Up until 19 months ago, Daddy was still driving his red Ford Taurus. He and Mama would make a least one trip a day. They'd go to Eckerd to pick up a prescription, to Saratoga to visit my aunt and uncle or to WalMart to walk around the store for exercise and a box of Corn Flakes or half-gallon of milk. And they'd make the familiar trek to Rock Ridge, where they'd ride by landmarks important to Daddy's childhood: the farm, the church, the school.
We live just a few doors down from my parents, so I'd often see them drive by or hear the familiar sound of Daddy's car horn, letting me know they were either going or coming.
In the year before he stopped driving, I started having mixed emotions about whether he should be behind the wheel. On the one hand, I knew how important his independence was to his mental well-being. On the other hand, I feared he might not be sharp enough to drive and might end up having a wreck and hurting someone. I worried about this — panicked in fact — every time he drove by my house headed towards Ward Boulevard. I held my breath until I heard him honk the horn, sometimes hours later, letting me know they were almost home. At least they'd always be back by dark, which gave me some comfort.
But one evening they didn't return by sunset. In fact, they were still missing well into the evening. I've never know such fear in my life. I called everyone we knew and drove to all of their usual spots including McDonald's and Chick-Fil-A, where they often ate their evening meal. The employees told me they hadn't seen them. Then I started driving around the county. I followed every path I knew they took on a regular basis including the roads around Daddy's Rock Ridge farm. I even alerted my cousins on the other side of the county, who were just heading out for their own search when I got word that Mama and Daddy had returned. They had gotten lost and driven around for hours looking for something familiar. Daddy tried to play it all down, but Mama was crying and shaking and as scared as I had been. They had apparently stopped for directions, God only knows where, but eventually found their own way home.
I should have taken action that night. Should have seen the signs of Alzheimer's in Daddy. Getting lost had been one of Mama's first symptoms. I ignored it then with Mama, hoping it would go away, and ignored it the next time with Daddy. Denial is a powerful thing, you know.
Anyway, late in May 2006, Daddy was hospitalized. I barely remember why, but I do remember his doctor saying he couldn't drive. At first we thought she meant for a few days, and then we realized she meant forever.
If you've never taken away someone's car keys then you can't understand the trauma and drama of the next few days and even weeks. My daddy became a monster to me and my sister and even my husband. He said awful things to us, threatened us and made us feel like the most ungrateful people in the world. He begged me for the car keys. But I held strong. He warned me then that if I took away his car I'd be taking away his life. That if couldn't or wouldn't be able to live without his independence. It broke my heart, but by this time, I was getting used to having a broken heart.
His words rang true to a degree. He absolutely lost a vibrant part of himself that summer as he resigned himself to the fact that Reggie and I would be taking him wherever he had to go.
It's a big responsibility to become someone's wheels, but it was a responsibility I took with gladness. I could rest much easier knowing Daddy was no longer behind the wheel. No longer a potential threat.
Over that summer I started taking Mama and Daddy on long drives through the countryside. I'll tell you about those another day.
I was reminded of all of this when my next door neighbor sent a note to my parents this week, telling them how much she missed seeing them ride by in their little red car, beeping the horn to let me know they were OK.
I miss it too.