Drive: Covering the Road and Miles with Richard Shindell, Passenger, Patty Griffin, Lotte Kestner & more!
Saturdays used to be ours: the one day a week when no one had to work, or get ready for it. And because we live in the woods, that generally meant driving somewhere – breakfast, a museum, a festival, a small town to wander in, a tour of some old estate – anything, really, as long as it afforded us a chance to be together, just the four of us in and out of the minivan, looking out the window and sharing in the joy of adventure and discovery.
Now I get up while they’re sleeping, and start each Saturday with a long trip alone in the car: first the rural roads, then the small towns, with their weekender Farmer’s Markets, now dwindled down to a single canopy with root vegetables and a stalwart local in a parka; from there into Sturbridge and its commercial strip; then onto the Turnpike, then South on 495, and then another half hour North again, along and into the sleepy suburbs. Finally, I arrive at the assisted living complex where I lived this summer, while I moved my father and as much of his photos, books and records as we could carry from his independent living apartment into a 12×20 room, creating in the process a compact yet life-sized diorama of a life once lived large and well. We have lunch, which can take hours: out of the apartment with keys and credit card, in and out of the car, into the restaurant, back home again. I help out for a few hours more, tending to bills and chores, maybe reteaching him how to turn on the CD player, or starting a Netflix video for him to watch later.
And then I say goodbye. And I do the same drive all over again, only backwards, and in darkness.
I could drive it in my sleep, either way.
My brothers would come, but they live in other countries; he’s an only child, and his cousins live too far. He tends to avoid the other residents – they are, after all, a decade or more older than him on average, and he doesn’t identify with their needs or outlook, nor with their acceptance of what they can and cannot do for themselves.
And so, mostly, when it comes to Dad, it’s me or nothing.
It’s hard to watch. My father used to be Superman, though the world got more of him than I did: a self-made man in Saville Row suits and a thousand silk ties, a hard-stock business- card-carrying managing partner who pulled himself up into suburban success with nothing more than street smarts, determination, and a blazing intellect. He was one of the most powerful, influential lawyers in Boston; he had a hundred dear, close friends. His marriage worked, or so it looked on the outside; his kids were happy, see above.
Then Dad started falling asleep at his desk at work. Early onset Parkinson’s led to early retirement; his marriage fell apart; his kids moved out, and on. His circle of friends began to shrink; once he moved on to this small, spare assisted living apartment complex 30 minutes away, with a few exceptions, they stopped coming by altogether.
He blames the distance, but I think we both know the truth. And we forgive them, because we know it’s hard to watch those you love lose the things that brought you that love in the first place.
I’m a lot closer to my father than I used to be – even as the list of things my father used to be grows longer every week. But I’m fighting for balance, too. For years, I gave Saturdays to the children; now, just as the specter of college and adulthood begins to blossom in them, I choose to give my father the time I used to save for us. And it matters. To become my father’s lists, his agendas, his shopping cart guide, I have had to take a leave of absence from the adventures we used to take Saturdays, when the kids were small.
I worry, sometimes, on the long miles back and forth to Boston every weekend, that the model I am giving them is one which will ask them to take time from their own kids to give it to me, someday. Parkinson’s is hereditary, after all. My mother’s father had it, too.
But mostly, on those long miles down the turnpike, and in those afternoons in and out of Dad’s tiny room on the assisted living floor, I’m struggling with something bigger than anything I can put into words. I think it’s what my students call “the feels” – a complicated set of sadness and love and powerlessness in the face of loss that calls us to be still, and embrace our affliction, because we can’t do anything else.
It’s disorienting to just drive, and feel. Feeling the feels doesn’t play to my strengths. I’m like Dad, in that way: I’m used to being someone who makes sense of the world by taming it, turning it into something sensible and concrete – through writing, or teaching, and other product-oriented pursuits.
I know Dad is struggling with this, too. I know, because in my wallet, I carry one of his newer business cards – the ones that he made after his retirement, that just say “every step of the journey, is the journey”. For a long time, it sustained me on Saturdays, as I drove in for what I think of, increasingly, as a sort of shared Zen practice: the two of us, in the waning afternoon light, trying to find our balance in the shifting eye of the storm that is our lives, together, now; and in the aftermath, as I drove back home quietly in the darkness.
Cars generally represent freedom or power, control or escape; the ability to get the hell out, or to come back home again. But just as that one friend with a truck knows you’ll call him up for help on moving day, soft songwriters know that the car can be the chain that pulls you down, too: the enabling tool, the thief of time.
More and more, on those long hours back and forth on what used to be my time with my wife and kids, I’ve come to think of the car as a burden, the road as prison cell, the driving as the penance for too much love, and a life lived fully up until now.
And although this year, for Thanksgiving, I am grateful for so much in my life, I really, really miss the days when we drove together, the four of us, over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house and table.
Because this year, for the first time, they left without me, to have a beachside adventure with their young cousins, my wife’s parents and her sisters, and their respective dogs before moving on to the delightful oceanside inn where we would meet up for the feast.
And for me, on my own, it was two hours to pick up Dad, two hours South to meet up with the clan, two hours of helping Dad through the restaurant buffet, and then four hours back again, just me and my faltering, fading father, driving in mostly silence, listening to the relationship between us stutter and fade as he sleeps and struggles to understand.
It was a long way there, and a long way home, to have so little time with the rest of the family I love. And it was hard, really hard, for Dad to ask in the car about the others at the table, and to realize that I had spent all my time and attention attending to him.
But this Saturday I took the day off, and drove downtown with the family for the annual multi-venue town crafts fair. I held hands with the wee one, now tall and slender at 14, as we picked out stocking stuffers, as we have done each year: small earrings and baubles, local honey balms and soaps, fingerless gloves and yarn scarves, handmade journals for secrets and poetry. The elderchild brought her new boyfriend, who was Romeo in the play we just finished; he seemed grateful to be with her, and eager to discover the delights of small community life alongside us. My wife and I kissed in passing, each time we found each other among the hustle and squeeze of stalls – we’re romantics; the seasonal kick-off gets to us, I guess.
It was a good day, for such a short drive. And good, too, to be home with time enough to write, and compile a playlist of driving songs.
May your travels this season be pensive and merry, in equal delight and measure.
And if you need company for the long, lonely miles, try these.
- Patty Griffin: Stolen Car (orig. Bruce Springsteen) 
- Richard Shindell: Northbound 45 (orig. Jeffrey Foucault) 
- Jon Randall: Highway (orig. Moody Blues) 
- Red Molly: Gulf Coast Highway (orig. Nanci Griffith) 
- Deni Hlavinka: Chasing Cars (orig. Snow Patrol) 
- Transmissionary Six: Always Crashing In The Same Car (orig. David Bowie) 
- Brandi Carlisle & Emmylou Harris: Take Me Home, Country Roads (orig. John Denver) 
- Holly Figueroa O’Reilly: One Headlight (orig. The Wallflowers) 
- The Bad Shepherds: Road to Nowhere (orig. Talking Heads) 
- David Swan: Late Night Driving (orig. Josh Pyke) 
- The Panics: Wide Open Road (orig. The Triffids) 
- Passenger: Fast Car (orig. Tracy Chapman) 
- Boyce Avenue: Drive (orig. Incubus) 
- Lotte Kestner: Drive (orig. The Cars) 
- Hayward Williams: Thunder Road (orig. Bruce Springsteen) 
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