I think it was in 11th grade English that we read Melville’s short story/novella “Bartleby the Scrivener” (I think a lot of teachers assign it because it gives them a pass on having to crack into Moby Dick). If you missed this pleasure, it tells the existential story of a law firm copyist who begins withdrawing from life, with the frequent refrain, “I would prefer not to,” at every request made of him. I’m beginning to feel almost as repetitive in my relationship with Dad, these days, though my similarly frequent refrain boils down to a single, two-letter word – “No.”
My use of that word – or it’s slightly cushioned (and, possibly, more annoying) cousin of a phrase, “I just don’t think that’s a good idea” – seems to be defining the shrinking borders of his life, lately. Last night, that phrase was used in response to Dad’s idea that he use the 4-burner, 40,000 Btu propane grill on the deck to cook the steak he’ll be having a couple nights from now, when I go out to dinner with friends. Last week… well, last week was all about driving.
A week ago Monday, Dad went on a wild adventure disguised as a drive for lunch and a trip to CVS and the bank. It began with a wide right turn out of the driveway into the thankfully empty opposing-traffic lane, then a near miss of the mailbox – and of me, standing at the mailbox – that almost took him off the road, as well. A couple hours later, I got a call from a friend letting me know that he’d nearly had a head-on collision with her as he drove into the exit lane for the bank’s parking lot. When he pulled into my driveway to park, he ended up halfway across the backyard.
We had a bit of a set-to that afternoon, especially when I learned that lunch had included a manhattan – and I don’t mean a tomato-based clam chowder. The next morning, I discovered that he’d also gotten his pills confused the previous day, and had taken his bedtime pills with his breakfast, so he’d been driving around with 10 mg of Ambien in his system. Tuesday noon featured an even bigger set-to, as I let him know that I’d be driving him to poker that day – I was saying “no” to his driving until we saw the doctor the next day. As tempers flared, the phrase, “while you’re living in my house…” even crossed my lips. Who says you need kids to turn into your own parents – you can do it with your parents, themselves, too!
The next day, the doctor listened to each of us, in turn, then paused, and addressed us both. We were entering a gray area – yes, older folks can lose driving abilities, but this case was particularly exacerbated by an avoidable medication mistake and a misjudgment on alcohol. And taking keys away completely can be a serious emotional blow, with a loss of independence that can mean the beginning of depression (I’m paraphrasing). He proposed a compromise that fell somewhere between my seize-the-keys-and-list-the-car-on-Craigslist absolutism and Dad’s keep-the-cocktails-flowing status quo (and, as a sign that it was probably a good start, neither Dad nor I were completely happy with the doctor’s idea). Simply put, Dad can’t have any alcohol in him when he gets behind the wheel – not even a beer. Dad grumbled mightily at the removal of yet another symbol of his independence, but, in the end, gave in when he saw there was no way getting around the combined front of the doctor and me. He was able to celebrate the new detente with a manhattan over lunch, because I was the one driving.
As I said, I’m not completely at ease with an approach that allows Dad to stay behind the wheel. For one thing, it means I have to remain the tattletale, the reporter of mis-deeds, the one who says “no.” Walking into the doctor’s office, I really wanted someone else to step in and be the no-sayer for once, and clear this one item off the checklist of things that make me afraid on a nearly daily basis. But, then I watch Dad’s frustration as his health appears to be starting yet another slow slide downward. I see him close in on himself as his world shrinks around him, one proscribed activity at a time.
Melville’s Bartleby meets his end as the result of an existential crisis that plays out to an inevitable conclusion – finally, he simply prefers not to exist. Dad is by no means anywhere near that point yet. But, as I see the light in his eye burning less brightly with every newly-forbidden pleasure and recognition of reduced capability, I see him getting closer to being someone who’d prefer not to. And then I see the compassion in saying a qualified -and very watchful – “yes” to this one activity that helps keep him preferring life to its alternative just a little bit longer.