The Long Road Home

The following is not fiction.

There is a story I want to relate. It happened many years ago, and part of what inspires me to write it down now is the simple fact that of the three people who were there, two of us are living, and only I remember.

I was in eighth grade, and my parents were out of town. Sister M_____, (who was a local teacher, a family friend, and my Godmother), was watching me, as she did often, when we got a call from my grandma, who lived nearby. We lived just outside of Chicago, and grandma invited us out to dinner at Hackney’s restaurant in a neighboring town.

I was (and am) a bookworm, so I got in the back seat of the car and grandma and Sister were in front. My dog, Cricket, always up for a ride, came along too. As we pulled out of the driveway I promptly buried my nose in the book I was reading (“Doctor Who and the Daleks”, If I recall correctly), and off we went.

I was fairly oblivious to the drive for a while, engrossed in the book, but after a while I looked up, realizing that we should have reached the restaurant by then. The drive should have taken fifteen minutes, and it seemed more like half an hour by this point. I looked into the darkness around us, and finally asked “Grandma, where are we?”

Her response after a moment was disturbing: “I don’t know.”

At that time, I couldn’t have drawn you a map from home to the restaurant, but I knew the route in a “follow my nose” sense, and we were not anywhere I recognized. Sister M_____ did not seem to know either. (As it happens, Sister had never gotten a drivers license, as she felt that she did not ever want to put people’s lives in her hands by getting behind the wheel of a car.) Grandma was a proud old Irish woman, and did not feel the need to admit that we were truly lost. She seemed confused in one sense, but on the other hand, she seemed to have a destination.

Eventually, we came to a town, which I later established to be Genoa City, just over the Wisconsin border. Suddenly she knew where she was again. We drove into the middle of town and she started talking about her youth. There was the corner store where her father took her for sodas, and so forth. I was just happy that she was no longer lost, though I still didn’t comprehend the scope of our problem.

We left town and turned northwest, and eventually found ourselves in Lake Geneva. Now I recognized where we were, and again felt a bit safer. At the least I could probably navigate us home from here if she started to get lost again. We drove through town, and from there back towards home, now an hour to the south.

As we drove south along Route 14, grandma observed that we still hadn’t had dinner, and we stopped at a restaurant along the way (“Deeter’s”, I think, or something like it). Dinner was uneventful, and in the swirl of other events, unmemorable. We were soon back on the road and headed for home.

As we approached the town of Crystal Lake, we reached a stretch of the road where there are two lanes going south, and two going north, with a wide ditch in the middle. We were cruising along southward when suddenly the car swerved off the road and started running straight down the length of the ditch. I reached over to grab Cricket, but she had already shot off the seat, bounced off the front seatback and landed on a heap on the floor. Smack! Down went a road sign. Whack! Another. Slap! a third, before Grandma brought the speeding car to a halt. As Sister told the story later, she said she was at that point praying silently to God, saying “I’ve had a good life, but let the kid make it out of this.” Somehow I was either too innocent or too fascinated by the events to be truly scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I don’t think I was ever truly scared that I might not survive (though Sister clearly was). Grandma was wavering between normal lucidity and… something else. We sat there in silence for several moments, hearts pounding, until Grandma pulled the car back onto the road, and it was quickly clear that we had a flat tire. We drove along slowly, car cocked at a jaunty angle, and soon saw the lights of Crystal Lake as we approached.

I noted one of the first buildings as we came into town. “Grandma, there’s a gas station, pull over.”

“No,” she said calmly. “I don’t like Shell stations,” and on she drove. About half a mile later we reached a Mobile station, and as that brand of emergency assistance was apparently acceptable to her, she pulled in. This was a gas station only, and not a service station, but when a septuagenarian in need walked in the door, the guy behind the counter was happy to help us out. He came out and changed the tire for us. He didn’t want to accept any money for the favor, but at Grandma’s insistence she pushed $50 on him, which he finally accepted. If I had physically know how to operating a vehicle, I would have offered (if not insisted) to drive from there, as I reasonably knew the way, and was finally breaking away from my overriding “grownups know best” mindset. Too many things told me otherwise and my conditioning had been overcome. But I didn’t know how to work a car, and Grandma got back behind the wheel.

We started down the main drag, and we didn’t go far at all when grandma started a slow meandering weave across the lanes. Fortunately traffic was light, as it was getting late, but there was enough traffic around us that we were quickly noticed. As we wandered over to the right, a pickup truck peeled out from behind us, pulled around in front, and stopped right in front of our car, forcing Grandma to stop. The door swung open, and out jumped an angry young man, Hell bent for leather and no doubt expecting to confront a drunk at the wheel. He stormed up to our car as Grandma rolled down the window, and his words were stillborn as his anticipated drunk driver inexplicably transformed into a little old lady, a nun, a little boy, and his dog. His mouth hung slack for a moment, until he finally found new words. “Are you alright?”

Grandma looked down and said softly, “No.”

The man went back to his truck, and spoke with the passenger who was riding with him. Then he came back and offered — in the “won’t take ‘No’ for an answer” sense — to drive us home. His girlfriend would drive his truck.

So we got home, and nobody was killed. The man was, at Grandma’s insistence, convinced to accept $50 for his troubles, and we told the story to my parents when they got home. The next morning Mom went over to Grandma’s and found her climbing into her car to go to the bank — which plan Mom immediately nixed. Grandma was acting normal again, seemed perfectly lucid, and didn’t really remember the night before.

My grandmother passed away a few months later, of complications from kidney failure.

I’m not really sure why it felt important to tell this story. I’ve certainly told it verbally any number of times within my family, and Sister M_____ was always quick to remember it, when we had a comfortable distance from Grandma’s passing and could laugh at her “famous last ride”. I think about the differences in the ends of their lives — Grandma’s mind went fairly quickly, and she passed away soon thereafter. Sister on the other hand has had a slow descent to senility. There is nothing particularly wrong with her, other than the normal ravages of old age; but it can be painful to think of her sitting there, at her life’s end but suspended in that moment. She was a world traveler (who crawled through the Pyramids but never did get to Australia). She was (and still is, considering) a bright personality, quick to find the humor in a situation. She was caring, and loving, and thoughtful. She will most likely never really experience anything more in her life, beyond vague feelings of the slow passing of time. She doesn’t know her friends; she doesn’t know her family; she may or may not recognize the faces of the people who take such care of her every day. (She is living in what amounts to an “old Sisters’ home”, and it is obvious that they do take good care of her — that at least is comforting to know.)

I just wish that there were some way to remind her of what was. To remind her who I am, and more importantly, who she is. To make sure that she remembers that she is loved, and why.

Comments are invited and encouraged

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