Happy motoring

Here’s a happy story: An apparently drug-addled woman suffering from dementia who is suspected of striking and killing a pedestrian with her automobile triggers a discussion of the “right” to drive. There is no such thing. Driving is a privilege one earns by passing written and driving tests, and retains through periodic re-examination as deemed necessary by the State or clued-in kinfolk concerned that Grampa Leroy may be getting a tad too daffy to slide behind the wheel of his beloved F-350.

I have some small, bitter experience in this field. My family and I were not especially close. After Dad died in 1980, Mom was pretty much on her own here in Bibleburg while I rambled around the West, burning down newspapers, and my sister worked for social services in Fort Collins.

A snap of our wedding. From left, me, Herself, her mom, my mom, and my sis. On the back of the snap is scribbled, "If this is fun, we're havin' it."

Mom had a business partner, friends and activities — she helped manage a few jointly owned rental properties, played bridge, went golfing and bowling, you name it — and the three of us would generally get together on at least one officially sanctioned national holiday per annum for a short, stiff reunion. We weren’t exactly ringing each other up once a week to dish the dirt the way Herself does with her mom and sisters, is what I’m saying.

One day I got a call from Mom’s business partner, who said she had lost her car and asked for his help buying a new one. Mom had been called to jury duty, which meant a trip downtown — a place she rarely visited — and apparently was so confused by the journey and the judiciary that she forgot where she had parked and walked the seven-odd miles home.

I drove up from Santa Fe and went car-hunting, finally locating Mom’s Mazda 626 in a parking lot not far from the courthouse. My sis came down from Fort Collins and we had a chat with Mom, who was by turns distracted, confused and indignant. Finally, exasperated, I rattled her keychain, a gag item bearing the legend, “I’ve found the keys, now where the hell’s the car?”, and said, “Mom, this isn’t funny. You lost your goddamn car!

It was Alzheimer’s, of course, and a very long story that is. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version: My sister and I had to assume a parental role over our sole surviving parent — taking her to a series of doctors to eliminate all other medical probabilities, then hauling her into court to prove that she was no longer capable of handling her own affairs. We seized control of her finances, her house — and, yes, her vehicle — and eventually committed her to an excellent nursing home. Herself and I quit our jobs in Santa Fe and moved in with her for a while, trying but failing to play the caregivers’ role, postponing the inevitable. I was able to be there with Mom as she died, peacefully, in the Namaste Alzheimer Center.

Mom didn’t take anyone else with her. But she very well could have, and it wouldn’t have been her fault — it would have been ours.

I don’t know a thing about Mary Jo Anne Thomas’ family, and I’m not inclined to throw stones at them from my nifty glass bungalow. But I’ll say this to the rest of you: Ring Mom and Dad up now and again. Pop by for a visit, take ’em out to lunch. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. While bringing a little sunshine into your parents’ twilight years, you might just save some stranger’s life.

Addendum: Someone should run a brain scan on state Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, who told the Boulder Daily Camera: “If you say nobody with dementia can drive, that won’t go over well. I think you’d be laughed out of the Statehouse.” I ain’t laughin’, motherfucker. And neither is John Breaux, Mary Jo Anne Thomas, or anyone who knew either of them when they were still with us.

8 Responses to “Happy motoring”

  1. SteveO' Says:

    Kind of funny (not) that those who have actually experience Alzheimers up close and personal tend to have one opinion, and those who have only read about it have another.

    Here’s my litmus test joke:

    Doctor: I have bad news. You have cancer and you have Alzheimers.
    Patient: Well, at least I don’t have cancer.

    Folks who have lost someone to Alzheimers or are watching someone go right now with it tend to laugh our buttz off, mostly because by this point our already dark sense of humor has gone blacker than a coal miner’s ass at midnight. Others will tell me that this joke is offensive. Yeah, that’s the point.

  2. Khal Spencer Says:

    I saw one of those fatals about three or four years ago up close and personal. An 90 yr. old driver who had no clue as to what she was doing was driving on the wrong side of the 55 mph divided highway that runs down from BombTown to Pojoaque, where it meets up with US 84/285. I remember telling my wife Meena “shit, that car is getting larger, way too fast”. Next thing I did was aim for the ditch.

    The lady drove past us looking like a zombie and was not noticing us as I frantically beeped and flashed my lights. Then she hit a motorcycle head on, killing driver and passenger instantly. Last time I saw so much blood was when big game hunting. If you are up this way and see a pair of wooden crosses where NM-4 diverges from NM 502, that’s the place.

    Even after the crash, the lady was asking people at the scene “why was that motorcycle in my lane?” as we frantically tried to divert traffic around the wreck scene on a high speed curve to keep others from adding to the carnage.

    We worked like hell to get a transit service in town and make sure it serves the senior center. Its fine to get people off the road who shouldn’t be driving, but the carrot is to provide them alternative transportation.

  3. Joey Says:

    On the relative heels of my friend EJ’s (along with his friend, Jayson) death this past summer at the hands of a drug-addled, confused and irresponsible old woman behind the wheel of a huge pickup truck, I’m not feeling a whole lot of sympathy towards people like Mary Jo Anne Thomas. Get out of the fucking car. Legislate it, instill a greater sense of responsibility in family members, whatever you have to do. Just don’t let another one of us who choose to transport ourselves on foot or bicycle get killed by another person that should have left the driver’s seat long ago. “My independence, my right to drive, blah, blah, blah…” How about our right to life?

  4. James Says:

    Joey I feel your pain. I have never lost anyone to a car vs. bike (or motorcycle) accident, but I don’t think that the idea of “lgislate it” is the answer. First and foremost, we have too many stupid laws on the books as it is. The police aren’t going to enforce another one that is dealing with people’s behavior. Nor should they.

    However, that being said, what we (society) should do is ask that when a person plows in to a car, motorcycle, RV, bicycle, whatever, and does major carnage they should be held to the fullest extent of the law. If they kill someone, then they should be charged with either gross vehicular manslaughter, second degree murder, or in very rare cases, first degree murder. The fact that they are senile, dioriented or reckless should be up to the courts and juries to decide. Sadly this very rarely happens.

    But once you begin legislating people’s behaviors you open a Pandora’s box to what they next legislation may be. Instead we should ‘legislate’ the laws that we already have by asking (or demanding) that District Attorneys and prosecutors go for the harshest penlaty on the books. Yes it may cost more money for the courts but that is what they are there for. By adding more laws to the books you give the courts more reason to overlook the loopholes in the law.

    Just as an example, here in California it became illegal to drive a car while talking on a cell phone WITHOUT a hands-free device as of July 1, 2008. Sadly just the other day I saw two drivers back-to-back yaking away with their phones firmly planted to the side of their head! To make matters even worse, the Highway Patrol was asked by the local fishwrap about enforcement of this law. Their response was akin to “it’s not a big deal to us, so we don’t care.”

    If we get law enforcement to ‘enforce’ the law, then I would hope that we could get the bad drivers off the road. And if we punish the offenders like we are suppossed to do, then maybe these types of stories won’t be so frequent.

  5. Joey Says:

    In general, James, I agree with you. Civil libertarian thought is certainly part of my own personal view on life, and I don’t believe we can (or should attempt) to legislate virtue. I also agree that we should hold everyone accountable to the fullest extent of the laws that we currently have in cases such as this one (although I doubt it would change the frequency of cases like this – the future-killers-by-car doesn’t think of themselves as a menace, as their post-accident attitudes prove).

    However, I feel that acknowledging the fact that as we grow older, we are more often than not less capable of certain things we used to be (such as driving), would be a good thing for our legal system. Ignoring this fact, as our rapidly aging population is wanton to do, will not change it. I’m not suggesting we outlaw senior citizen drivers, or that the police should have any part in it; I’m suggesting that we aim for more frequent testing of senior citizen drivers, long before police come into the picture, and don’t play softball. Just because someone’s done something their entire life doesn’t mean that they are still as capable, and doesn’t mean that they’ve earned any right to continue doing it in an impaired state. People get older and retire from all types of dangerous and delicate tasks, knowing their capabilities have lessened with the years (and in fact, our society recognizes and pokes fun at those who, losing their touch, still refuse to retire). Somehow this often gets overlooked when it comes to the piloting of a two-ton, ground-level, 65mph missle.

    I don’t want a nanny state. I do want human lives to count for more than a grandma’s perceived sense of independence-via-auto, and would like to see common-sense procedures that recognize that.

  6. swell Says:

    Wow. I could go on and on about the family stresses and flat-out heartbreak watching a loved one slowly twist in the wind with Parkinson’s. Between mid ’06 thru ’08, we lost my wife’s Dad to Parkinson’s, her mother to cancer, and my momio to dementia/heart failure. Of course, they were all in facilities a morning’s drive in different directions, so every weekend was spoken for. Not complaining. But the “dark sense of humor” SteveO’ refers to is the only thing sometimes that gets you thru. We used to refer to my father in law as residing in an “irony free zone”. Had us in stitches. If someone you know is fading away right now, you have my utmost respect. Keep the blood pumping to the think-meat – ride those bikes!

  7. Opus the Poet Says:

    I have been hit several times while on my bike, no way of knowing what level of impairment if any on the part of the drivers, LEO would have had to look for them to catch them to know (Looooog story) but I have been first on scene several times when a drunk behind the wheel fails to control their car(s). With 2 exceptions the drunks were unhurt, those exceptions being the drunk that rear-ended a flatbed truck with a Chevette, and the one that half-rolled a Pontiac Sunbird convertible off a guy wire on a telephone pole. There were 4 people in the Pontiac, and except for the girl giving head in the back seat there were no survivors. The drunk in the Chevette was alone but I had to hold his hands to keep him from rubbing the windshield glass into his eyes because they itched. The rest of the wrecks the drunks were uninjured at least until I got to them. Actually I am very proud of myself in that as bad as they deserved it I have never assaulted a drunk driver at the scene of a fatal wreck. I just kicked their asses when the cops drove them home (this was before MADD).

  8. Rush Says:

    I’ve always thought that my most likely way to be taken out would be by someone on a cell phone. However considering that the last three people killed on bike in Colorado Springs were all the result of drug/alcohol use… it might be time to update that sentiment.

    Some of the people above have advocated for either a drivers family, doctor, or the drive them self to take away a drivers license. How many people in this age group or effectively orphaned? Very little family? A doctor that barely knows their name? Can you expect someone with advanced mental issues to make this decision. A decision that if it’s not made could easily kill any of us?

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