How a lifelong passion for driving ended abruptly with a checkmark on a medical form
I remember riding in the passenger seat of his old Pontiac convertible as a little girl with a big grin plastered on my face. Telling jokes and pointing out interesting sights as we cruised along, there was never a dull moment with him behind the wheel.
Today, the drive is much less exciting. At age 83, it’s my grandfather who occupies the passenger seat. Laughter replaced by silence, he stares blankly out the car window, the smiles drained from his aging face as I pull into the parking lot of the local grocery store.
A little more than a year ago, a checkmark on a medical form had my grandfather sitting nervously, waiting in a room full of “hooligans” — his term for anyone under the age of 25 — to retake his driver’s test.
Little did he know, the short drive he had taken just moments before would be his last. Slouching over in disappointment after receiving the news he had failed the test, he faced the reality that he had just lost the right to drive.
“I just drove the way I had always driven, but the rules have changed dramatically,” my grandfather said.
“You would hit a place where it said you had to go 50 kilometres and there were kids around. I didn’t think it was right so I wouldn’t do it.”
My mom and I stepped up to the plate, taking my grandparents wherever they needed to go and after my grandmother stopped worrying about how they would get groceries or take the dog to the vet, we thought the situation had been resolved.
It was not until a few months later, when my grandfather had still not gotten back to his old self, that we realized the challenges were much greater.
“He used to be a very outgoing, talkative, engaging man,” my mom said.
“Now he is silent, disengaged with the world around him, and just not interested in the things he used to love. I worry about him now.”
A love for the road
My grandfather fell in love with driving at a young age. Growing up on a farm in Hythe, Alta., his father taught him to drive at just 10 years old when he struggled to even reach the brake pedal.
Photo courtesy of: Tanis Brown.
His father gave him a driver’s test at home, and deemed him ready to be behind the wheel when he was able to accelerate and brake without spilling a glass of water that was placed on the floor of their standard-transmission car.
“In those days, getting your license was as simple as getting your parents permission,” my grandfather said.
“You just went into town, gave them a dollar, and you got your license.”
At age 16 he purchased his first car — a forest green 1932 Chevrolet Roadster — from his Father for $50. It was a big change from the horse he used to ride to school.
His bright blue eyes staring out at the dirt road in front of him, he loved feeling the wind blow through his dark- brown hair as he drove the car to town with the top down, the sun beating on his young face.
“I know I put more miles on my dad’s car then he ever did,” my grandfather bragged.
In his 20s, my grandfather worked on the rigs tossing bags of cement to fund his road-trip habit. Pinching pennies, he planned to save up enough money to buy a decent car and fund his adventures. He would drive off for months at a time, heading south with little more then a road map and the clothes on his back.
Living his dream
Many years later, after a whirlwind of cars — his favorite being a blue 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible — my grandfather retired in 1988.
Driving along the highway with his fifth-wheel trailer in tow, my grandmother next to him in the passenger’s seat, he headed for warmer weather. Alberta prairies fading into the red rocks of Utah, the highway gave my grandfather the freedom he had craved for most of his adult life.
After many winters spent traveling across the United States, he and my grandmother fell in love with the desert landscape, and found their home in retirement trailer parks in Arizona. My grandmother could waste away the day visiting with other snowbirds, while my grandfather took the opportunity to drive through the desert, connecting with nature through his rear view mirror.
Photo courtesy of: Tanis Brown.
I remember going down with my mom to visit them in Arizona, and my grandfather taking me for drives on desert roads for hours. I would have been about eight at the time, but I have never seen him as happy as he was then, the sun glistening in his sandy grey hair, a huge smile causing the crow’s feet around his eyes to deepen that much further.
Losing a passion
In 2005, my grandfather’s world changed forever when he drove through an intersection when it was unsafe to do so, his pickup earning itself a nice dent in the passenger side door. This was when my grandmother began to get nervous and doubt my grandfather’s ability to drive. For the first time in 18 years, they did not make their annual trip to Arizona.
For a while, my grandfather held on to hope that he could change my grandmother’s mind, but eventually he gave up and sold his beloved truck and trailer. I don’t think he has ever been the same since he watched it drive down the road.
Settling in behind the wheel of a more modest Grand Marquis, my grandfather molded into your typical 76-year-old man, and became noticeably grumpier. He complained about how much society had changed; the rules of the road in particular.
It was no surprise when my grandfather went for his yearly physical to renew his driver’s license in January 2010, and came home with a checkmark requiring him to undergo another driver’s test. Although his new doctor did not know him well, he did clue in to what the rest of my family had known for months — my grandfather was too old to be driving.
“He just did not pay attention the way he used to,” my mom said.
“He would turn into the wrong lane, drive a great deal under the speed limit. It wasn’t safe, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him; we just tried to avoid giving him the opportunity to drive.”
Without consulting his friends or family, my grandfather drove himself to a small office that administered road tests. Annoyed at the inconvenience, he was confident that he would pass the test. When it came to driving, failure was not in his vocabulary.
“I thought it was awful stupid, part of it, you know you had to speed up, slow down, speed up and slow down and it just didn’t make sense to me,” my grandfather complained.
“Most old people have lived all their lives driving that same way, and the tester just doesn’t see that.”
Disappointment and embarrassment gave way to anger as he exchanged a few choice words with the man administering the test. I really believe that man broke my grandfather’s heart that day when he did what none of the rest of us could do.
My grandfather had been downgraded to a learner’s license.
Knowing he had the same driving privileges as his 14-year-old grandson was a crushing blow to his ego. The shock of not being able to pursue his life’s passion was a hard pill to swallow, a right that he fought tooth and nail for over the next few months as he underwent driving lessons with my mom.
“Teaching the man who taught me to drive was heartbreaking,” my mom said.
“He was only getting more frustrated and confused by how much had changed.”
After some research online, my mom found a driving course for seniors at the Alberta Motor Association, or AMA, giving my grandfather that last glimpse of hope that his right to drive could be restored. I remember seeing an optimistic twinkle in his old-blue eyes in the days leading up to his first lesson. He was sure that a few hours behind the wheel with a driving instructor would turn it all around.
Unfortunately, this was not the case. Coming home that day, it was clear to us all that he had reached his breaking point. He told my mom to sell the car he had been driving, and to cancel the insurance. To this day, my grandfather will not share with anyone what happened during his first lesson, but it was clear that he was done trying to get his license back.
“If I couldn’t drive the way I wanted to, I wasn’t going to drive at all,” my grandfather explained.
“I wasn’t going to go through with another one of those idiot tests.”
It’s clear to us all that the loss of his license was about much more then not having a way to get around — it was a loss of independence, a loss of his dignity and a loss of his zest for life.
While he still struggles to accept what has happened, we try to help him deal with the emotional challenges as best we can.
These days, it’s rare that I catch a glimpse of the man who used to explore the desert with me by his side. It’s a sad fact to face, but I treasure those short drives to the grocery store once a week with him, just as he treasured driving with all of us.