Getting your driver’s license on your sixteenth birthday was a rite of passage when I was a teenager. I’m sure it still is for most of the United States, especially in rural towns where public transportation isn’t an option, but here in Homer it’s not uncommon for kids to wait a while before they get their license. Some of them don’t bother until they’re about to graduate from high school and they realize they won’t always have their parents to drive them around.
My son waited until he was seventeen before he got his driver’s permit, which meant he had to wait another six months to get his license. And here in Alaska we have “provisional” licenses, (thank God!) which means that kids can’t drive their friends around until they’ve been licensed for six months.
We were a three car family for a while. Dean and I each have one that gets decent gas mileage, and then we had a Toyota 4-runner that we use for things like hauling the boat and getting firewood etc. When our son got his driver’s license we let him use the 4-runner. We thought it would be a good first vehicle for him; it’s pretty much bomb proof and it guzzles gas like you wouldn’t believe, which we thought would teach him about conservation. Our idea was that if you can only afford to fill it up once a month or so, you learn to carpool and not partake in lots of frivolous driving around. Our plan was working pretty well until the 4-runner died a couple of weeks ago.
It’s been a bit of a transition going backwards like that. Our son, who finally got a job in order to support his driving habit, was loving his freedom, even if he did have to parcel it out. And we were getting pretty fond of it as well. When we no longer had to chauffer him around we found extra hours in our week. With offers to pitch in a few bucks for gas we’d send him on errands to pick up his sister or a few groceries. We no longer had to make late night runs to town to retrieve him from his girlfriend’s house. It was nice while it lasted.
When you’re a driving adult it’s easy to take the freedom it brings for granted. I certainly appreciate not having to ask for a ride every time I want to go somewhere. Our son has adjusted pretty well to this step backwards, partly because it’s summer and he can bike a little, and partly because we let him borrow one of our other cars now and then. And he knows it’s a temporary thing. He’s young and can save his money for a car and soon enough he’ll be back in wheels of his own.
On the other end of the driving spectrum is my Granddad. I don’t know how old he was when he first got his driver’s license, but last week at age 93 he finally had to give it up. I saw him about a month ago and the thought of him driving was pretty terrifying. He had trouble staying awake for very long and he moved very slowly. Just getting up from his chair in the living room and walking the 15 feet to the kitchen table seemed to take an eternity and it looked like he could topple over at any moment.
His driving had been a concern of ours, especially my mother’s, for the past couple of years. She and my step-dad have been the ones who have checked in on my grandparents, (who at 90 and 93 years old still live on their own), every chance they get, and have constantly tried to assess where and when to assert their help. Respecting their desire to remain independent has not been easy. They have ever so slowly slipped into that stage of their lives where independence isn’t always the safest option. For example, on January 1st my granddad took my grandmother to her weekly hair appointment, dropped her off and drove back home, never realizing that the hair salon was closed for the New Year’s holiday. My grandmother had to teeter across a busy intersection to get to a grocery store where she called home and asked my granddad to come pick her up. When he answered the phone he couldn’t hear anything, so he hung up. Eventually she got a ride with a cab, but when she returned home my granddad had no recollection of ever dropping her off in the first place. Worrisome stuff, to put it mildly.
Well last Sunday when my granddad was driving home from church he rear-ended someone. I don’t know the details of the accident but I do know that nobody was injured. I can only imagine the scene with my very old, very slow-moving grandfather getting out of the car to assess the damage. He used to be a great auto-body repairman and I would bet that before he realized that the accident would end his driving career he was thinking about how to make the cars look new again.
I haven’t heard how my granddad is dealing with the fact that he can no longer drive. Even though the roads are safer without him behind the steering wheel, it must be a frustrating loss of freedom. The good news is that he’s forgetful, so maybe he won’t remember how he lost his driver’s license. Maybe his short-term memory will fail him in a beneficial way and the after-church, rear-ending incident will fade away leaving space for the memories of all the road trips of his past. And my mom must be relieved. There are plenty of things for her to worry about with her aged parents, but at least Granddad driving is no longer one of them.