Sunday, May 3, 2009

Hurricane Ruth

From my fifth floor office window I had an interesting, if not scenic, view of the highway. To the east of my building there were two fire stations on either side of the highway. To the west and behind me there was the mall and several strip centers developed around some interestingly designed intersections. I had a birds' eye view of some very amusing human dramas played out in glass and steel. It is amazing what a human will do encased in the heavy metal armor of a car. When I needed a respite from my computer, I would often glance up and watch the madness on the highway. Occasionally, when I was really bored, I would count how many people got pulled over within my viewpoint during a given period or count how many times one or the other ambulances was dispatched. So, it barely registered when first a firetruck and then an ambulance followed by two police cruisers made their way past me toward the mall on a hot September Friday right before noon. I remember glancing up and watching them wail by, then returning to whatever it was I was working on. Little did I know at the time that they actually signaled a paradigm shift in my life. I had about fifteen more minutes of blissful ignorance before my cell rang.

My husband was calling. He began the conversation by saying, "Your mother's been in an accident." He assured me she was all right immediately, but as the adrenaline began pumping, my mind flooded with a million different thoughts and reactions. Among them: well, she's okay, but what about the other person, was she at fault (and the natural mental follow-up of realizing that she almost certainly was) and why in the hell did my husband know about it before I did?! But the main thought was, "Well, here you go. Your life just changed forever." Turns out, she was at the intersection less than a quarter mile from where I was, but she had called my husband to come help her rather than me. She knew what my reaction would be, and she was resolute on not hearing it. My husband, who was busy with his own work, trying to prepare two communities he managed for the possibility of Hurricane Ike hitting over the weekend, offered to go and help her, but pointed out that I was much closer. I told him I would go, trying to imagine the look on her face when I showed up instead of the warmer, fuzzier son-in-law.

The day was hot and muggy, with the noontime sun heating up the asphalt when I got there. The first thing I saw was her gold van up on an embankment at an awkward angle smashed into a power pole. The entire engine compartment had caved in. The oddest things go through your mind at times like these and mine was, "Now I know why Volkswagen puts the engine in the back." I indicated to a policeman directing traffic around the scene that I was a relative, and he directed me to the Denny's parking lot where the other vehicle was. I could see it off to the side; a large manly truck. I did not immediately see a corresponding large manly man to go with it, but I saw a woman dealing with paperwork and talking to officers, so I figured she was with the other party. Then I saw Mother. She was sitting on her scooter, dressed in a white sweater that was entirely too warm for the Texas heat surrounded by several fire fighters and ambulance workers. The other random and wholly inappropriate thought I had at the time was, "Wow, those guys are good looking." I immediately regretted my Friday casual attire and the fact I hadn't taken the time that morning to do much with my hair as I walked up to them to see what was going on.

I have to say right here and now, everyone working that scene was fantastic. Without belaboring the details, the ambulance workers gave me an assessment of her medical condition, the policemen talked me through what they knew of the accident and made sure I had what I would need for the insurance company, and the firemen helped me get Mother into my car and folded her scooter and lifted it into the back for me. All of them treated her with a high level of respect. Handsome and polite, wow.

My one complaint was that they offered several times for me to go over and look at the other truck. I had absolutely no desire to do anything of the sort. Later I would realize why they kept offering when the insurance company asked me about its condition, but at the time all I knew was that I was mortified that this had happened, and wanted nothing to do with the other driver. Turns out, the woman I had seen was the driver's wife. He was off to the side somewhere. I spoke to her briefly to make sure he was okay, but I could not bring myself to speak to him any more than I could bring myself to inspect his truck. It became clear that, while this was not going to be any day at a picnic for them, that macho truck of his had done its job and protected him. I was grateful for that. Judging by Mother's van, this could have been much, much worse.

Bottom line, Mother failed to stop at a red light. She says that the brakes failed. My mechanic had just done some extensive maintenance on the van, so that cast him in the play that would unfold over the next several weeks, but to the best of my knowledge, there was never any conclusive evidence to support her story. It was an accident like any other. Somebody makes a mistake, reacts too late and hits somebody else. It happens. But she has always stuck to her guns on this point. For me, it hardly mattered. I knew this was a watershed moment for the two of us and things would have to change.

The thing I asked the officer I was dealing with more than once was, "Are you sure she had a legitimate driver's license? You saw it?" He was, and he had. The State of Texas had issued her a new license. She was wholly within her rights to be on the road.

How can that be, you ask? Who in their right mind would give a 90 year old woman a driver's license? I had thrown up every passive roadblock I knew of to prevent it, but she had coaxed someone into driving her down to the Department of Public Services and got it renewed without me. They probably had to. I cannot even fathom someone feeling good about handing someone in my mother's condition a new license, but every 90 year old is different and Mother met whatever requirement Texas sets to renew one's license at that age. I met someone recently whose father was driving a cab into his 80's. I guess that is the hard part for any state: some of us probably shouldn't be driving who are in our 40's. Others of us remain alert until the day we die. There is no bright line that, once you reach it, indicates that you are are no longer able to handle a potentially lethal big metal box.

Trust me, I get it. I know why no one wants to give up their right to drive without a fight. I know what it represents. Particularly for a generation who came through war and depression. My mother represents a group of people forged in the hardest of times. They worked hard for everything they have. They will not lay down their independence easily. Where she and I came into conflict is that I took the position that if you want to be treated like an adult, you have to accept the responsibilities of an adult, one of which is to know and accept your limitations and act in ways that do not place others at risk. It was never a conflict we resolved. I will tell you why when I resume.

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