Reaching for the Keys: Available on Audio

My essay, “Reaching for the Keys,” about my experience taking the car keys away from my Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, is now available on audioA huge thank you goes out to Sarah Cronin, musician, sound/video engineer, performance artist, costume designer, writer, and more, who has kindly featured my piece (in my voice!) on her website.

“Reaching for the Keys” was previously published in issue 11 of Saranac Review.

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Transportation for Seniors


I’m here to share with you my latest interview with ITNAmerica, a nonprofit transportation network for seniors serving fifteen states. “Why the interview?” you might be wondering. Have you ever thought about how you would manage your day-to-day life if you couldn’t drive? Do you ever think about what you’ll do when you’re old and frail, or old and ill, and can’t drive? While I don’t lose sleep over it, I do think about it. I think about how I’ll get to the grocery store, the bank, the movies, and, of course, the wine outlet. The answer: because my immediate world has left me with few emergency exists through which I can escape such dread-filled questions.

My eighty-eight-year-old mother-in-law, who lives in a condo down the hall from my husband and me, is blind in one eye and has dementia. She cannot driven; by choice she has not driven for years (God bless her), and depends on family for transportation. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, she prefers not to leave the house very much. When my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the dents and scratches scarring the front and rear of his car left me no other choice but to take the keys away from him, he had to learn to accept that caregivers would be driving him to and from the bank, doctor’s appointments, and his favorite Italian restaurant. And because it was an older driver who slammed into me, and seveny-two others, while I was visiting a farmers’ market in California years ago, I can’t help imagine how all seventy-three of our lives would be much different if the driver had access to transportation services, and was willing to use them.

I learned about ITNAmerica while researching news articles for a writing project and, ironically enough, learned that the founder, Katherine Freund, experienced a similar tragedy to mine and dozens of others: In 1988, an eighty-four-year-old driver ran down her three-year-old son. He survived, but suffered a traumatic brain injury. Instead of letting herself get swallowed-up by anger, Katherine, an inspirational speaker who has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and on CNN, and has won numerous awards recognizing her work around public health initiatives, made lemonade out of lemons (forgive me for the cliched proverbial phrase). She built and supported community-based senior transportation services.

Like Katherine, I too feel summoned to advocate for the most efficient and cost effective transportation options for the older population. While here in Northern Vermont we have Neighbor Rides and Special Services Transportation Agency (SSTA), I’m not sure that’s enough. After all, an estimated 25% of Vermonters will be sixty-five and older by 2030. Believe it or not, Vermont ranks higher than Florida when it comes to age: 42.8 versus 41.9.

What transportation options for elders are available in your community? Maybe you’re twenty-nine, thirty-three, or fifty, like me, and saying this to yourself: it’s too soon to plan for when I’m eighty, eighty-nine, one hundred.

But I must agree with Jodi Picoult: “Time is an optical illusion- never quite as solid or strong as we think it is.”


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Stages of Forgiveness


*Years after eighty-six-year-old Russell Weller ran me down at the Santa Monica Farmers’ market, I possessed enough emotional fortitude to unearth the new articles I had collected about the accident. It was then when I decided I needed to find a way to forgive him. I’ve been told that forgiveness is over-rated, that you don’t have to forgive to heal. While that might very well be true, my want to forgive others for any wrong committed is part of my constitution. So I had to at least make an attempt to forgive Russell Weller. Otherwise, I’d be infected with a case of chronic bitterness and cynicism, and worried I’d be contagious. Who wants to hang out with someone with a transmittable illness she has the capacity to heal?

To forgive, one must first assign blame. But, as in Russell Weller’s case, if there is no act of intentional harm, where do you place blame and, therefore, how do you forgive? To add an additional elusive layer, how do you forgive someone you’ve never met? Is it even possible to forgive someone you don’t know? I reached out to Russell Weller’s family years after the accident, but they refused my request to visit him. In 2010 he died.

The following year, I enrolled in an MFA program. During my third semester, still befuddled as to how to forgive Russell Weller, I wrote my critical thesis on the topic: The Face of Forgiveness. I examined how a particular writer, who had sustained life-threatening injuries after a car struck him, navigated the indeterminate nature of forgiveness on the page. Because each circumstance varies, forgiveness cannot be defined in absolute terms. **Since forgiveness is a process, I arrived at the conclusion that it can be charted in stages:

1) Understanding of the accident/incident

2) Transference of anger and other emotions

3) Self-pity

4) Awareness of others’ suffering

5) Avoidance

6) Surrender

These stages don’t necessarily occur sequentially. Like Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ stages of grief –denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – the stages of forgiveness may overlap, or one may become stuck in a particular stage. For me, I became stuck in one or two, and skipped another one or two altogether. It’s also worth noting that the stages of forgiveness may not occur in a defined timeframe.

Stage 1: Understanding of the accident/incident:

I dedicated months to reading news articles and investigative reports, parsing out the details of the accident: What Russell Weller was doing in the moments before he sped through the market, his medical history, his driving history, what bystanders witnessed at the scene of the crash. Somehow, I believed by reading those articles I would get to know Russell Weller and, therefore, be able to forgive him, or not. But written words weren’t enough – they seemed static on the page. Even though some articles included his apology – “I’m deeply sorry for any pain that everyone went through” – I could not hear his voice, hear his remorse, anger, or fear. And with all the contradicting statements about Russell Weller’s character and what people saw or didn’t see, I only became more confused. I felt like a pendulum – swaying dizzily between sadness and anger.

Stage 2: Transference of anger:

As I read articles about the role the local entities had to play in running the market, any anger I harbored for Russell Weller quickly transferred to city officials who were responsible for ensuring the safety of pedestrians. I wondered why they didn’t have sturdy barriers in place, rather than wooden sawhorses. But, similar to my confusion regarding how to feel about Russell Weller, my feelings and emotions swayed – from judgment to understanding, from contempt to submission.

Stages 3 and 5: Self-pity and Avoidance:

I did not become victim to self-pity  – perhaps the perpetual warring dialogue in my head thrust self-pity aside. For the same reason, I skipped avoidance.

Stage 4: Awareness of others’ suffering:

As I continued my dogged search to find meaning within the chaos, I could not help but be lured into an awareness of others’ suffering.  I imagined the physical and emotional pain the other injured pedestrians endured, and the rage and anguish that tore into the families of the deceased. I viewed Russell Weller as injured, too – emotionally, mentally, psychically. I imagined Russell Weller’s grief: plagued by nightmares, isolated behind drawn window shades, sallow from regret.

The judge who presided over Russell Weller’s trial said he “lacked remorse” Because he didn’t cry? Why is it that we have a tendency to forgive others only if they exhibit unequivocal remorse: falling to their knees, drooping, sobbing? But a display, or physical showing, of remorse is not necessarily what matters to those harmed. Of course, a sincere apology does not negate the harm done, but sincerely spoken words of remorse are what matter. The quality of the voice matters: is it harsh, tense, creaky?

In 2011, I Finally obtained and viewed a copy of the videotape of Russell Weller speaking with police officers soon after the accident. I slid the video into the CD player, inched close to the television screen, so close I felt as if he and I were together in the same room. Though he did not cry, his full-toned voice quivered as he said, “I’m in trouble with my heart and soul.” He voice quieted to a whisper, as if he were in church mourning over the dead: “God almighty, those poor, poor people.”  That’s when I forgave Russell Weller. That’s when I surrendered – to Russell Weller’s remorse.

Is there anyone in your life you want to forgive? Have you forgiven someone who has caused you harm? How did you arrive at forgiveness?


*Originally posted at Speak Out! A blog about surviving traumatic brain injuries. Hosted by Donna O’Donnell Figurski.

**Stages of forgiveness conceived by Melissa Cronin


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Coming to a Complete Stop

A few days ago, when driving to the grocery store, I came to a stop sign. Like I had learned in driver’s education, I came to a complete stop, then started counting, one-two … Before I got to three, the car that had just approached the stop sign to my right did not come to a complete stop. It glided past the sign. I peered through my front windshield, squinting to see who was behind the wheel. I could have sworn I saw a woman with white hair. It’s an elderly driver, I thought. I continued in the direction of the store, following her. When she approached the next stop sign, about one hundred yards ahead, again, she glided past. She made a wide arc across the parking lot of the grocery store, driving faster than she should have been, then pulled into a handicapped spot. I parked my car, got out, saw the offender – indeed, it was a white-haired woman who looked like she was in her late seventies. I wanted to run up to her and say, “Do you know what you just did? You went through two stop signs.” But I didn’t. Why? I thought I was over-reacting. In the grocery store, I saw her shuffling along, pushing a cart down an aisle. I walked close behind her, wanted to say, “Excuse me,” but, again, I didn’t. Instead, I purchased my groceries then left, still thinking about why I didn’t tell her she had failed to come to a complete stop, and that she could have hit someone. The truth is I figured she would scream at me, and say, “What if I were an eighteen-year old, would you scold me then?”

Legitimate question.

Maybe; maybe not. Probably. No. Yes. I don’t know.

What would you do?

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When Should We Stop Driving?

100-year-old Preston Carter backed into 9 children and 2 adults near an elementary school in South Los Angeles on Wednesday, August 29th. The driver was not arrested and claimed that his brakes failed. Though the accident is under investigation, the driver still holds a valid driver’s license. Is there a definitive age when we should stop driving? Not necessarily; we all age differently. Yet, vision, hearing, motor skills, and cognitive functions deteriorate as we age; it’s inevitable. According to the British Columbia Automobile Association, at age 55 it takes 8 times longer to recover from glare than at age sixteen. So why is it too easy to renew a driver’s license? In Vermont, licenses are allowed to be renewed by mail for eight years, after which point residents must renew them in person. Not even an eye exam is required. So, when accidents such as the one involving Mr. Carter occur, who else other than the driver is to blame? Who else is culpable? Can it not be said that the local Department of Motor Vehicles or the Department of Transportation are partly to blame? Or, in the case of Mr. Carter, the State of California?

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Red Arrow Worries

My husband and I are in Florida, in July of all times. Spending the week on Anna Maria Island, where the Gulf coddles our toes in warm bath water, makes it tolerable. But the real reason we come to Florida this time of year is for no other reason than to visit his parents – Eve 84, Tom 89. I like to believe that when we come here all other worries will instantly wash away with the outgoing Gulf tide. Yet, that’s not possible. I can’t help but worry about Tom’s driving (Eve does not drive due to her macula degeneration). More specifically, I worry because Tom still believes he ‘s capable of driving, even though his legs hurt and he can barely rise from his recliner, the one he sits in for endless hours each day.  I ask him if he still drives, especially when he takes the medicine that makes him see double.

“Drive,” he says. “They won’t let me drive.” When he says “they,” he means his four adult children who followed him and Eve to Florida some six years ago. They take turns driving Tom to the grocery store, pharmacy, doctor, casino, and to his favorite deli. He has a sparkling new Lexus, so why wouldn’t they want to be in the driver’s seat. But I know that it’s more than the smooth ride, the broad seats, the dual- zone automatic climate control, and the surround sound audio system that lures them into driving. I know his children drive Tom to here-and-there because they harbor the desire.

But what happens when someone who should not be driving drives because there is no one who cares enough to drive him to the doctor, the pharmacy, or his favorite restaurant? That man drives.

While in Florida, my sister-in-law’s good friend tells me her husband has Alzheimer’s. She asked him to cook an egg the other day; he cracked the egg directly onto the flat top stove. Then she asked him to shut the light off; he looked at her with utter confusion. Yet, he still drives. “If I wasn’t with him,” she says, “he’d turn left on a red arrow.”

I ask her if there is anyone else that can do the driving. There isn’t. She doesn’t drive and there is no family in the area. I ask her if she and her husband would be willing to take public transportation.

“I suppose we could,” she says. “But he’s so stubborn. I can’t tell him what to do.”

I left it at that, at a loss for other options to offer. What will it take to stop him from driving? A car accident? Loss of life?

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