driving. Driving was his only way of getting to his doctor and, on Sundays, to St. Paul’s Lutheran.
After a week of sleepless pondering, my sister and I decided to call the police in Pipestone. We explained the dilemma and put Uncle Lloyd’s fate in their hands. Soon afterwards, he reported to me that he stopped driving. I felt remorse. But what else could I do?
My Mother’s Story:
So when my mother announced, without any prompting from me, that she didn’t need my help deciding whether to give up her car, I began to worry. She was in her late 80’s. She was losing things and forgetting language. How does a person who lives in Philadelphia find out whether her mother in Dallas is safe to drive? And how does a person separate her mother from her beloved silver Saturn without dooming her to years of depression?
Then one night in a phone call my mother announced that she was done driving. She had caused a fender-bender. She got her Saturn fixed, parked it outside her assisted living facility where she could watch it for six months, and then sold it to one of her grandchildren.
For the rest of her life she longed for her car. “Where is it?” she would sometimes demand when I talked to her on the phone.
But my mother also understood the dignity of giving that car up on her own initiative. It took vast courage. I think we all respected her bravery. I was then-- and still am-- deeply grateful that she spared us the need to force her to stop driving.
Jeanne Murray Walker is the author of the memoir, The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, which tells the story of taking care of her mother during her last decade.
Jeanne Murray Walker is the author of Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, which tells the story of taking care of her mother during her last decade.
Find it at: http://www.amazon.com/The-Geography-Memory-Pilgrimage-Alzheimers/...
Jeanne's web site: www.JeanneMurrayWalker.com