Thirty years ago my mother took me to the Department Of Motor Vehicles in Maine to get my driver’s license. I was sixteen at the time. I’d had my learner’s permit for a few months, waiting for my examination date. I was nervous, whereas both my older siblings had failed their exam a couple of times each before getting their license, and this was my first try. Fortunately I did pass, and became a licensed driver in the fall of 1984. I also had my first accident that fall, as my inexperience on slick roads led me to crash headlong into a telephone pole, sliding on wet leaves and black ice. The perils of driving in Maine post-Labor Day.
Three decades (and a few more accidents, though not my fault) later, I returned to the DMV yesterday for a license exam, though this one was not for me. It was for my 83 year old mother, who was required to take a test as a result of her geriatric evaluation in October. I drove us to Maine yesterday, picked up her car from her former home in Gorham, and she drove to the exam location in Scarborough, whereas it’s been nearly two weeks since she was behind the wheel, ever since her relocation to Massachusetts.
I offered what encouragement I could to her, albeit ‘disingenuous’ in a way. I’ve been in a car with her a few times recently. I’ve had to remind her of the speed limit many times, whereas she was traveling more than 10 miles per hour over the posted speed without noticing it. I’ve watched her cross the center line to avoid imaginary obstacles in the road (her stated reason for the movement of the car) ahead of her. Yesterday she nearly took out two mailboxes as she struggled with her seatbelt, choosing to fasten it while moving rather than while stationary. I’ve seen her frustration and anxiety when her usual route to a location is either unavailable, or I choose a more direct route to drive in, whereas Mom tends to go well out of her way to avoid traffic lights and a glut of vehicles.
Truth be told….I didn’t want her to pass the test. I do not feel she is safe behind the wheel any longer. I haven’t felt that way of late, and have tried to talk to her about it, but no amount of discussion would convince her to retire from driving. A month and a half ago she was told she had to take this test, or simply surrender her license. She chose the test, and I can’t say I blame her. It gave her a fighting chance to prove that she could still navigate the highways and byways safely, after more than 50 years of driving. She’s historically been a very cautious and safe driver. She has never (in her reporting) had as much as a speeding ticket. She’s been a very conscientious traveller on the roads. In her mind, there was no reason to think she shouldn’t continue.
The pre-road evaluation testing (before she was to drive) involved reading and identifying road signs and a 13 question written test. I won’t share all the results, and just leave it at the driving portion didn’t occur. The examiner who tested her called me in after 40 minutes to discuss the results, and then offered Mom a re-test (Maine will offer up to three tries and then you must appeal if they still cannot/will not pass you) in two weeks, which we signed up for. We left the DMV with her feeling defeated and somewhat humiliated.
That’s the part I feel very badly for, for her sake. I want her safe. I don’t want her filled with sorrow.
Reaching a stage of life where she’s losing everything she’s familiar with, everything she’s worked for and struggled to maintain…her independence, her home, her ‘identity’ (through memory loss), is all very difficult for her. She still fights it daily, and I see the disappointment written on her face when the results are not what she might have hoped for. She’s at a place where it’s becoming increasingly necessary to rely on others. I know my mother very well. I am her, to a large degree. I know that the struggle is not to ‘find’ someone to rely upon, it’s the act of giving control of yourself and your life to someone else. It’s the need to ‘surrender’, rather than continue to struggle, day in and day out, no matter who is waiting to catch you and keep you standing upright.
This week my Christmas tree went up. I am a tried and true Virgo when it comes to Christmas decorating – everything on the tree has a purpose and a place, and there must be symmetry to it all, or it flies in the face of my nature, and will drive me to distraction to look at it. I’m not at an OCD level about it, I just thrive on order (and yet I’m a parent, go figure) and logic. I have been the tree decorator for more than 30 years. When I approached my teens, Mom was weary of the entire Christmas process, and had no like left for it at all, let alone love. Her children were beyond the ‘believing in Santa’ phase – no grandchildren had yet appeared – and her feelings of inadequacy in providing for her children were overwhelming to her. Christmas seemed like nothing more than a huge reminder of that to her. I took over decorating the living room, with the ill-conceived belief that if I just did a good enough job, if it all looked extra sparkly and bright; if every ornament and light were in just the right place….she’d be able to enjoy it, and might even love Christmas again.
I failed in my endeavors, year after year…and yet each year I tried again, and again, to reignite the fire for her. It never came back. The only thing that really came of it was I became plagued with a desire to create the ‘perfect’ Christmas tree, with whatever meager means I had, each year. Every December I choose two colors or some sort of ‘theme’ for the tree (rainbow flag lights, red and gold ornaments, all red lights and ornaments, and this year pink lights and silver ornaments) and spend hours aligning everything ‘properly’. No matter who I have lived with, or has lived with me, I’ve been the tree decorator, and I’ve done it solo, by choice.
This year, the boys wanted to help decorate our family Christmas tree. This year….I surrendered.
The result of my acquiescence is a tree with ornaments placed with no rhyme or reason all over the place – nothing is symmetrical…nothing makes sense…nothing is spaced out or planned….it’s not decorated in a dogged or fixated manner. It’s decorated as a child would decorate it…as two children did, with all the youthful eagerness and impetuosity that Christmas still holds for them, as I hope it always does.
It’s truly the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen. Not because it’s ‘even’ or ‘proportional’ – but because it’s really a family effort this year….a family tree that we all had a hand in producing.
Mom has two weeks until her re-test. I’ve advised her that I will support whatever decision she makes about it. If she wishes to try again, I will make sure she gets there and has that opportunity. I will ‘study’ for the test with her. I’ve also advised her that of late she has mentioned that she feels like she’s losing control over everything, and to make a decision to retire from driving is a way for her, if you really think about it, to take control, rather than leaving the results to chance and having the DMV tell her what to do. If she goes that route, I’ll support that 100% as well. I’ve left the choice up to her.
I recognize how hard this is for her…all this transition, all this change, all this ‘loss’ (as she sees it). I am doing everything in my power to be compassionate and considerate and understanding, while still prompting for the changes that need to be made, and easing her into them. I hope that over time she learns to take comfort in spending more time with her son and her grandchildren, rather than lament what she left two hours north. I hope that over time she recognizes the ‘greater good’ that this is for, rather than sink into despair over not being able to do it all for herself any longer, and needing to rely on others…to rely on me…to take care of her. I hope that not having a lawn to have mowed and a driveway to have plowed and four bedrooms to have cleaned along with a kitchen, living room, bathroom, dining room, etc. seems like a weight lifted from her shoulders. I hope that she comes to realize that she’s earned the right to ‘relax’ a lot more than she’s allowed herself to do in the 83 years she’s lived thus far, and enjoy that relaxation for whatever years remain for her.
Most of all, I hope she learns to surrender….and to be at peace with it.