*Primary Progressive Aphasia, a degeneration of the part of the brain that affects speech.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Learning to Un-Drive

Tommy and I were stalled in traffic, classical music was playing on the car radio. It seemed a good time to finally ask the question.

“Honey,” I said, turning to my husband, silent in his passenger seat. 

“Do you miss driving?” 

That question had been a pest in my brain ever since I took away his car keys. I knew I had to force it out, place it before Tommy if the guilt ever were to leave. 

Needling in my conscience: How could I have deprived him of driving, of a skill he had worked so hard to accomplish? How could I have robbed him of his independence when so much had already been snatched way? 

Tommy turned towards me, shook his head “no.”  Then, he raised his hands and turned two thumbs down. 

“You don’t miss it?” I said. I wanted to be sure I understood his meaning. I wanted to cleared of my crime, off the hook. 

Another head shake, “no.” 

I thought it ironic I was the one who took him off the road, when I was the one who had put him there. 

It was 1999, the second year of our marriage. I was in the driver’s seat; Tommy a passenger because he didn’t own a car, had no license. 

“You’ve got to learn how to drive,” I had said. “I’m tired of doing all of the driving.” 

He was 64 at the time and took up the challenge as if he were a teen yearning for a shot at his dad’s wheels. 

After a series of lessons, Tommy got his license. I watched as he placed it in his wallet,  tender and proud as a dad tucking his newborn in for the night. 

For a time, we shared my car, but soon, like that teen he resembled, he wanted his own. To dealerships we went, inhaling new car scents as we circled autos, debated exterior colors, interior upholstery, and the wisdom of a sunroof. 

Finally, Tommy choose a champagne-colored sedan with power steering, power windows, a fob keychain that unlocked and relocked the doors, and cup holders. 

“I love it!” he had said, sitting upright in the driver’s seat of his new car, hands at two and ten o’clock as instructed. I was happy for him, and for me. I’d now have my car all to myself. 

At the beginning, when we’d go out together, we’d use his car. We were like many married couples; husband in the driver's seat, wife a passenger reading the map, tuning the radio, or day dreaming out the side window. But, after awhile, I couldn't abide Tommy's driving, 

"Red light, red light!" I'd shout and stamp my foot on my imaginary brake. 

"I see it, I see it!" he'd say, and we'd both bounce towards the windshield as the car came to an abrupt stop. 

Eventually, I took the coward's way out. When Tommy was at the wheel, I'd settle into the passenger seat, close my eyes and keep them shut until I heard the ignition switch turn off. 

As the years passed -- without me alongside harassing or zoning out -- he started to have a few scrapes. Then three red light tickets in a row. And finally, the brain degeneration he was diagnosed with in 2009 slowly began to rob him of speech. 

I worried, how could he explain himself to another driver if he were to have an accident? To a police officer? Neighbors who knew of his condition and had witnessed him leaving the scene of a fender bender, worried about their young children. I insisted he stop driving. 

Of course Tommy protested, who wouldn’t. He surrendered when I threatened to have his car battery removed. And, when I promised I’d drive him whenever and wherever he wanted to go, he fished his keys from his pocket, held them in his fist for a second, then dropped them in my palm. 

The following week we sold his car, the champagne-colored, full-featured, with sunroof, sedan he loved. 

True to my word, I now drive my husband whenever, wherever. In my car, with me in the driver’s seat and Tommy in the passenger’s, I chauffeur him back and forth to the YMCA three days a week, to the golf store for putting practice, drop offs at the bowling alley or golf course to meet his buddies, to Home Depot or the garden shop for his supplies, and to doctors’ appointments. 

Although I had once complained about being at the wheel full-time, and I have returned to that role, I’m not resentful. Tommy said he didn’t miss driving. He repeated it with two thumbs down.  

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