Off North Road

A pocketful of change

By Russell Hoxsie - November 1, 2007

We are in a new house this week, a new house for Mary Ann and me - in fact, a new house built two years ago, built by loving owners who plan to retire here in a few years from a larger home across town. For now, they are renting this house to us, and we are staging an experiment for the winter. Not knowing exactly what the future holds for us, we are moving down to smaller quarters, with less maintenance for ourselves and less isolation, less distance from the center of things with the built-in commuting involved at a time when I have to curtail my driving as the loss of visual acuity sneaks ever onward. The prospect suggests that this move may be the first step in a succession of moves to accommodate our elder years and our possible failure to maintain a reasonable degree of independence, which we still cherish.

In my practice years, I became acquainted with an elderly couple (actually when we met them, they were younger than we are now), and I was impressed with their measured life-style, the patience with which they accepted the falling away of vigor, and their planning for the future. "We have both agreed with each other," Mr. B. said one day while I was attending his recovery from a hospitalization for acute illness. "We've agreed to give up our driving licenses on our 80th birthdays. Taxis will serve our needs, and we'll save a good deal of money without an automobile."

He was a professional musician, an accomplished pianist. At his bedside lay a foreshortened dummy keyboard, on which his fingers drummed a toneless almost silent rhythm every day to keep in practice and maintain the strength and flexibility of his fingers and hands. His piano sat quietly in another room as he waited to recover from his weakening illness. I had not known such an instrument existed. For all I knew he had arranged its creation or invented it altogether.

I went home that evening with the tale to tell. I had been impressed and thought, "What a sensible arrangement between two elderly devoted persons." There are other examples I can describe which go in other directions. One, a woman of age-untold retained her sense of total independence long after the outward signs of her failing health were obvious to all who saw her swing down William Street in Vineyard Haven one sunny summer day and take away the corner of my proud white fence at the intersection at William and Center. She then proceeded to back off over some of the remnants and met me with an astonished expression on her face indicating to me she had not recognized the narrowness of the street, the height of the curb to the sidewalk or actually the mild mayhem she had created in the neighborhood. Unfortunately she questioned my own judgment when I later recommended strongly she stop driving altogether. Her family intervened, and she succumbed to that pressure but remained mightily unhappy with me. I have carried that picture in my mind for these many years and do not want to become the crabby old man of the family who failed to listen to reason.

The trouble with good advice for the future or rigid rules for behavior in the abstract is that such advice may be too early or too late or need alteration as circumstances tease and twist the course of life. Now my time has come, and I find such advice excellent in the raw sense but painful as a bum which does not go away. I now consider the wisest of cautions is for me to stop driving my car, although following that advice is a hard pill to swallow. Of course, I said to myself, I can still drive safely - until I was driving a few weeks ago and a utility pole seemed to loom up in the center of the street at an intersection. The explanation lies in the fact that the pole lay quite within the center of my vision but was in reality 20 feet farther along but off to the side, through an intersection into the next block. Loss of my depth perception allowed me to see the more distant pole as 20 feet closer than it actually was and misplaced in my vision to the center of the street. On closer approach, I discovered the real position - the actual pole beyond and the road directly ahead of me free of obstruction. Several of these experiences taught me a practical driving lesson: a sudden stop or veer to the side in such a situation could lead to mayhem of my own making.

So, I say, no more chances driving with my visual disorder. Mr. and Mrs. B were unusual to say the least, and I know their lives were lived out in serenity without an automobile. I follow their example, never mind the grumbling along with my family's advice. Oh boy!

I don't believe in omens but a unique and disquieting happening changed all that. One day following an after-lunch nap, I scooped up a handful of spare change for my pocket and with it a used-up 6-volt battery to be sure I bought the correct replacement for Ticker's e-collar, which she wears as receptor for our "invisible fence" around the yard. Mary Ann picked up the car keys, since she is the family driver now, and I automatically felt in my pocket for the keys I usually carried but found none. What I did find was a batch of very hot coinage - not stolen goods, and not just coins warm from lying up against my leg, but the contents of my pocket hot as a pistol as if I had put something there from the stove. I barely dared feel again but I retrieved the small battery for fear my pocket would burst into flames. For a moment I thought perhaps I had passed some radiation device which had burned me. That "used-up" 6-volt must surely have poured out energy shorted out by all that copper, silver and nickel. I said before I didn't believe in omens but I've definitely decided I'm not driving anymore.