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.”
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.