A driver in his mid-nineties was trying to parallel park on a busy street in Palo Alto during the height of the lunchtime hour this week. The driver hit the accelerator instead of the brake and slammed into a pedestrian and four people seated at tables outside of a restaurant. Two of them needed surgery, the others had cuts and bruises. The driver could just as easily have killed them all. The police are calling this a tragic accident and, pending further investigation, don’t plan to file criminal charges.
The DMV requires that the driver take an ’emergency retest’ to see if his license should be taken away. Really? If he passes his retest, will they let him out on the road again? He wasn’t drinking. He could have been doing drugs, perfectly legal drugs that impair his ability to respond quickly, to coordinate his eye, hand and foot movements, to judge distances and inhibit his responses.
Actually, what he was doing is criminal. He shouldn’t have been driving in the first place. The people he injured may suffer permanent health problems or be disfigured. Our collective insurance rates will rise because his insurance company will have to reimburse the people he injured. If he had killed the five people he injured, their families would have suffered serious consequences.
The Department of Motor Vehicles should draw a line in the sand. No matter how well a 90- year-old sees or how many questions he answers correctly, he’s too old to drive. No matter how sharp his memory or what a good dancer he still is, behind the wheel of a car, he is a potential menace. If he hands in his keys voluntarily, let’s give him a medal. If not, let’s deny him a license.
Ninety is not the new 70. The body and brain that worked well two decades ago isn’t doing so well. Don’t endanger the rest of us in the name of beating the aging game. If you’re in your 90s, hand in your keys. If your parents are in their 90s, for your sake and theirs, take the keys.It’s time to draw a line in the sand.
The poet Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am vast; I contain multitudes.”
I always thought this line was an open ended invitation to growth, a path that recognizes new ways of thinking about and doing things to incorporate learning. Whitman’s line runs along in my mind with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s from his essay Self-Reliance “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
So I’m impressed when someone says “I used to think this way, but the more I learn, the more I reallize there are many ways to look at something…and I’ve changed my mind about my original position.”
Some people can’t do that. They are stuck with an original position, often formed to protect a life’s narrative in which others are to blame for their shortcomings or ills. Parents get caught in this trap, as do spouses, bosses, children or anyone who is snared in another’s web of certainty.
When we start with ” I know…” instead of ” I believe…”, we shut outself off from new input. Someone who knows needs no more information. I believe people who ‘know’ have a difficult time maintaining friendships, love relationships and an ability to deal with a universe where change is the only constant.
I believe knowing you’re right means you’re stuck.
When Loretta moved from assisted living to nursing care at age 92, she knew the space around her bed would be smaller. She had to choose which framed photos to take with her. She selected a group photo of her three children, eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren taken a few years ago at her 90th birthday party.
On the wall in front of her bed, her family placed Loretta’s university diplomas, her law degrees and a certificate designating her qualification to argue cases at the Supreme Court. So much of Loretta’s identity related to those accomplishments. She had been in the vanguard of women who had a career and raised a family before the two generations that followed her considered it commonplace.
While Loretta lived in the assisted living area of the home, she could still move around, meet the other people , eat in the dining room and participate in social activities. Now, she had trouble swallowing and needed to be fed with a tube. She had never been a whiner. Her mind was sharp: she knew she had to do this if she wanted to stay alive. Her first great granddaughter was taking the bar exam; Loretta wanted to live to congratulate her. Loretta stared at the diplomas on the wall in front of her and savored her memories.
Loretta is leaving a legacy for her family which no amount of money could have provided. In life, and now moving towards death, she is doing it her way. Frank Sinatra would have loved her!
It used to be a simple choice – burial or cremation. Pine box or steel fortress. Ashes saved for lockets and urns or scattered to the wind or ocean. If you really wanted to get fancy, you could hire a plane and pilot to scatter them over the city of your choice.
The good news is that death is no longer a four letter word. It’s out of the closet and getting a lot of attention. Dying has even become part of the cornucopia of consumer decisions. We now have lots of choices for where we want to spend eternity.
Like to scuba or snorkel and want to be part of the surf and turf forever? A company will create an artifical memorial reef combining your ashes with environmentally safe cement and place the reef in your favorite diving spot.
Concerned about metal contamination of the soil? You can have a biodegradable coffin. Interested in downsizing? Costco sells coffins that do double duty as storage or seating while you’re still here. There’s even a company planning to bring ashes to the moon as soon as space shuttling becomes cost effective.
All this talk and choice about going green as we go out is good. Talking about death has been a taboo subject for too long.A good way to desensitize a subject that we fear and try not to think about is by treating it as part of the ordinary. Placing it squarely in the marketplace of choices demystifies the subject and helps to allay some of the anxiety.
After all, if we’re going to be somewhere for eternity, we might as well have it exactly the way we want it.
The poetry of life often lives in the daily rituals, the ordinary activities we often do mindlessly without appreciating how lucky we are to be doing them. Not me, not ever again.
One of my favorite ordinary things is making coffee in the morning. Grinding and inhaling the aroma of the beans, filling the coffee maker with water, emptying the ground beans into the filter, and pushing the brew button. How much more ordinary can you get?
Ever since my husband died suddenly in an accident years ago, I’ve been aware that ordinary events can turn extraordinary in a second. The Boston bombings, 9/11, a plane or car crash, a fatal heart attack, a drive by shooting or the diagnosis of a terminal illness. These sudden events, woven into the tapestry of daily life, are reminders that the ordinary is a gift.
One of my favorite poets celebrates the ordinary. Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia at the age of forty-seven, understood the importance of celebrating the dailiness of life.
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.