On my mom’s 80th birthday, she bought herself a sporty, fire-engine-red Lexus with the ability to speed from zero to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds. She loved high-octane cars, and although her driving had been a subject of enormous worry among her children and husband for several years, she was not going to put off this present to herself.
An old lady with scoliosis, my mom stood barely 5 foot 2. In her prize car, she could just see over the steering wheel, but oh how she loved putting her pedal to the metal.
Within a few months, I noticed a couple, then three, then four dents on her pretty car. “What happened, Mom?” I’d query, trying to keep judgment out of my voice. “I don’t know,” she’d reply noncommittally, although we all knew this was a coverup. At one point, my brother had forcibly grabbed the steering wheel from her hands, giving it a hard turn to avoid a collision. I, too, had been witness to too-close encounters with cyclists and even joggers.
Still, I was fully aware how much the car meant to Mom both as a means of transportation to the market, hairdresser and her friends, and as a metaphor for her independence. She loved being the old lady in the red Lexus.
After each new dent, we tried reasoning with her to consider giving up the keys, hiring taxis or Ubers, or asking Shelia, her aide, to take her for visits and errands. She flat-out refused.
But one day about six months after buying the Lexus, she came home in a smaller, less-tricked-out model, still red. That first car had “a design flaw,” she told us. A quick check with the dealer showed no flaws and no other explanation, either. But Mom was ebullient. “This car will make it easy for me to drive again,” she said.
After more dents, she was sure the problem was her eyes — and so she had cataract surgery. Alas, no improvement.
One day we sat down together as a family to finally beg her to stop driving. She listened intensely. When we had finished, she said bluntly: “Thank you very much for your concern. Now you can go [expletive deleted] yourselves.” No loss of spunk there!
My sister, a lawyer, raised my parents’ umbrella liability to protect their assets in case they got sued because of her driving. But we talked incessantly among ourselves, concerned that Mom would maim — or worse, kill — someone with her car. Not to mention herself. How could we live with ourselves? We couldn’t.
And then one day, Mom backed the Lexus out of the driveway right into a neighbor’s parked car. Mom took no responsibility for the damage inflicted, even going so far as to blame our neighbor for parking in her way. It was both fascinating and horrifying to see her so easily justify this behavior.
My siblings and I did some digging and discovered that in New York, where my parents were living, anyone can file an anonymous “request for driver review.” The form asked for some basic information before getting to the heart of the matter: “Your reasons for reporting this driver.”
We debated over whether to file the form, believing that it would surely result in the revocation of her driving privileges. How would we feel if the tables had been turned? Outraged. Nonetheless, we persisted. As the eldest, I was designated to sign, seal and send in this form; my brother and sister added their names as others “who agreed with your assessment of this driver.” And we made a pact never to disclose our role — at least while Mom was alive. After all, we had turned our mother in to the state.
Months later, Mom received a letter from the DMV informing her that she had been “reported” and was now required to take both the state’s written and road driving tests within the month. Talk about livid. She was convinced that it was her neighbor — the one with the smashed car — who had ratted her out. Her outrage masked equal parts humiliation and the fear of losing her independence, worsened by a subsequent lung cancer diagnosis and surgery that, on the bright side, gave her an extension for taking the test.
While recovering from her surgery, she enrolled in a local driving school. She knew from the DMV letter that if she failed to appear or to pass, her license would be revoked. “I’ve been driving my entire lifetime,” she explained to me. “I’ll know when it’s time for me to stop.”
Finally, on the appointed day and hour, Shelia drove Mom to the DMV for the test. She passed the written part but failed the road test. When I talked to her later in the day, she sounded dejected but also furious at the examiner, who she said had been rude and condescending. A week later, his evaluation came in the mail: He had dinged Mom for poor judgment, being inattentive to traffic, failing to stay in the proper lane, impeding traffic flow, poor acceleration, poor steering, delayed braking and more. Indeed, his comments were rude and condescending, but they were entirely accurate. His final words:
“Extremely dangerous!! Turns wide into wrong side of road! Poor late braking. No observation at all backing. Completely unaware of surroundings. FAILED.”
Mom’s license was revoked and she was issued a New York State ID card in lieu of it.
For my siblings and me, it was mission accomplished. We did our best to ferry her to and fro, as did Shelia and some neighbors. (My dad was very sick at this point and wasn’t driving). But her world had grown considerably smaller, shrinking week by week as both her disease and old age took their toll. I remained conflicted about what we — what I — had done. When my turn comes to turn in the keys, I wondered, would I be self-aware enough to do so voluntarily? I’d like to think so, especially in light of what we went through with Mom.
After Mom died, I found a zip-top bag among her papers; it contained all the correspondence with the state about her driver’s review. It was as though she had packed it up for her kids, a message in a bottle for a day yet to come.