Thursday, July 20, 2023

Dad, Driving

It's grown harder and harder for Dad to move as the years have rolled by.

I first noticed it when he was in his early sixties, as it became harder and harder for him to trounce me on the tennis court.  Dad was always a cagey, fierce competitor, a tournament-level senior player.  I might have been thirty years younger, but my game was what one might politely call "recreational."  I never, ever took a game from him.  Points, on occasion.  But never a game.

Dad had a short mans' game, nimble, strategic, and accurate, a holdover from an wooden-racket era when men's tennis wasn't such a drab sport to watch, just rangey dudes bashing away from the backcourt.  Court mobility and placement were his strengths, and while the latter stuck around, the former?

Slowly, inexorably, his knees wouldn't let him move.  He still tried, still pushed, because winning mattered to him.  But I could see him hurting himself to get to the ball, see him pull up when he tried to run, a grimace breaking out on his face as pain lanced from his knees.  Were I a monster, I suppose I could have taken a couple of games off of him then.  Maybe a whole set.  But the killer instinct is not strong in me, particularly with folks I love.

Tennis faded away.  But his knees kept worsening.  Walking became harder.  We encouraged him to get the knees replaced, but he wanted to wait "because knee replacement surgery doesn't last forever, and I only want to do them once."  There was a thrifty Scots logic to that, I suppose, but it meant years of discomfort.  

Then, in his early seventies, his heart began to fail.  Bypasses.  Valve replacements.  Emergency replacements of the valve replacements.  That, plus his knees, plus his vision, plus his hip.

It wasn't simply that he couldn't walk.  It became harder to drive, harder for him to remember where he was going.  We live just fifteen minutes away, in the same house we've lived in for twenty five years.  But Dad started having trouble remembering how to get to us, as Mom...whose memory has always been a wee bit scattered...took over navigating.

And then, finally, in his early eighties and at the height of the COVID pandemic, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

Suddenly, getting out was a big deal.  Walking any distance was impossible.  But driving?  Lord have mercy, was it hard to get him to stop.  Not that he loved driving, because he was the farthest thing from a car enthusiast.  Our family cars were always practical vehicles, just a way to get from point A to point B.  

But point B meant being with people, and that was what gave life savor.   It meant tennis and beer with friends, or just beer with friends.  It meant singing in the choir, and getting to rehearsals for community theater.  It meant social gatherings and dinner parties.  It meant going to movies, and going to concerts.

Driving is how you live well in America, and how you spend time with other people.  For men of his generation, it was also a marker of maleness, of virility, of capacity and competence.  And as it became less and less safe for Dad to be behind the wheel, that sense of self started drifting away.  He had to stop.  Had to.  He couldn't see.  His reaction time was shot.  He had less and less sense of where he was on the road.  He was, frankly, terrifying to drive with.

But it it is with so many of us...hard for him to admit it.  He still hasn't totally admitted it, as of this writing.  Some days he accepts that his driving days are done.  Other days, when his father's stubbornness rises up in him, he'll insist that he needs to stay in practice.  To get out and about.  In case of an emergency.

But he can't walk to the car without his walker, and can't get into it without help.  That's on a good day, when his CHF doesn't leave him so weak and winded that he can barely lift his legs.

Without mobility in a society that demands mobility, life gets so much harder.