One of the clearest memories of my dad during my growing years is of him at the wheel of the car. Very macho, very much in control of the car, he sat back with the sleeves of his shirt rolled up, one hand carelessly hanging from the window dangling a cigarette. He was a very confident driver, a bit rash by today’s standards. I always thought of him as the best driver in the whole world. He would patiently drive my mom, sister and me to lunch and outing on weekends. I think he loved to chauffeur his girls around.
As I learnt driving, Dad’s insightful hints helped me through traffic jams on sloping roads. Don’t keep your feet on the clutch, feel the engine, don’t ram the gear box; his deep understanding of driving ensured that I am a consummate driver today.
However, some decades later, I find myself in the midst of a painful dilemma. When I visit my parents in their little town in Kerala, I resort to many and varied excuses to avoid a drive with Dad, all of a willful 78 now. I will walk, catch two buses or sit in an auto in the summer sun rather than sit through a drive where I keep gasping and shutting my eyes. Silently, of course, so as not to hurt Dad’s sentiments. The confident driving has become abrupt and jerky. The strong, capable hands are now fumbling at the gear. Swear words escape him freely as he brakes mercilessly before every pedestrian, dog or trinket seller who crosses the road.
I tactfully inquired at home whether the legal driving age had an upper limit to which my mother answered regretfully. Apparently, under Indian law, one could keep driving slowly, badly but indefinitely. I finally cornered him while he was having his evening drink one day when he was a little mellow. I gently spoke about that day’s incident when he had banged into the car when it slowed to make a right turn. As expected, he accused the other driver of sudden braking. Apparently, my father had not even seen the indicator. We talked for a long time, that day and the next five days of my visit. My concern did come out pushy at times when I would insist him on selling the car the very same week itself. Dad was adamant that he would never give up driving not as long as his hands can turn a steering wheel.
It cripples me to think of my Dad dependency on others for a ride. I don’t live in the same city, and the fragility of his advancing age will make public transport as difficult as driving was. I could only insist on some tests for vision and reflexes with our family physician. After a lot of intervention, we decided on a temporary compromise. He would drive only in the day, and stay off the busy highways. It was not much, but that was all I could manage then.
I worry about him all the time, driving slowly down the road, with my mom strapped patiently into the front seat. I can hear the impatient honking of cars as they drive around and past him. I see his stubborn eyes averted, fixed and focused on the road. I know that if those eyes look into mine, I will see the fear in them. Fear of accepting the reality of fading eyesight and delayed reactions. Of losing his driving license, his will over fate and his independence.
For now, I have chosen the cowardly way out and deferred the decision. Maybe I will get him a driver soon, a compromise between giving up mobility and retaining his independence. He has been in the front passenger seat praying under his breath each time the teenage me crossed lanes or reverse parked; encouraging me to continue driving. Now it’s my turn to guide him as he peers short short-sightedly at the busy road ahead; give him the courage to accept the inevitable and help him to let go and hand over the steering wheel to me.