Driving on his own time

June 26, 2011 

My dad had been visually impaired for years, but I didn't really comprehend the limitations of his eyesight until one day when I went in the little joint where he always ate lunch. He was sitting at his table in the back, facing the door, with his usual crew, and I crossed the room to visit with them for a moment. He looked me right in the face, and I nodded to him as the other men spoke to me.

Later that day he asked my mother if I had been in the restaurant around noon. "Somebody came in there that sounded like him, but the way he was standing with his back to the window and the light coming in ..."

When I heard that I thought, And this man is out driving on the highway.

In fact he had been in two bad wrecks - T-boned by a kid in a pickup, rammed by a Coca-Cola truck - that were due more to his not bothering to look than his failing to see. Twice his truck was totaled, but he just got out his hammers and jacks, wrenched the frame into alignment and was back on the road.

But the time came around for his driver's license to be renewed. Five years had passed since his last DMV exam, and for weeks he reviewed the road signs and I went over some of the new traffic laws with him. I also tried to prepare him for what seemed certain: that he wasn't going to pass the vision test. "I ain't blind," he would say. "They cannot take your license if you can see."

So one morning I drove him to the DMV office. The lady checked his name on the computer, and it showed his license had been canceled for a month. Some kind of mix-up. They got that straightened out, then she had him look into the light box. He cleared his throat and murmured softly and the lady cut the machine off and swiveled back around behind her desk.

"Mr. Woolard, your vision isn't good enough for me to renew your license."

He went a little slack, as if he were losing air. The room was strangely empty for a DMV office, and you could hear the traffic outside hissing by on U.S. 1.

"I can still see," he said quietly to the lady. "'Course I know it's nothing to you either way."

She leaned toward him. "Mr. Woolard, the hardest thing I have to do is tell people they can't drive anymore. It breaks my heart, some of these people."

Suddenly it was as important to me that he continue driving as it was to him. I stepped up to the desk. "You know, all he wants to do is drive to the pasture and to church on Sunday morning. He's not planning on striking out for Greensboro."

"How far is the church?" the lady asked.

"About a mile."

"Well, I'll send it in to Raleigh and they can decide," and she pulled an envelope out of a drawer.

A few weeks later he got a letter from the DMV. The medical panel had met and decided that he could keep his license. With restrictions. He was not to drive over 45 mph. No more than five miles from home. Corrective lenses at all times. Daylight driving only. And he would be re-examined in one year.

He took his victory lap cautiously. Occasionally during that year, unknown to him, I drove behind him and was glad to see he actually stayed in the road better than I did. He kept his speed at 45 and slowed down and moved to the right when he met a vehicle.

At the end of his reprieve another letter came reminding him of his exam. This time he was to bring a letter from his eye doctor clearing him to drive.

And that didn't happen.

He turned 90 last Monday and for a man who stayed young for so long, he now wants to be older, always careful to clarify when asked about his age, "I'm in my 91st year."

For some reason he wants to speed up time, skip a gear and hurry on ahead.

As if he has someplace important to go.


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