“Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” – Chinese Proverb
It’s been three weeks since I took the car keys away from my dad.
He had been in shock on the way home from the doctor’s office; quite frankly, I was as well. I had been under the impression my dad would have a cognitive evaluation that told us a) if he had dementia and b) how progressive it was. I had no idea his driving privileges would be revoked – though later, after talking to my neighbor (who is about the same age as my father), I learned that it was a common occurrence.
“Oh! I am not surprised,” my neighbor Judy said when I saw her working in her garden the morning day after my dad’s appointment; I was getting ready to head down to his house to take him to the grocery store. “This is why so many of my friends don’t want to see the doctor, they’re afraid they will lose their independence,” she explained. I shook my head, marveling at how naive I had been; the thought of having his license taken away – despite the concern that “dad should not be driving!” my brothers and I shared – was the furthest thing from my mind.
When I arrived at my dad’s house on Tuesday morning, less than 24 hours after being told he could not drive, he was sullen and still upset.
“Lunardi’s today, dad?” I asked as I peered into the fridge and the pantry. “What do you need?”
My dad wasn’t sure what he needed from the grocery; he had called me an hour before: “Karen, I need you to drive me…” he couldn’t seem to finish the sentence.
“I can drive you,” I said, “where do you want to go?” There had been a pause, some mumbling, and then finally, “I need bacon.” “Ah, the grocery! Yes, I would be delighted to take you to the store,” I said, “I’ll be there by 9 am.”
And so there I was, standing with him in the kitchen, figuring out what else he wanted.
“Do you usually make a list, dad?”
“How do you know what you need, then? Do you just walk up and down the aisles?”
“Yes, I know where everything is.” The look on my dad’s face was still one of defeat; his tone and inflection made it clear he still wasn’t happy with me.
“Okay, well, I like shopping with a list,” I told him, grabbing a piece of paper and a pen, and started with “bacon,” and then adding “apples, bananas, and cereal” to the list.
My dad was quiet on the way to the store, speaking only to tell me which way to go. “Left here, Karen,” saying it as if to prove to me he knew how to get to the store. My hands gripped the steering wheel each time he told me what to do.
I felt as if I had been transported back to J1982, an El Nino year in California; my dad was teaching me to drive, using his truck 983; I had my driver’s permit and spending countless hours behind the wheel of my dad’s Toyota SR5 truck.
Large branches from decades-old eucalyptus trees had fallen into the road; large pellets of rain slammed against the windshield as the wipers tried to keep up with the deluge. I had been gripped by fear as I maneuvered through small rivers that cross the road; I hadn’t yet mastered the clutch while shifting the gears. “Stop! Okay, now go, Karen!” my father had barked at me as I drive up Skyfarm Drive in Hillsborough. The road was steep and slippery, yet he had me driving, stopping, then driving up the hill to the top. “You have to be able to start and stop on a hill; just take control of the car, Karen,” he said. I had been near tears when we arrived home. My mom had said, “Thank goodness you’re okay, I was getting worried,” as we walked in the door. I couldn’t say anything, still distraught from my driving lesson.
“Get in the other lane.” My dad’s voice brought me right back to the present.
“I know, dad,” I said to him as I signaled and moved over.
“You’re going to have to get used to this,” he said.
“Used to what?” I asked.
“This. Chauffeuring me around. I have places to go. You’re stuck driving me everywhere.”
“I don’t mind, and besides, I get to spend time with you,” I said, looking over at him. He was staring out the side window.
I pulled into the garage. Always the gentleman, my dad pulled the bags from the bag of the car and opened the door to the house, waiting for me to enter first.
As we unloaded groceries from the bags, my dad made it a point to demonstrate he knew where everything belonged. Cereal in the pantry, orange juice in the fridge as if to say, “See? My memory is just fine!
“Mm, croissants. And apples. I think I will make pancakes,” my dad said as he put items away.
I closed the refrigerator and turned towards him. “Pancakes?” I queried.
“Pancakes. I haven’t had pancakes in years,” my dad said, his smile lighting up the room.
“See, dad?” I asked.
“There is some good coming out of this ‘no driving’ bit, isn’t there?”
“There is?” The look on my dad’s face was dubious.
“Yes, dad, there is. We get to spend time together. We went to the store. I helped you find the Rocky Road ice cream as well as the pancake mix.”
My dad tilted his head; he was thinking about what I had said.
I held my breath, waiting for him to bring up the not-being-able-to-drive issue. I figured It would be a long time before he’d forgive me for having his license taken away, but my father said nothing. We finished putting the groceries away and that was it.
The next day, I received a text from my younger brother: “Dad seems to be doing better about the driving issue.” Not too long after that, my older brother called: “I think dad is getting used to the idea of not driving; he was in a good mood today.”
My brothers are correct: my dad has accepted this new phase; I think he’s relieved he’s not driving. In the meantime, I spend time with him each morning, drive him wherever he wants to go, and have enjoyed the big smile on his face when he greets me.
The best part: there are always fresh, pancakes, still warm from the griddle, he’s set aside for me, a gentle reminder that some good has come out of his not driving.