I haven’t written a blog post this year. In one sentence, the shock of watching Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump decimate our democratic process has temporarily castrated my literary vocal chords. But, as bad as things are politically, sometimes I just have to write. I especially write to clear confusion from my mind, to find out what I do or do not think about an issue, to express feeling, or to share an insight. So I am writing about something which happened to me which is totally unrelated to our current political catastrophe. A couple of days ago, I received a huge jolt on the bumpy, downhill highway on which I and most octogenarian citizens find ourselves. We are gradually but jerkily letting go of all our acquired possessions and most of our treasured activities.
I just love to drive. From the time at age 16 that I aced the parallel parking test on the racetrack at the fairgrounds in Marietta, Ohio, my cars and I have been best buddies. I shared this love of driving with my teenage friends. Our cars were our dining rooms as we wolfed down burgers and cokes at drive-in restaurants and theaters. Our cars were our bedrooms as necking became passionate love-making. And some of we guys raced each other up and down the steep hills of this river city in the foothills of the Appalachain Mountains. For lifetime drivers, whose cars have followed them through their changes in home cities, careers and families, this outer shield of our physical bodies becomes a major instrument in the creation of our realities.
Now I am living in a retirement community with my life partner, Stephen. Everything here is geared to a community with community wheels. I wouldn’t need a car to live here successfully. Except I just can’t wrap my mind around the possibility that I won’t need my own wheels to be happy. I’m lucky. I’m still fit, relatively speaking. I can still put on my pants standing up. Hey, I can still do the Yang Short Form in tai chi. I still walk a couple of miles a day. My mother painted the inside of her house at age 80; I know, because I was there to help her. I’m strong enough to help my ailing partner successfully, so we go down to the garage with he either on his walker or me pushing him in his transport chair, and we head out for church, for a picnic, for the art museum or opera, to the park, for a ride in the rain, still defining the farthest boundaries of our common world on our own wheels.
Yesterday, with Stephen riding side-seat, our car and we received a huge jolt. I wasn’t tired, but it had been a difficult day for Stephen. He’s dealing with a bad case of shingles, and didn’t really get going until the afternoon. We had to suffer through a doctor’s appointment at, of all times, 5:00 p.m., but we got through that too. We decided to go to our favorite restaurant, Chris’ Pancake and Dining. They had just put out new menus, and we had a leisurely dinner in this friendly atmosphere, and even a nice conversation with the owner. So heading home to Kirkwood, we were relaxed and well-fed, and the stresses of the day had melted away.
I headed up Hampton Avenue and proceeded to get in the left turn lane for entrance to Highway I-44 West. I’ve done this hundreds of times. But something has been plaguing my highway happiness for the past couple of years. I have been developing cataracts. They aren’t “mature” enough to remove, and I thought, not that much of a problem, except that it is challenging to see clearly at night, especially in low-light situations. And I have noticed that I have the very most trouble at certain freeway entrances. For example, I have noticed that when making the left turn onto I-64 off of Big Bend Blvd. at night, the details of the entrance lane are murky. I wasn’t really thinking about all of this, though, when the jolt came.
I drove under the green light when it turned, and I turned the steering wheel to move into the next left lane. Suddenly, first my left front and then my left rear wheel went up on the curb to the left of the left lane. Fortunately for me, I do not panic in such situations, and my reflexed are still good, so in short order I was back solidly in the lane. I was acutely aware that there might be tire or other damage, and so, instead of turning onto the freeway, I drove on up Hampton in search of a place to turn in and examine the condition of the car. I was really shook up, frankly, from having been shocked into the reality of my failing vision. My body had failed me, or perhaps I had failed my body by putting it into a situation it was not capable of handling. And of course, Stephen was shook up too, innocent bystander, and was trying to talk me down.
I pulled into the Denny’s parking lot at Manchester and Hampton, parked and got out. I examined the tires, checked the pressure, looked for obvious marks on the car body. Everything looked fine. I got back into the car, saying things like, “I can’t believe that I let that happen.” and “I really just didn’t see that curb at all. Wow!” We sat for a while. I asked Stephen if he minded if I drove home on Watson, since if something went wrong, we would not be stranded on the freeway. He said it was fine to do that. And so we ended up reminiscing about places we have been on and off of Watson Road in our 40 years in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area.
Even the next morning, I was still disturbed by this turn of events. As I helped Stephen get through his morning routine in preparation for an appointment with his chiropractor, I was occasionally reviewing the events of the previous evening. On impulse, I went back into the apartment as we were leaving and grabbed two of my favorite CDs so we could have some music on our trip up I-270 to the doctor’s office. We got in the car, left the garage, and headed across Kirkwood on Woodbine Ave. towards I-270 North. It’s spring, so the daffodils are blooming, some of them even looking a bit tired, the magnolia trees are almost fully open, and the air is nice to be out in.
Now we’re speeding north, ruminating about the complexities of independent senior living, when we hear a thump on the rear roof of the car. “What was that?” says Stephen. In the rear view mirror I see a something square and flat stuck in the crack between the rear window and the trunk lid. I know immediately that that is one of Rich Egan’s CDs. And I think that the slimmer volume of the Holland Coots Jazz Quartet’s homage to Fats Waller, This Is So Nice It Must Be Illegal, is forever lost somewhere on the freeway. I had left the two CDs just lying on top of the car. Somehow they had stuck there for at least 5 miles. I was a bit undone, since this obvious failure of the 80 year old body/mind I shabbily possess was the second in less than 24 hours. Somehow I manage to get off the freeway at Daugherty Ferry and amid fits, false lane changes, and U turns, all in moderately heavy traffic. I pull off the road and jump out of the car to retrieve the ragtime album. To my amazement both the CDs have stuck in the crevasse above the trunk lid. I did not loose the Fats Waller tribute after all, which both Stephen and I love.
I get back into the car and pop the favorite CD into the player, yammering not about the amazing alacrity with which I saved the CDs, but about my two foolish, upsetting driving errors. Bear in mind that we are headed towards the office of Stephen’s chiropractor, and if we are even five minutes late, she will cancel the appointment. I have managed to negotiate the car so that I am near the north entrance to I-270, I get back on and make it to the Olive Blvd. office. Stephen navigates his walker through electric doors, lobby, and the slow-as-death elevator, and we enter the chiropractor’s reception area with two minutes to spare.
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I don’t know what I’m going to do about this. My rational self thinks I need to be more vigilant and careful in my driving, but I surmise that any long term change in my driving habits is going to be towards incompetence. My superstitious self wants to see miracles in these events. After all, wasn’t the curb caper almost like a scene out of Starsky and Hutch, and didn’t I emerge triumphantly from the wind-snatching CD filch with Fats Waller tunes still in my hand and on my player? Where are we? Is the glass half empty, or is it half full?
I guess I’ll pull a Hegel on this one. The glass is both half empty and half full. I am slowly loosing my driving abilities, and some time in this decade of my life, I am probably either going to hang up my wheels or have them taken away from me, as a couple of the residents here have resentfully related to me. And I am capable of amazing performances under stress, still. Not without accompaning fretting and grumbling, however.
This morning, I am ready for further octogenarian adventures. Hang on to your CDs.