From Wild Ride to 'Driveway Talks'
Wanting to give my 94-year-old dad a trek outdoors wasn't the good idea I hoped it would be, but we came up with a better solution
The Sunday night before flying to Kansas City to see my parents, I devised a plan to break my 94-year-old father out of the house for an hour. I was determined to inject a bit of adventure into his day — to distract him from the monotony of time spent indoors. Like a criminal mastermind organizing a prison escape, I plotted the route and visualized negotiating any obstacles, including my mother.
My dad never mentioned being miserable. Still, I put myself in his place, convinced I knew what he needed to shake up his routine. But what I assumed would be a smooth endeavor hit a few bumps in the road and changed the course of our day and future visits.
From Sit-Ups to Sedentary
After retiring at 88, my dad kept a strict schedule of working out three times a week at the YMCA. He and my mom rarely missed the opening of a new comedy or the monthly performance at the local dinner theater. They met friends for dinner and took weekly trips to Costco.
My formerly active dad was like a bird with clipped wings, viewing the world from inside a cage.
They paused their social life when, a few weeks after his 94th birthday, my dad collapsed at the top of the stairs of their home. His once steady gait slowed to a walker-assisted shuffle. His weekly workouts transformed into morning and afternoon walks around the lower level of their house. Rather than run errands with my mom, he devoured Time magazine and medical books he hadn't had time to read when he was still seeing patients in his busy pediatric practice.
My formerly active dad was like a bird with clipped wings, viewing the world from inside a cage. In his case, the four walls of his family room.
When I came to town every few weeks, he spoke less and told fewer corny jokes. He seemed bored without the ability to move freely throughout his three-story home or dash to the gym for his usual hour of cardio and 30 minutes of weights.
Implementing My Plan
Monday afternoon, when I arrived at my parents' house, I said, "Let's go outside, Dad."
"Sounds good," he said, pulling himself out of his favorite chair. He gripped the sides of his walker and made his way to the red wheelchair in the next room. With unwavering optimism, I believed the lightweight, mobile transport would be sturdy enough to withstand any terrain.
"Be careful," she said and let out a long sigh.
After positioning the wheelchair behind him, he lowered himself into the fabric seat. I moved his lightweight jacket aside and clipped the black safety belt around his shrinking waist.
"Where are you going?" my mom asked as we headed to the garage.
"Around the neighborhood," I told her. "Dad needs to leave the house."
"Be careful," she said and let out a long sigh.
We rolled past my mom's maroon Mitsubishi and onto the driveway.
"Isn't it great to leave the house?" I asked as I lowered the bill of his hat over his thin gray and black hair, and he adjusted his clip-on sunglasses.
"It sure is," he said, breathing in the fresh air.
Before we reached the sidewalk across the street, I noticed a gap between the left wheel and the frame. There was no matching space on the right side. Assuming the void was a design element, I continued to push the steel convertible.
"Do you remember the Fourth of July parties when the lifeguards threw a greased watermelon in the deep end?"
At the next block, we waved at a man playing soccer with his two children. A group of teenagers, towels bundled in their arms, rushed past us on their way to the community pool a few blocks away.
"Do you remember the Fourth of July parties when the lifeguards threw a greased watermelon in the deep end?" he asked. We laughed, recalling the nearly impossible task my siblings, friends, and I couldn't wait to accomplish. We considered him the cool dad for letting us sit on the pulled-down tailgate of our paneled station wagon as he drove us home from swimming.
After passing a woman unloading groceries from her SUV, I spotted a white box with a glass door mounted on a post. "Dad, look at the Little Free Library over — oh no!" I said as the left wheel popped off.
He, along with the wheelchair, dipped to the side. He would have tumbled onto the freshly cut lawn without the seatbelt firmly hugging him. I lifted the side of the chair with unexpected hulk-like strength and slipped the wheel back on the axle.
"Maybe it's time to turn back," my dad said.
"Are you sure?" I asked. "We're almost at the end of the block."
"I think we should," he said, his knuckles white from gripping the armrests.
After I turned around, the wheel escaped again, and I recognized the maroon car driving at a sloth's pace beside us.
"Bring him back!" my mom whisper-shouted before closing her window. I remembered that look and tone from my childhood when I missed a curfew or picked a fight with my older sister.
As she drove away, I looked down at her soulmate. He shrugged his shoulders. "Your mom worries about me," he said. What I saw as overbearing, he interpreted as love. Minutes later, I pushed the chair onto the driveway, and we sat in front of the house.
Our new tradition, "driveway talks," ranged from learning more about his life before and during World War II to reminiscing about summer vacations from my childhood.
"I'll search for a sturdier wheelchair," I told him.
"No rush," he said. "I'm okay being out here."
Bonding in Place
I never mentioned taking another tour around the block. Instead, the two of us became frequent fixtures in front of his house — he in his new black wheelchair, and me in a folding canvas chair. Our new tradition, "driveway talks," ranged from learning more about his life before and during World War II to reminiscing about summer vacations from my childhood.
Our conversations lasted for hours. My dad's eyes were bright as neighbors passed by, calling "Hi, Joe!" as if greeting the mayor. Rather than join us, my mom spent time at the grocery store or the mall, a break from daily caregiving.
My dad died less than two months after our simple outing transformed into a daredevil ride. The harrowing experience of almost being catapulted out of his chair wasn't part of my original strategy, but the anxiety-inducing event put us on a different path. Had the red wheelchair withstood the cracks in the sidewalk, we may have continued our neighborhood tours and missed out on deepening our connection while remaining in place.
Although our last driveway talk was almost three years ago, I often think of my dad's stories brimming with lessons like "don't hold onto anger" and "don't take life so seriously." But my favorite is "even if your plans go wrong, they can still produce the best memories."