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Riding with Dad

My dad was a great driver. His dad, my grandpa Jay, owned the Buick dealership in our small Pennsylvania town so he grew up around cars. When my dad was a teenager and all his friends were out looking for part time jobs to subsidize Friday beer nights or buy trinkets for their girlfriends, my dad always had a job at grandpa's dealership.

Grandpa gave him no special treatment, though. You'll start where everyone else starts, at the bottom, he said. So my dad was a mechanic's assistant, a grease monkey. His friends started to call him “Greasy” due to the usual state of his work clothes and much to my dad's dismay the nickname stuck. Anyone who knew him from his teenage years called him Greasy for the rest of his life, including my mother. I think Dad always kind of hated that nickname but he was always so easygoing; I guess he figured he was stuck with it and never put up much of a fight about it. Being cantankerous wasn't his style. He was the original go with the flow sort of guy. He knew when to pick his battles and did so only for the big stuff.

I wasn't around in the early days when according to family legend my dad sowed his wild driving oats on the local roads and byways. I don't guess he was much different than any other teenage boy who confuses his manhood with his vehicle and errs on the side of recklessness to prove a transparent point. But fatherhood changed him as it does most. I was born when he was only 20 and from that point, according to my mom, he became a responsible and careful driver. It was one of the ways he showed his love for us. Funny how it is apparent to adult children only in hindsight how many ways they were shown love. It takes knocks and bruises and pain and sometimes becoming parents ourselves to show us that love isn't always hugs and Hallmark moments. Especially with fathers, it can be subtle and easy to miss in ordinary, taken for granted ways like steady driving, hard work, watchful eyes, and a hand up when you fall on your sorry inexperienced ass either literally or figuratively.

I always felt safe in the car with my dad driving, even as an adult. I didn't even realize how safe I felt with him until I got older and started riding around with other people. For either real or imagined reasons, my dad's driving spoiled me. With him I could fall asleep or chat with fellow passengers but when I rode with others there was always this feeling I must keep an eye on the road just in case I was the only one who noticed our exit coming up or a toddler running into traffic from between parked cars or an upcoming stop sign. When I got married and started riding around with my husband he was initally amused at my tendency to apply brakes against the passenger side floorboard or to lean into curves. He thought it was cute. The novelty soon wore off though, and it became a sore spot when I would suggest possible improvements for his driving skills, once causing him to pull over on Pacific Coast Highway in California, get out of the car and tell me to drive home by myself. We were miles from home and even though I drove alongide him for a while at a snail's pace imploring him to get back in the car he stubbornly refused. I never did find out how he got home that day.

In the late 90's we made one of our many trips over the years to visit my folks in southern California. My dad offered to drive me to the mall to shop for something I needed and making a left turn into the parking lot he hesitated, then pulled out directly in front of an oncoming car. The other car came to a screeching halt just in time and my father shakily pulled into the parking lot and parked. It shook me to the core. I knew something was wrong. In discussing it with my mother later she confessed that in the previous couple months there had been a few times dad had seemed to be seeing things that were not there or not seeing things that were there while driving. She was worried about it but as we all do at the beginning of such things she just hoped it was nothing and wouldn't happen again . Soon, however, these occurrences increased and we all, including my dad, knew it was time to check into it. The tests were run and the diagnosis was made. Alzheimer's disease. We were all devastated. We knew it was a terrible disease but we didn't even know the half of it back then, which was probably a blessing.

The doctor strongly suggested no more driving, and my dad readily agreed. I couldn't live with myself if I ever hurt anyone, he said. My mother drove home from the doctor's office and my dad never drove again. Just like that, a lifetime of driving put to an end with one visit to the doctor. And one horrible disease.

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