My grandmother’s fifteen minutes of fame came rather late. As heat records were broken across Southern California on Sept. 27, 2010, she failed to return from a doctor’s appointment in Newport Beach. Her photo was flashed on every local TV news broadcast that night. The temperature was 110-plus. In her car were her toy poodle, Bree, a dead cell phone, and little else.
In retrospect, my 84-year-old grandmother shouldn’t have been driving at all. But to us she seemed so competent. In 1998, she retired as a first-grade teacher in Fairmount, Ind., (pop. 2,954) and moved to O.C. to be near the family. She became well-known at Irvine hardware stores for her frequent visits to pick up supplies for DIY projects, including her handmade storage sheds. Using the El Toro hangars as landmarks, she soon knew the maze of O.C. arteries and freeways as if she’d been born here. There were occasional odd remarks, malapropisms, temporary memory lapses. But even young people sometimes lose their bearings or struggle for the right words. And she always found her way home.
She’s inherently a fiery, often stubborn woman. A famous family story recounts how she spent considerable time trying to rip her Sam’s Club card in half with her bare hands (it’s impossible) when the warehouse store wouldn’t accept a return item. With the family, she was always nurturing. When I was 4, she taught me to read out of old Midwestern schoolbooks with cartoon letters. She opened up the world to me, and I haven’t stopped reading or writing since.
That September day, despite the heat, she insisted on taking Bree with her. When the doctor wouldn’t let the dog into the visiting room, she stormed out and called my aunt to say she was going to a different doctor. Two hours later my aunt received a call from Gold’s Gym in Fullerton saying that my grandmother had just left, a little disoriented, but that staff members had drawn her a map and she should be home soon.
We passed the night with no news. My father told police she might have gotten so fed up with her doctor and with Southern California that she’d decided to lead-foot it back East. Maybe she would call in the morning from the Motel 6 in Needles?
Meanwhile in Fairmount, the Citizens Exchange Bank reported someone tried to withdraw $10,000 using my grandmother’s card. As the day went on, two more transactions—for $10,000 and $8,000—were attempted. All were denied due to insufficient funds, but had someone talked their way into the car and obtained her PIN? Several of her former students who worked at the bank flagged the unusual account activity. They called her cellphone, to no avail.
At midday the next day, my aunt’s phone rang. “We have your mother.”
“Where is she?”
The caller was a member of a small evangelical church who’d taken my grandmother to a medical clinic. We suspect my grandmother, a Christian, had stopped outside the small Tijuana house of worship because of the large cross on the front lawn. We still don’t know how she crossed the border without a passport. She and Bree were unharmed, but what she told us about her journey shocked us.
Her story was specific and elaborate, if totally false. She said she’d picked up a woman who’d needed money to buy a bus ticket to Ohio to visit her starving children. My grandmother, a child of the Great Depression, supposedly took the woman there and gave her money. Nevermind that she would have had to drive more than 200 mph to get to Ohio and back to make it to Tijuana when she did; that was her story and she stuck to it.
A tiny critical barrage against our family appeared in the letters pages of local newspapers, asking why we let her drive at all. But how do you decide when and how to restrict an elderly relative?
Maybe her deception was unconscious, because I know many seniors are terrified of losing their identity and independence. They labor to get names and dates right, endure tremendous physical pain in the course of daily activity, pit relatives against each other. Until, of course, they can’t. Doctors concluded that my grandmother had suffered one or more ministrokes that affected her memory and cognition, but not her motor functions, which allowed her to drive safely. We’re lucky she was not hurt, and did not injure anyone else, but it was her last time behind the wheel. She’s now in a Mission Viejo board-and-care home.
“You’re like the son I never had,” she said to my father—her son—a few days before we moved her into the home.
“Who do you think I am?” he asked.
“I know you’re a very nice man. I wish my daughter had a husband like you.”
We laugh because it’s too hard to contemplate these things for long. We know aging and death are inevitable for us, too, but seeing a loved one in this state uncomfortably reinforces that fact. At other times she slips out of her twilight, remembers everyone, even cracks her old teasing jokes. Her mental state on any given day is unpredictable, and it’s hard to tell what she retains from one encounter to the next.
Each human life follows a bell curve. We’re born helpless, innocent, and without control of our bodies. We rise to self-control and a useful purpose, and then, as we age, return involuntarily to the fantasy and safety of childhood.
By teaching me to read, she changed my life. Now I watch, helpless, as she moves beyond my reach. I never thanked her for those reading lessons. And now I can’t. The lesson is simple but true—the cliche we hear whenever disaster strikes: Don’t wait to tell loved ones what they need to hear.