There are some people who drive out of necessity. There are others who absolutely love getting behind the wheel. My Dad fits into that last category.
His first driving experience was on his father’s tobacco farm, when my grandfather’s thyroid problems caused his hands to swell so badly he couldn’t grip the steering wheel. So when he was just old enough to reach the pedals of his father’s Chevrolet truck, my Dad drove him along the winding dirt roads of Tennessee. Those roads were so narrow that when another car came toward you from the opposite direction, one driver would have to pull over to let the other pass.
Years later, my Dad would fly down those same roads – now paved – like a roller coaster ride while his three small daughters chorused from the back seat, “Faster, Daddy, faster!”
It was my Father who taught me to drive a 1960 Volkswagen Bug when I was just 14. He took me to a new neighborhood where the hill was so steep, kids would sprout wings while riding their bikes downhill. I sat in the driver’s seat as we started up that enormous incline. We were at least at a 45° angle when he told me to stop the car. I slammed on the brakes.
“I want you to hold the car on the hill just using the clutch and the gas,” he said.
I’m sure I sat there wondering how I was going to pull off such a feat. On my first attempt, I killed the car. Actually, on my second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth attempts, I killed the car. I killed the car so many times that where we once had been facing the top of the hill, now the car had rolled back to the point we were facing the house on the right side of the street. Thankfully, my Father had an extraordinary amount of patience.
He was building confidence in me to drive anything in any situation. And it worked. When I was finally able to hold that VW Bug on the hill without using the brakes, I felt that I could do anything.
As time passed, my Father’s love for driving never waned. He took chances other drivers wouldn’t take and wiggled out of tight spots very few drivers would attempt. I learned to wiggle too. He had a lead foot, I had a lead foot. He had a few speeding tickets, as did I.
When Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he continued to drive for years. We knew it was only a matter of time before we would have to take his keys away and we dreaded that day. Giving up independence is never easy, but people with Alzheimer’s are often incapable of understanding why they can no longer drive.
One late afternoon, Dad was driving home from the store while I sat in the passenger seat. He’d taken this route for 25 years so he could drive it without thinking. We were less than a mile from home when we came upon an accident at a busy intersection. Police had blocked off the road so that cars were forced to take an alternate route. Dad was at a loss as to what to do. I had to direct him home.
He could no longer react quickly or make spur-of-the-moment decisions. Plus, even if he drove perfectly and another car hit him, we could be sued for everything if the other party found out about his medical condition.
Shortly after that episode, Mom took Dad to see a doctor at the VA and was told he should no longer drive. The day had come to take away his keys. Thankfully, Dad blamed the doctor for this decision instead of his wife or daughter.
“He said I couldn’t drive because I had a bicycle wreck,” he would vent to me.
At first, I’m sure I tried to reason with Dad because remarkably, he still possessed good reasoning skills. But of course, that didn’t work because he couldn’t be objective. This was about him, his freedom, his independence and God forbid that anyone tell him there was something he couldn’t do. That just brought out the fight in him.
Some days I could tell by the look on his face that he’d been thinking about not being allowed to drive. His brow was furrowed and his lips were pursed. He would launch into the story of how he drove a transfer truck while in the Air Force on slippery cobblestone in Germany, how he jackknifed and miraculously recovered the 18-wheeler, avoiding an accident. (True story)
“I bet he couldn’t do that!” Dad exclaimed, referring to the VA doctor.
Other days, Dad’s wit triumphed over his frustration.
“You know what I’d like to do?” he told me with a gleam in his eye. “I’d like to borrow a 10-ton tractor trailer, drive it over to the VA and park it right behind that doctor’s car!”
“He’d let me drive then,” he laughed, grinning from ear to ear.
People with Alzheimer’s tend to fixate on something to the point they become irritated and frustrated. They feel powerless to resolve the problem and begin brooding. Dad would do this for months after his keys were taken away.
So how could I help him get his mind onto something else? I wasn’t sure. Reasoning and logic simply don’t work with Alzheimer’s. And even though Dad blamed the doctor, that was no consolation.
One day I tried something different. When Dad, with furrowed brow, launched into why he should still be allowed to drive, I interjected.
“I know why that doctor wouldn’t let you drive,” I said matter-of-factly.
Dad’s head whipped around to my direction while a look of annoyed curiosity crossed his face.
“Why?” he answered gruffly.
“Because he heard what you did.”
“What did I do?”
“He heard about how you snuck those girls back onto the Air Force base in the trunk of your car.”
His face broke into a sheepish grin and he started to laugh.
“We did pull some pretty good tricks,” he said, launching into another story of his military buddies while stationed in Germany.
The irritability was gone. Humor had prevailed, turning off the anger and turning on memories of good times and good friends.
Like finding the perfect lullaby to soothe a crying baby’s soul, I had found the answer to changing my Father’s foul mood. I was relieved and grateful.
I cannot blame my Dad for getting upset. I imagine when it’s my turn to relinquish my keys, I’ll probably go kicking and screaming. Thankfully, there was no kicking or screaming here. In fact, as time passed, his arguing diminished, as did his talk about driving. If I’m going somewhere, he may ask to drive. But I’ll always thank him for his offer and tell him that he did such a great job teaching me to drive, it was my turn to show him what I could do.
As my Father has slowed down these past couple of years, he’s accepted being a permanent passenger. And since he sees a different doctor, he very rarely brings up the VA villain who sealed his fate. But if he ever does, I’ll know what to say.