King of the Road

Written By: David Risk

Telling an elderly parent that, for their own safety and that of others, they need to turn in their drivers license, is like crossing that double yellow line which is clearly marking where you should be and where you dare not go. When I breached the subject with my own surviving parent recently, the response was pretty clear: “You might as well shoot me if you’re gonna take away my car keys.”

The drive from my house in Water Mill to my father’s house in Speonk is barely half an hour. But in those thirty minutes on the Sunrise Highway, I cross years and decades and unrelenting memories that bind me to a parental kinship that was forged in my youth, cemented in adulthood, and now simmers in middle age. I make these trips almost daily now to keep him from the need of getting behind the wheel himself. When I pull into his driveway, I have to wonder, will he even remember that we have an appointment with his ear doctor this morning? Will I find the tea kettle burning up on the kitchen stove, no longer whistling for attention because all the water has boiled away? He makes sound and convincing arguments for every lapse I’m forced to point out to him. “The phone rang just after I turned the stove on. And you know how your sister can talk.” “Damn ear doctor’s just bilking Medicare to fatten his income by inventing idiotic reasons to re-test me. That Doctor Pangloss can’t even spell ‘presbyacusis’ let alone figure out how to treat it!”

My elderly father insists on his independence, on his absolute capability of living alone, on his nonnegotiable autonomy. With each visit to him, I am repeatedly stunned at the progress of physical deterioration. A sculpted pillar of certainty is crumbling, chip by chip, before my disbelieving eyes, and it’s killing me faster than it is him. Oh, to arrest the decline, to stop the inevitable… I would mortgage my very soul.

In his prime, my father was tall, well-spoken, bi-polar, and far too handsome for his own good. No one’s authority was equal to his obstinacy. His one brief dalliance with psychiatry ended when he was diagnosed as a ‘level two narcissist,’ which prompted him to walk out on the shrink. He found it an unacceptable affront to be denied ‘level one’ status.

The summer I was eight years old, my father was experiencing some kind of mystifying crisis behind the wheel. Not road-rage. More like road-phobe. And it would overcome him without warning, without foundation. One night he came home and announced that we were all getting up at 5am and heading out on a summer vacation. He told my mother to start packing the car that night and made us all go to bed way too early.

We were well on our way, having left Long Island behind and deep into Pennsylvania, when the crisis first appeared. Inevitably, in the course of hours of in-car conversation, the question arose, “Dad, where exactly are we going for our vacation?”

“Oh, you kids like to take all the fun out of everything. You’ll see. When it’s time. Just enjoy the ride.”

He was starting to get a little peeved because he was in unfamiliar territory and couldn’t find a decent radio station to tune in. His eyes would dart back and forth from the windshield to the radio where his fingers were unsuccessfully searching for a jazz station. Jazz was his drug of choice.

Somewhere on a narrow two-way state road in Pennsylvania, the car began jerking. We of the back seat domain maintained silence by turning our attention to a book of puzzles which my mother always brought along to suppress rowdiness. At irregular intervals the car would jerk slightly to the right, then correct its course. As I looked up from my book, I noticed Dad flinched every time an oncoming car passed us. This was not a divided highway, and sometimes that yellow line seemed perilously inadequate. Finally, Dad pulled off onto the shoulder and told my mother she would have to drive. She gingerly reminded him that she didn’t have a drivers license .

“And you’re gonna let a little thing like that stop you?” he barked. “You’d rather we all die?”

My mother had become expert at masking her alarm at such potentially perilous times with this man. She’d learned from hard experience that humoring my father was the only viable route back to safety.

“This looks like a perfectly good spot for a vacation to me,” my mother offered. “Pennsylvania has always intrigued me, what with their coal and steel and all. I think they do shipbuilding here too. The kids are probably hungry by now anyway. ”

“Shipbuilding!” my father retorted. “Where do you come up with these things?”

“Let’s just park the car and give our legs a stretch,” my mother cheerfully suggested.

“When in God’s name did you become an authority on shipbuilding?

“Just some article I must have read.”

“For godsakes, you get seasick on the Fire Island ferry!”

“I’m feeling a little nauseous as we speak, now that you mention it.”

“Well… we’re just going to have to find the nearest motel and make do.”

He pulled back into traffic and, thankfully, only a few miles ahead found lodging. But that last stretch felt just like being conscripted onto the Tilt-A-Whirl at some involuntary amusement park.

We entered what seemed a decent enough motel with a pool, and sat on our luggage in the lobby while my father filled out the registration card. As the woman behind the front desk was checking my Dad in, she was blatantly checking him out. She commented that his hands were magnificently sculpted and powerful, which caused us all to re-examine Dad’s hands with new eyes. Funny how those powerful hands couldn’t quite keep a grip on the steering wheel.

Once settled in, Mom took her place poolside and watched us frolic in the water while Dad buried his face in the local newspaper.

“Abbey Lincoln is singing in town tonight,” my father reported. “I’m not missing that.”

So that night, after a family bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dad took a taxicab by himself to go hear this lady named Lincoln.

It was very late when he returned and I guess no one else heard his key turn in the door. In my quietest voice I asked him if he had a good time. He took hold of my hand and silently escorted me outside.

“Wait a minute, Dad. I’ve got something for you.”

“Bring it with you but don’t make a sound,” he whispered.

I’d spent an hour that night making him a present. He sat me down beside the pool and, under the moonlight, scrutinized my creation.

“What is that?” he asked.

“I made you a crown, Dad. To help you drive better. Wear it and it’ll make you King of all the drivers on the road.”

Fashioned from the empty KFC bucket, I asked him to try it on.

“That’s real nice, sport,” he said, “but I’m not gonna need it. This woman tonight got me thinking straight again. That’s what happens when you listen to good jazz. You can get lost in it. Even when you’re afraid you’re already lost. You get lost in a different way and suddenly you’re found.”

“What did she sing, Dad?”

“She sang the truth.” He closed his eyes in recollection, inhaled the night air, and in a low, poignant voice, sang to me: ‘The world is falling down, hold my hand. It’s a lovely sound, hold my hand. The news is very sad, the time is late, the fruit is bad. Spin the world and turn the page. World is falling down. Hold my hand, hold my hand.’ ”

My father’s singing voice made a beautiful sound in the quiet of the night.

“I had a drink with her after her set. Smart lady. I asked how she came up with that song. She told me, ‘When you’re in your winding sheet, you’ll know… if you did it right or not. Did you live with passion? And compassion? Were you driven by fear? Or did you proceed with purpose? Things are ever falling down, from what I’ve noticed. Grab on and pick them up.’ And then she laughed… like she had spilled the beans and didn’t care who knew it.”

“What’s a winding sheet, Dad?”

“You’ll find out soon enough. Don’t be in such a hurry.”

The next morning we all piled into the car and were on the road for hours, Long Island bound. The crisis of nerves that threatened his driving, and our lives, disappeared as inexplicably as it had crept up. (Thank you Abbey Lincoln.) Taking the wheel with those sculpted and powerful hands, my father’s consummate skills were once again on full display, including his KFC crown.