Let me live in my house by the side of the road
Where the race of men go by-
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish- so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat
Or hurl the cynic’s ban?-
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man. (Women, children and dogs included)
—Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911)
During the year before my sequential visits to Asheville Eye Associates, I was stopped three times by polite, concerned, police officers. Each time they used the word erratic to describe my driving. Fortunately I never actually had an accident and although I clearly had some near misses, they usually involved a curb, an island, a construction barrel, or sliding off the road then jerking the wheel to avoid going over a bank. (Lots of curves where I live.) Since I have a lifetime habit of analyzing, I did a lot of that; it did not take long for me to understand that those near misses tended to occur when I was tired, often on my way home. Since the act of driving made me tired, it was impossible to avoid that vague feeling in my head, the pulling feeling in my eyes, and the stiff feeling in my knee.
The question about whether I should be driving was one I occasionally considered for a year or two before the problem with my retinas increased to the point that I rarely relaxed into that appealing flow of the car, the road and me. The first of my three eye examinations was with the retina specialist, whom I see every six months. He is young and energetic and treated my question like it was a no-brainer. “Anyone who is not comfortable behind the wheel should not be driving,” he said.
Eight years ago just after Bill died, I told my son Robin and his wife Tammy that I hoped to live out my life in my own home (by the side of the road, being a friend to others). I invited them, even urged them, to speak to me directly at any time if they were worried about my safety, my cognition, my driving, my hearing, or any diminishments that gave them pause. I went on to say that I didn’t want to be one of those mothers whose children had to take away the car keys or decide to put her in a nursing home. Although neither of those circumstances seemed even remotely possible to me at the time, I was sincere in my desire to be open in the future to considering any necessary lifestyle change. However, I wanted to make my own decisions as long as I had the wits (or the wit) to do so. I’m sure that all of you who read this will be saying, “Amen!”
A friend who was working with elderly people once said to me, “Old folks are so good at dealing with loss.” He went on to say that as you age you live with loss all the time—not just death, but in your capacities large and small, your independence and often your resources. I see this all the time in the lives of people I know who are heroic in their ability to go on finding happiness and gratitude for life in the face of immutable circumstances.
When my mother was housebound at the end of her life and dependent on my sister’s help and the attention of home health workers, I asked her if she still had moments of joy. She smiled and said, “Oh yes, but it comes from smaller and smaller things like a perfectly poached egg or a boiling hot cup of coffee.”
My own losses of my life partner, many friends and relatives, physical agility, lung capacity, and now the curtailment of driving have all involved varying levels of grieving and many adjustments, but those things are mitigated by the light of the love that surrounds me and the joy of waking up in my own bed in the morning, putting the leash on Nigel and going out for an early morning walk.
What does it mean to be independent? There may be a few exceptional people, who are truly independent, but in the No man is an island sense, everyone is dependent on others to some degree. I sometimes think modern packaging is designed to thwart old folks in their effort to be independent. If I buy carrot juice, for example, I can’t drink it until Tammy comes by to open the bottle. I have concluded that independence for me starts not with doing absolutely everything for myself, but with the freedom and the ability to make all my own decisions. Being independent also involves the capacity to pay my own way, do my share, and either give something back or pay it forward.
Kind policemen gave me warnings, a friend courageous enough to speak a hard truth told me she had been nervous with my driving because I was weaving and had crossed the yellow line. I chose to raise the question with the eye doctor who spoke more truth, but also referred me to two other specialists to cover all the bases. No one ordered me to stop driving; the state did not revoke my license; and nobody took away my keys. Best of all, no one, including myself, was ever injured by my driving. My hope now is to be able to continue local driving for many years and in addition to accept with grace and gratitude the offers of friends and family to do errands for me or give me rides. I also hope to make my own decision to give up even the local driving later on, if necessary.
My truth, which I share with you, is that the kindest thing we can do for our children or other loved ones is make our own well-informed and timely decisions about any needed changes in our lives for as long as we are able to do that. I doubt that any son or daughter really wants to take the keys away from Mom.