Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Roads Don't Know Me

My father would have been 99 years old today. He died in 1998, nine days shy of his 88th birthday. One of the challenges of aging, for ourselves and especially for our parents, is confronting the decreasing mobility of advanced years. Though state governments place restrictions on teenage drivers, most fail to impose equally important safeguards on the elderly whose motoring skills, though honed through decades, diminish rapidly with deteriorating eyesight, slower reaction times and even forgetfulness bordering on dementia.

Just as attaining a license and a first set of wheels are rites of passage for young people, the loss of a driver’s license or a car is a sign of dependence, of frailty, of the inevitability of the end of days, for senior citizens. A semi-recent essay in the NY Times magazine section portrayed the poignancy of this increasingly common dilemma facing Baby Boomers with aging parents, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/01/magazine/01lives-t.html?scp=1&sq=huneven&st=cse.

My father was a good driver. I can’t recall him ever being in an accident, though I will admit he had what might be called a heavy foot, meaning, he braked hard. You could get real nauseous in city traffic if you were sitting in the back. It wasn’t as bad in the front passenger seat, though the floor carpet tended to be worn out where you’d be pressing down ahead of his braking.

I always admired Dad’s knowledge of New York City thoroughfares. He drove the streets, not the highways, to and from his factory in Lower Manhattan every day during rush hour for 40 years. The trip took about an hour each way. He was intimate with all the shortcuts and side streets along the way. As I drive around New York City today, I am familiar with many off-the-beaten-track byways because of the detours I watched my father make through the years.

When he was 83-years-old, he deviated from his loyalty to Buicks. He bought a late model used car, an Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, dark blue, four doors with a front row bench seat. A real old man’s car. He drove it for several months, but then my mother had a leg amputated below the knee because of diabetes, and they could no longer live either in their Brooklyn home or their Miami Beach condominium. They moved near my brother, to Rockville, Md., into what is called an independent living facility. The reality of advancing years, however, belied that descriptor.

Our son Dan had just turned 16 and passed his driving test. He wanted a car, bad. He never petitioned his grandfather, but Dad came to me one day while I visited him in Rockville and offered to give Dan his car, to give up driving, with the most achingly revealing words I ever heard him say.

“The roads don’t know me here,” he said.

Sometimes, when I’m driving to the train station to pick up Gilda or our daughter Ellie, a trip I made for more than 25 years from our current address as part of my daily commute, my mind wanders and yet I never fail to make the proper turns to get there safely. The car seems to have a mind of its own. Or maybe it’s the roads that know me.