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When I was 18 my dad took me for my driving test. As he turns 80 I take him to redo his.
Behind the counter is a girl in her early 20s. Without averting her eyes from the computer screen she asks my father how often he has driven on the highway in the past year. A timeworn travelling engineer, Dad has arrived prepared. He’s taken lessons to revisit the rules of the road, and now readies himself for the first question by removing a square of paper from his pocket. Enunciating the ‘t’s, he rhymes off: “Ten times to my son’s house in Etobicoke; ten times to my daughter’s house in Toronto; and twice to Kleinberg. That’s 22 times altogether.”
While he stands like a proud schoolboy who has successfully recited his times tables, the girl remarks: “You are booked for the city test. You need to take the highway test. It takes 10 minutes longer.”
I touch his arm, anticipating an outburst, but the slip-up has fallen on deaf ears. He remains calm. Instead, I am the one who becomes agitated because I’ve made arrangements to accompany him here. We must park ourselves for half an hour.
Fuddled, doddering and gaga (Sir or Lady) are synonyms for rimbambito, a mellifluous Italian word that carries the connotation of a person in his dotage becoming like a baby again, someone making the reverse-aging U-turn on the highway of life that each of us will eventually travel. Retaking the driving test is a milestone for seniors.
The Driver Examination Centre is filled with anxious people of all ages clutching documents, from the eager ball-capped 16-year-old waiting with his dad to the uneasy senior, cap in hand, accompanied by a spouse. Dad settles in with the newspaper puzzles. He tackles the Jumble, a scrambled-word game. The answer strikes him as witty, so he erases his penciled-in response and offers the challenge to me. “What did the celebrity use to pay for her coffee? … Star bucks!” The half-hour passes slowly.
Glancing outside, I notice a young man with a clipboard standing beside Dad’s grey Malibu. He’s looking around and checking his watch. The examiner! I race out. “Are you waiting for Mr. Townsend?” He responds with a nod, eyes fixed on the clipboard. “My father is hard of hearing. You’ll need to speak up when you talk to him.” I am now invisible. He instructs his examinee: “Get in the vehicle and turnontheignitionandthesignals.”
Nameless by choice, the examiner stands at the rear of the car, arms semaphore-like, as he points to the left and then right. His charge sits, hands at 2 o’clock on the wheel, staring ahead. I flap my hands madly for Dad to roll down the window and call out the instructions he clearly missed. I give him a thumbs-up as the examiner climbs into the car and they hit the road.
While I wait in Tim Horton’s across the street, the pages of my book blur. My thoughts meander to Dad’s 62-year driving career on the less-travelled roads he fearlessly navigated through England, Canada, Turkey, Jamaica, Iran, Oman, New Guinea, Nigeria, Indonesia, and the Bahamas. Wherever we lived, whether motoring on the left or right, I always felt safe with him behind the wheel.
Dad affectionately refers to each of his five children as if we were cars – from his ’57 model to his ’77 model. I can still hear his words of advice before I began driver’s education: “The comfort of your passengers comes first when you are driving, Jayne. They should never know that you are changing gears.” He insisted that I learn to drive standard, and I’m grateful not to be a standard-challenged Cinderella.
I look up and notice the grey Malibu has returned. Dad is soon standing in line, licence and legal-sized yellow paper in hand. He gives me a thumbs-down. I search his eyes for the glimmer of a joke, his mouth for the twitch of a smile. “I failed,” he says. A G1 sticker is affixed to his licence, reducing him to the driving level of the ball-capped boy.
Our journey home is silent for a time, but eventually scrambled thoughts are given voice. “He said I drove too slowly. Your mother says I drive too fast. I didn’t turn my head enough to look before changing lanes, or look in the rear-view mirror enough. In Turkey, the rule of the road was to look ahead, never behind. Mike, who gave me the lessons, said I was a good driver.”
Unlike the Jumble, this puzzle has no neat answer. As a ’31 model, Dad is undeniably showing his rustiness. Perhaps he goes into secret reveries like Walter Mitty in James Thurber’s story, I can’t know for certain. What I do know is that the nameless examiner failed to take into account the challenges faced by an older person. I have since heard stories of seniors experiencing terror during road tests.
After making the U-turn on life’s highway, the road to rimbambito is marked by points of no return. The loss of mobility as our tires lose their tread is but one. In the end, whether a pass or fail is merited, the least we can do is treat with respect and fairness people with long-standing, successful driving records, allowing them dignity as their road slowly narrows.
As for my dad, on his second try he passed.
Jayne Townsend lives in Toronto.
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