I suppose my oldest brother has said wise things before, but if he has, I wasn’t listening. Last week when he picked me up at the airport in Charleston, West Virginia, he said two things that struck me at the time as being worthy of remembering.
I can’t remember the first one. The second one was, “You can’t drive someone else’s car.”
Often when my husband and I are going somewhere we have the following conversation.
Heather: That car in front of us has his brake lights on.
Fred: He shouldn’t. The light is green.
Heather: Nevertheless, it will hurt if we drive into him.
Fred: I don’t know why he has his brakes on.
Heather: It doesn’t seem important to me that you know why he has his brakes on. What seems important to me is that you put your brakes on so we don’t crash into him.
Now, a critical reader might note that the fact that I have time to use the word “nevertheless” indicates that the danger I’m imagining is less than imminent. I suspect that’s what Fred would tell you. My ability to imagine danger is both a genetic and cultivated gift, but you’ll have to read some older posts if that’s what you are interested in. Today I’m thinking about driving.
When we were little, my friend Joanne would feel carsick every time my dad drove us somewhere. I always felt safe in the backseat of the Pontiac, but my dad did have a habit of accelerating toward stop signs and then stopping quickly. An engineer, he taught me that you have more traction if you accelerate through the curves, so we’d do that, too. Joanne and I would sway into each other in the backseat as we veered off Clifton onto Dashwood. And then there was that other spot on Dashwood, if you came down the hill from Irishtown, where your stomach would do that jumpy roller coaster thing if you could convince the driver to take the bump without slowing down. I loved being a passenger.
Today as my brother and I take the curves easily and drive across the bridge into southern Ohio, I’m mostly managing not to help him drive. We are on our way to visit our sister and our mother.
When I was learning to drive, my father offered me the choice of learning with him and fighting a lot, or letting my sister teach me. I opted for my sister. She stayed calm even when I drove the car into her boyfriend’s house in Gibsonia. I passed on this calm approach to my step-daughter when she picked me over her father to teach her. She still laughs about me saying things like, “You might want to accelerate now that you are in the middle of the intersection so that truck doesn’t barrel into us.” When I wanted to learn how to drive a stick shift, my husband left town and one of my best friends bunny hopped around parking lots all over Albuquerque with me. I never really thought about driving being this thing passed on between women before, but I like that thought.
My mother never learned to drive. The story I heard is that my dad tried to teach her once and it didn’t go well, so she never tried again. As she got older and the world changed around her, we would often encourage her to learn. I remember once she told me that she couldn’t drive because she could never live with herself if she ran over a child. (See “both genetic and cultivated” above.)
I hardly ever visit my mother. For the past few years she has lived in a nursing home in Kentucky, many years into a lonely ride with Alzheimer’s. The people there are kind to her, my sister visits her all the time, and her roommate, who is also losing track of her memories, expresses herself solely via compliments. “Those are some nice shoes you’re wearing,” she says, as soon as she comes in the room. I can barely say thanks before she says, “That sure is a nice purse.” She has enormous clear blue eyes, and I’m not sure how this game goes.
“You have beautiful eyes,” I compliment her back, and we go several rounds before my sister laughs. “You can’t win,” she says. Eventually my mother’s roommate sits on her bed, tells me to take her shoes off, and falls asleep. I hope that if I lose my mind before my body wears out, my dementia manifests itself in such a gentle way.
It has been years since my mother has spoken at all, or recognized any of us in any conventional way. One time when she was still speaking a little, she recognized me as my sister Meg, who died in 1990. My mother’s eyes are all that speak now, which is either heartwarming or heartbreaking, depending on whether she is happy (my last visit) or suffering (this one). A recent stroke has taken away her ability to walk, so she sits upright in a wheel chair now, held in that position by what looks like one of the aprons she wore in lighter years.
After a few days with my sister I flew off the mountain in Charleston and headed out the next morning to the Taos Shortz Film Festival with a bunch of teenagers. My friend had one carful of kids and I followed her around through the week in my Subaru. The teens in my car laughed as my friend buzzed through yellow lights, leaving us behind to find our way without her. “You can’t drive someone else’s car,” I told them.
We watched one hundred eleven movies in four days. One afternoon, almost all of the movies were either about people in varying stages of living with Alzheimer’s or about children who were being horribly mistreated by the adults in their lives.
At some point that afternoon, crying in a dark theater, I realized just how little love it takes to barrel through pain. I also realized how true my brother’s words are. You can’t drive someone else’s car; you have to love the world as it is.
No one expected my mother to live long after my father died; it was hard to imagine either of them without the other. I like to think it’s possible that my dad has been trying to get my mother to join him for a while. She never moved quickly. Anytime we left the house she went through a series of steps that strike me now as more incantatory than practical. She would check the stove, then the locks on the front windows, then turn on the radio. She’d get halfway to the car only to run back to turn on a few upstairs lights so it looked like we were home, after which she’d have to check the locks again. Sometimes we’d drive around the block to make sure we hadn’t left a window open. That was the ritual to leave the house for an hour or two. I can only imagine how many things will have to be in order before she leaves for the last time. “Let me just make sure I turned the stove off,” I can hear her saying, as she runs back into the house to check one last thing.
I want to imagine my father growing impatient. He is waiting in the driveway with the engine running, calling, in a sing-song, never actually irritated voice, “Cathy, we’re going to be late.” One of these days she’ll come skipping down the front steps at last and get in the car. If she wants to check one more thing he’ll convince her that everything is taken care of. He’ll turn on the radio and pull out of the driveway. If an old song comes on, he’ll turn to her and say, “Do you remember this one?”
She won’t, and he’ll explain where they were when they heard it for the first time. Time and love will grow wide around them. I’ll be standing in the front yard waving until I can’t see them any longer, but they won’t look back. My dad will accelerate into the curve, and they will drive off into the unknown world together.