April 2011


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Yesterday, my father lost his one true love, and I was there when the judge, his doctor, passed down the decree. He attempted an appeal, but it was no good – his beloved had deserted him. He won’t even get to keep the certificate that had bound him and his partner together for decades. You see, that partner was his wanderlust, and he’s been ordered to return that certificate – his driver’s license – to the state. In return, he’ll receive a Massachusetts I.D. card, which is an irony because, in this turn of events, he’s losing so much of his I.D., his identity. He’s someone who’s always been thinking about the next trip, the next appointment, the next opportunity to get on the road. That guy pictured on the new state-issued piece of laminated plastic? To Dad, it will be just another old guy no longer able to go wandering with his baby.

Dad’s been married three times, and the last partnership endured for 38 years. But none of these pairings were really happy, at least not for terribly long, because Dad was, essentially, a bigamist. Sure, at different times he loved his wives, but his one true passion was the road. Not travelling, per se, but the road. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy flying or even a good train ride, but it was only when he was behind the wheel that he felt truly at ease. He structured his life to indulge this passion by becoming a traveling salesman, spending at least two weeks of every month driving – from St. Louis to Omaha, Des Moines, Dallas, Ft. Smith, Memphis, Paducah, Cincinnati, Toledo and Flint. His territory for the many companies he represented occupied pretty much the middle third of the United States, and he drove it all – 50,000 miles of it every year.

Many wedded couples at this time of life might look back at the many homes they’d created for themselves over the years – the newlywed apartment with the leaking kitchen faucet and ventilation-shaft view, the picket-fenced dreamhouse where they raised all the kids. Dad, however, remembers the automobiles he shared with his true love. Those Pontiacs, Chevys and Fords were all the shelter they needed, and all that American-made rolling stock kept them dry and moving – always moving – for more than 70 years.

Now, we have to figure out what to do with the last of those traveling temples of love, the 2004 Mercury Marquis sitting empty in the driveway. We could hold onto it, for me to use in chauffeuring him to doctors appointments and out to dinner, but I’m pretty sure he’ll have to transfer ownership to me for that to happen. I’m only insured to drive it through his policy, and that policy is dependent on him being a licensed driver. We’ll have to figure this out fairly soon, but I’m loathe to force the issue while Dad’s still so deep in anger and grieving.

It doesn’t help that I was an instigator – the private dick, if you will, documenting the need for the breakup with my phoned-in tips to the doctor and whispered concerns to the occupational therapists evaluating Dad’s driving risks. “Thanks all to hell, Chuck, that’s all I’ve got to say,” is what I heard as I pulled the Marquis out of the doctor’s parking lot yesterday afternoon. You might not see all the eggshells we’ve been walking on since, but my house’s floor is littered with them.

The question for Dad to answer in making his should-she-stay-or-should-she-go decision has been posed by poets for centuries: Will it be harder to lose, completely, the last vestige of his life-long love through some mundane Craigslist sale, or be regularly reminded of what he loved and has now lost from the passenger seat, every time I shuttle him over to the blood lab or senior center. I don’t know what his answer will be, but I think (to borrow yet another poetic metaphor) I’ll hear a bell tolling in the background whichever option he chooses.

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There are many thankless jobs in the whole caregiving process – the follow-up calls to doctors who just can’t seem to call their refill prescriptions into the pharmacy, the endless haggling with visiting-nurse agencies over scheduling details, the daily ritual of urinal cleaning and mattress-pad checking – but for few of these tasks will you be actively cursed. However, participate in the process of having your parent’s driver’s license revoked, and you may find yourself suddenly targeted as an enemy of senior independence. That’s now the situation in which I’m living, in a war that’s swinging between a cold politeness and very hot resentment.

Dad had the second portion of his two-part driving evaluation (for more on the reasons, see Driving Concerns) yesterday. The assessment was carried out by a local rehab hospital, and was much more thorough than the the totally inadequate state competency test he took a year and a half ago. The first session, several weeks ago, focused on cognitive and motor-skills issues. Dad’s performance on visual-recognition, visual contrast and flexibility tests – along with some memory quizzing – put him in what the occupational therapist said was a low-to-moderate risk category (the scale runs from “very low” to “very high”). She recommended an in-car driving evaluation, which we had yesterday.

Dad actually drove mostly o.k. – I was in the car with the driving instructor who rode next to dad and a different occupational therapist, who sat in the back on the passenger side, so she could observe. However, he kept forgetting to look to the left at intersections. About 10 minutes into the 30-minute test, the occupational therapist pointed this out to him, noting the importance of being aware of all potential traffic in a cross-street. He nodded his head and remembered the next time or two, but not more than that, before falling back into the same old pattern.

At the end of the exam, Dad and I sat in a waiting area while the therapist and driving instructor conferred. About 10 minutes passed before we were called in to meet with the therapist. She very politely and calmly explained that in the report she’d be sending to Dad’s doctor, she’d be recommending that he surrender his license. The testing process, she said, wasn’t just about glaring errors or behavior; it was more focused on developing a big-picture profile of a person’s risk for a crash. The results from the cognitive testing, along with the neglectful intersection behavior and his nearly disastrous near-miss several weeks ago, created a risk profile that appeared significant enough to her to warrant this recommendation. If the doctor agrees with the therapist’s report, he simply has to send a form letter to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and Dad’s driving days will be over.

It’s interesting, this use of the word “surrender” when it comes to driver’s licenses, don’t you think? I mean, don’t you typically think of that word in the context of open warfare? Well, sallying shots were fired in the War of the Rosses at the short, but ferocious, Battle of the Dinner Table last night. Surrender was not any part of this confrontation. Instead, Dad announced his intention to file a technical appeal if the doctor agreed with the therapist. You see, Dad forgot to put on his glasses for the driving test, something he realized while we were waiting for the therapist’s final assessment. In his mind, because his license requires the glasses (which the instructor and therapist really should have known, since they pulled his driving records), it was illegal for him to even be driving at the time, so ipso facto and fruit of the poisoned tree, the results should be invalid.

Because I was already so stressed from having to track down doctors over three different prescription refills, on top of spending half a day dealing with the driving evaluation (and attempting to make progress toward looming work deadlines, as well), I reacted with shouts rather than guffaws. As you – who may well watch just as much Law & Order and CSI as my own TV-addicted father – possibly have already determined, it wouldn’t take a Sam Waterston to figure out that forgetting to put on his glasses only adds to the argument against Dad’s memory abilities. On the plus side, not pointing out this fact to him at the dinner table means he’s more likely to declare this oversight-as-defense in the doctor’s office and add to the case against himself.

In the end, there is no appeal to the doctor’s letter. The doctor doesn’t even need the rehab center report – his signature on the form letter, with Dad’s name in the subject line, is all that’s required – so the technicality argument is moot. The doctor requested the evaluation simply as a way to shelter himself as well as me from the accusation that the license-yanking was being done without grounds. The doc could decide, instead, to maintain the license with even greater restrictions; but, again, the fact that Dad forgot his glasses could be seen as evidence against the wisdom of any further allowances.

As frustrating as the situation is for me, though, it’s impossible not to see the desperation motivating Dad’s straw-grasping refusal to surrender his license. His war really isn’t against me. I’m just the collateral damage in his fight against a much less forgiving foe: time, or, maybe more specifically, aging. He uses the word “independence” to describe what he’s defending, but I think he’s also striking out at shadows he may see drawing nearer. And I don’t think even Sam Waterston could come up with an appeal strong enough to beat such amorphous foes – in court or on the battlefield.

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