Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Passing the Keys

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Yesterday, our 16-year-old passed her driver's license exam. My mother greeted her at the door with congratulations and, underneath, I sensed her wistfulness. My mother stopped driving two years ago.

Four years ago, I was granted a residency at the idyllic Hedgebrook. The only thing that made this possible was my mother's offer to stay with my husband and daughters. She drove my girls to and from preschool and summer camp activities; she shopped for groceries and cooked several meals a week. In essence, she stood in for me, and the summer went beautifully. I wrote more than I ever had, in the company of awesome women writers; and the family thrived under Nana's care.

Fast forward two years. We were becoming concerned with my mother's ability to live on her own, three thousand miles away. She began spending more time with us, and we folded her into our family. She developed an immediate and profound bond with our Bichon mix, Scooter, who shadowed her everywhere she went, sitting patiently outside the bathroom door. He slept in the crook of her arm.

One day, Scooter jumped off her bed. I heard a sharp yelp and my mother's panicked cry. "Something's wrong!" He couldn't walk, couldn't stand, couldn't pee. He was whimpering piteously. We rushed him to the vet who diagnosed a ruptured spinal disc; in dogs, this causes paraplegia as well as excruciating pain.

We all flashed on my father's paraplegia, how he had suffered and yet rallied in his last five years. My mother's eyes filled with tears. "Just because someone can't walk, doesn't mean they don't deserve to live," she said. She wrote a check for the five thousand dollar laminectomy to repair Scooter's spine.

His surgery was scheduled a week before my husband and I were to lead a group of forty middle-school girls to Guatemala. I wrote detailed directions to the dog hospital, with a map and landmarks highlighted in yellow. Turn LEFT at the BURGER KING. She nodded. "I can do it." The four of us got on the plane, leaving my mother alone at our house, and Scooter in the intensive care veterinary hospital ten miles away.

The second night after our arrival in Antigua, I slipped into the Rainbow House Internet and Phone Café and paid a heavy gold quetzal for a phone call. I scribbled down our home number and the Guatemalan attendant ushered me behind a brightly woven curtain. I sat in this tent-like booth and listened to the phone ring until I heard the sound of my own annoyingly cheerful voice message. She's probably walking to town, I told myself.

Later, I returned to the Rainbow and settled into the booth, ready to hear my mother's tentative hello. Again, no answer. I ordered a limonada, read a book, and called again. It was almost seven o'clock. I was beginning to feel a bit... concerned.

Suddenly I desperately regretted the decision to give my mother directions to the dog hospital, to hand her my car keys. Could she have gotten lost, or in an accident?

I called our next door neighbor, Judy, and yelled through the static. "Check my driveway, and tell me if the car's there."

Bad news. The car was gone. My stomach plummeted. It was eight o'clock, darkening fast. Visiting hours had ended hours ago. I asked Judy to call the clinic and ask them if Scooter had been visited.

Ten minutes later, I let out a wail when her email appeared: Scooter has not had a visitor in two days. I'll call the highway patrol. The hospitals.

If only I hadn't come to Guatemala. If only I hadn't given her the keys. If only I'd hired a driver. If only....

I broke down crying in the middle of the cobblestone street, close to midnight, after the Rainbow House locked its doors, after I'd logged eleven more fruitless calls. "She's dead," I sobbed into my husband's shirt. "She's dead, she's lost, she's hurt, and I'm in Central America." Already in my head I was making plans to leave, to turn the entire delegation over to him.

My daughters lay sleeping in their room in the guest house. How would I break the news to them, that their grandmother was gone? Then the señora of the house appeared in her nightgown, holding out a portable phone. "Una llamada, de los Estados Unidos. A call from the United States." It was Judy, calling from our home. My mother was beside her. She'd just pulled into the driveway.

What happened? What happened? My hands were shaking.

My mother had left to visit Scooter a little bit before noon. She'd been driving nonstop for over twelve hours, searching for the veterinary hospital that was ten miles away. She made a wrong turn, and then another, and she ended up crossing two bridges. She drove through San Francisco. She got into a fender bender on the Bay Bridge. She didn't stop, or ask for help, because she didn't want anyone to discourage her from her target, which was a small white dog waiting in his cage. When she got hungry, she stopped for food. When she ran out of gas, she filled the tank. Finally, at midnight, by some miracle, she found her way back to our house.

"It's okay," she said, as I wiped my tear-slippery face with my hand. "Tomorrow I'll do better. Tomorrow I'll get there, no problem."

Tomorrow?!

I extracted a promise from Judy to drive her to the clinic the next day. I extracted an extremely begrudged agreement from my mother that she wouldn't try to drive again. I called the veterinarian, who agreed to transfer Scooter to the animal hospital two blocks from our house, so she could walk to visit him.

It was the last time she drove.

And now my teenage daughter holds the keys. I worry for her when she is on the road. She is ready to drive her grandmother to her weekly bowling dates. She is ready to drive her to the hairdresser. She is ready to drive herself across the Bay to school, to crew practice, and into her own rapidly expanding independence. So the torch -- or the steering wheel -- passes from one set of hands to another. In the blink of an eye.


Susan Ito has served Literary Mama as a Fiction Editor, CNF editor, and columnist of “Life in the Sandwich.” She edited the literary anthology, A Ghost At Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption. She is the author of the SheBook, The Mouse Room. Her work has appeared in CHOICE, Hip Mama, the Bellevue Literary Review, MSN.com, Making More Waves, Growing Up Asian American, the Kartika Review, and elsewhere. She is a former Fiction Editor, Columnist, and Creative Nonfiction Editor for Literary Mama.


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Be glad for the close call. My mother wasn't so lucky. She was in the middle of a months-long argument with her father, who lived alone about a mile from her, getting closer and closer to just taking his keys, and the car, from him. There seemed to be no great rush, he hadn't used it in months. Whenever he planned to go somewhere, he told her, and she always worked things out to take him herself, or someone else (if I was around, it was me). One day, he wasn't home, and we didn't know where he was. When he didn't come home overnight, my mother called her brother (my uncle), every other relative, and the police. My uncle hired private detectives, who eventually found him at a hospital one county over. (Yes, we, and the detectives, had called all the hospitals several times, including this one. For some reason he wasn't registered under his own name, though they had his wallet, which also had my uncle's business card in it; yes, they even had the same last name.) The hospital not only kept his presence a secret from the world, they managed to kill him with a staph infection he picked up there. Gravely ill and in a coma when we found him, he rallied a bit, we transferred him to a competent hospital, but he died anyway. How had he ended up there? He got in his car one day and, for no reason at all, drove toward where some cousins of his used to live, taking the roads he would have 50 years earlier, before the main highways of today were built. As best we can piece together, he probably had a mild stroke while driving, got the car to the curb, got out, tripped, and passed out. Passersby called an ambulance and he went to the nearest county hospital, the least competent one in the city, as it would happen. Eventually the car was towed. I'm sure your driving terrified your mother, the same as your daughter's will now. Some day your driving will terrify her, the way your mother's did you, at a distance of thousands of miles. When is it time to start? You teach them, and hope for the best. When is it time to stop? Better to err on the side of caution. Your children still have their grandmother. It's been thirty years and rarely does a day go by that I don't think of my grandfather.
metaphorical - your post brought tears to my eyes. I am so sorry this happened to your father. What a painful thing for your family. And it makes it even clearer to me what a close call we did have. We are so very lucky. My daughter drove to her school 25 miles away this morning and I don't think I breathed until she called in from the parking lot. Yes, we're hoping for the best. It's hard to let go.
You know, I couldn't help thinking about the relationship that could develop as your daughter steps in to drive your mother to and fro. It made me a bit envious -- my kids will never know their grandparents in that way.
Beautiful! Susan, I love your column! You are a gifted writer and I can't wait to do more work together!
Lovely piece. Typical of Susan Ito's writing. Lyrical, thought provoking, stays with you. Alison
Susan, This took me back to the days my sons got their license. It is a scary time! I remember after I got my license, my mother would not let drive anywhere! When my sons began driving, I realized why she tried to postpone the inevitable. This also brought to mind that my father is losing his memory. He can still drive now, but I fear the day is coming when he can not. That will be a sad day for me and my family. Thanks for sharing. Your writing is so lively and engaging!
Wow! I love how you have linked the two relationships: mother's child and child's mother. The change in our perspective when we become mother's is overwhelming--a transformation that most acknowledge is unimaginable until we experience it. It is less acknowledged in my culture (America) how our perspective as filial offspring is impacted.
Oh, Susan, my heart was full as I read this column. Not only is your writing lyrical and lovely, as always, but your ability to make the daughter/mother connection come alive--as both a daughter and a mother yourself--is just so powerful. Amanda has a few more years to go before she starts driving, and I'm already nervous. On the other side of the generational divide, my mother visited here from California last month and updated me about my father--who also hasn't driven in two years (they had to take the keys away), but now has to be watched because he'll "esape" at night on foot and go wandering through the streets. The other night, he was found lying by the side of the road, his head bleeding, and he had no idea what had happened. He had fallen, and didn't know how to get home. A neighbor brought him home. Does your mother at least know who and where she is? Can she go walking by herself? I agree with one of the other posts that having Mollie able to take your mother places could be a wonderful thing for both of them--if Mollie can resist the urge to drive like a teen! Hang in there, Susan. I'm thinking of you...
I, too like the idea of grandchildren driving their grandparents places. It does a service to both of them and probably keeps both of them more grounded in reality. Of course, I wish we all didn't have to drive so much...but it's hard to imagine elderly people on bicycle trailers!
My mother in law came to live with us a little over 2 years ago, and quickly gave up her license. Finding her way around a new town was simply too difficult. Our sixteen year old got her license yesterday. This story really touched my heart in a special place, but i know all of those feelings.
I love how you capture the passing of time, the distance and the immediacy between the spaces of these moments. Thank you.
Good one, Susan. I'm remembering the time I came home for a visit (and to give my mother a break from my increasingly Altzheimering dad) and my father, who was unofficially not supposed to be driving, took the keys and got into the driver's seat when we were out and refused to let me drive back to townl. We were over the centre line when corners were looming and over to the shoulder when there were drop-offs and I don't think I'd ever been so scared in my life. He's been dead almost 30 years, but I still get palpatations just thinking about that wild ride. Congrats on the editing gig here. Literary Mama is one of my favourite sites.
Susan, you had me laughing all the way through--laughing from a place of hyper-identification. My 95-year-old mother hasn't driven for about two years but I really connected with the phone calls from far away. (To those who don't know her, she has dementia) Recently, I received a phone call on my cell while teaching my class. (I have it on all the time now so I can receive calls from doctors, social workers, etc. regarding Mom.) A nurse from her assisted-living facility called and said, "Did you know that your mother is lost? We just received a call from her caretaker who lost track of her." I hung up, finished teaching my class, somehow sat through an Internet training, and then made some calls trying to locate my mother. Found out that she had wandered into another room and the caretaker just didn't knock on that door. I was picturing her wandering around at the mall and/or in traffic! Anyway, reading your piece gave me some much-needed company in my situation with Mom.
My mother had a similar adventure, right down to the fender bender, trying to visit her sister-in-law in a neighboring town. The differences are that my wife and I were at home at the time, and Mom was already living with us. Over the previous year I had become increasingly firm, almost parental, in caring for her, although I tried my best to be gentle and loving whenever I had to give her news I knew she wouldn't want to hear. When I told her she needed to stop driving, she didn't put up much of a fight. She may have thought it was the right thing to do. She certainly saw it as the next predictable loss she would have to suffer. As she slid further into dementia at the end of her life, she frequently mistook me for her own father. I've never quite outrun the notion that my taking her car keys had something to do with that.
Wow! Absolutely riviting and heartwarming.
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