I was back in Beachwood, Ohio, the suburb east of Cleveland where my mother lives and where I grew up. Ostensibly, I was on vacation, but the reality of my twice-widowed mother’s life at 83—living alone, frail, her short-term memory as unreliable as the Cleveland weather —meant that my visits “home” were not vacations but covert inspections to see how she was doing, like the CEOs on Undercover Boss.
It was clear that she’d grown thinner, her body all sharp lines and angles, shrinking into itself. She’d grown weaker, too, requiring more “time to relax” in her bedroom.” It seemed ironic, since my mom had rarely relaxed in the fifty-some years I’d known her. She was a dynamo, a fanatic cleaner, who craved order in our house the way Martha Stewart craved the right china pattern. Daytime rest wasn’t a choice; this was nature calling, her body’s clock winding down.
Life was a series of tasks to be checked off her list. There seemed to be little joy therein, but no one could say my mother was not diligent, focused, ready for whatever fate would throw her way. She lived, and we lived, on high alert, waiting for the next shoe to drop. Inevitably, it did. I was hit by a car on the first day of kindergarten. My father had a near-fatal heart attack at 44, my mother’s father and brother died within eight weeks of each other, victims of an aneurysm and a heart attack, respectively. The losses piled up, one upon another, like our Lake Effect snows, while my mother continued on, grim but determined.
Mom learned to drive the same way. After my car accident—she was teaching me how to cross our busy street, the one I would cross daily on the way home from school, when I panicked, ran into that same street and fractured my hip upon impact with a vehicle—Mom took driving lessons and slowly grew comfortable behind the wheel. Years later, as a teenager, it was I who fidgeted on the bucket seat of my 1968 Corvair, the one my parents bought me for $475. My stomach turned over as I started the ignition. Though the car leaked oil, it was not the automobile that was, (as Ralph Nader had written) “unsafe at any speed;” it was me.
Mom tried to teach me to drive but the combination of our temperaments—her anxiety and my fear that I couldn’t control the mechanical beast beneath us—meant that a professional was needed. I had four lessons at Heights Driving School and miraculously got my driver’s license just five weeks after my 16th birthday. Still, it was several years before I developed a sense of driving ease. That ease came only after a series of fender-benders, speeding tickets, and a small mishap at home, when I took out the drainage pipe that snaked along the edge of our narrow driveway, denting the Corvair in the process.
Eventually, in my mid-20’s, I learned to drive a stick shift. In my red ’84 Datsun Pulsar, and later, my black ’90 Geo Storm, I shifted smoothly from low to high gear and headed out along the highway, at one with my vehicle. Now, 30 years later, I sat in the passenger seat of my mother’s gray Mercedes as we headed toward the local branch library.
I tracked her eating (or lack thereof) and worried about other dangers—her dwindling number of friends, social isolation, potential falls. I wondered, too, if she was safe behind the wheel, if she could and should still be driving a car. And so, though I had a rental car, I asked her to drive us to the library.
Shrunken down to 5’ from her original 5’2,” Mom peered over the dashboard, her seat raised to maximum height, only her red hair visible to oncoming drivers. Strapped in by the shoulder harness, her hands shook from the tremors that appear whenever she gets nervous. Slowly, carefully she looked left, right, and we were on our way. We reached the library without incident.
On the way home, we repeated the process. Only this time, my mother simply drove out into the busy street, or started to.
"Wait!” I yelled, heart in my throat.
“What?” she asked, then sped across the asphalt, cutting off the oncoming car I’d noticed a few seconds earlier.
I bit my tongue and said something about the need to look both ways. Suddenly we had reversed roles, me the nervous parent, she the petulant teenager.
“Your Mom was probably nervous because you were in the car,” her social worker said, when I called her later that day.
For now, I’m choosing to believe her, because I live 700 miles away, because I have little choice, and because my mother, at 83, has become a teenager.