For love's sake, don't look away
Last updated 11/20/2019 at 5:21pm | View PDF
One year and one day ago, a 93-year-old woman ran down my wife, Susan, on the sidewalk on First Street, shattering her, shoulders to knees.
Sue and I were out for our daily walk. Those were our times to share, argue about national news, talk about kids and families, and to hold hands. And yeah, more than once, I stopped to kiss her, still smitten like a high school boy even after 45 years of marriage.
Coming onto First, we noticed westbound cars stopped all the way back to Garfield. Backing out of an angled space, an elderly woman had smashed into the right rear fender of an adjacent parked SUV and stopped, halfway out, stalling the westbound traffic.
Trying to help, I paused in front of the woman's parking space and motioned for her to straighten her steering wheel so that she could safely back the rest of the way out, get out of the way of the traffic she'd stopped, and then presumably find a better place to park to leave insurance information.
Staring straight at me, she stomped on her accelerator with enough force to shoot forward, up and over the curb. I jumped sideways, but she still grazed my left knee before crashing into the building behind me. I turned to give Sue a grin and thumbs-up over my narrow escape, but Sue wasn't there. She was under the car.
At the hospital, with my son holding one hand, me the other and my daughter in Mexico talking through a cell phone pressed to her mom's ear, Sue died. Our grief will remain absolute for the rest of our lives.
It's been suggested that the elderly driver simply confused the gas pedal for the brake, as if ordinary confusion explains it. That's too facile. It was more than ordinary confusion that caused her to nail the accelerator hard enough to jump the curb, let alone go forward when she should have backed up. That's not simply a confused motorist; that's a weaponized driver.
Six months - and only six months - later, a Hinsdale physician wrote that the driver, her patient, "has been diagnosed with moderate dementia. She has very limited immediate or remote recall and cannot remember anything that happened on the day of the accident in question."
That's what begs attention. Moderate dementia is not something one suddenly wakes up with, like a common cold. Dementia grows in severity - recognizable, increasing severity - over time. Her doctor had diagnosed it, but likely others - family, friends - had seen it growing as well.
We live and drive longer. So most of us have encountered, or will encounter, someone suffering with dementia, and might have to face what my mom and I did when we pulled my dad's car keys. Seeking to supplement this, six states require physicians to "report individuals who are cognitively or medically impaired to the DMV. ... Fifty percent of the remaining states ... encourage or allow physician reporting, but do not make it mandatory" (http://adsd.nv.gov). They include Illinois.
It's not just the doctors. Families and friends have to accept responsibility to do what's painful. We can't look away.
Sue was a lovely and loving woman, a woman of grace and intelligence and relentless devotion to her kids and to me. She - and we - had many more years to look forward to sharing. We even laughingly foresaw ourselves in old age, needing all afternoon to shuffle around one block. And yeah, me stopping to kiss her, still as smitten as a high school boy.
If the time comes, for love's sake, don't look away.
- Jack Fredrickson of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email him at [email protected]