When Bill was in his 30s, a train locomotive slammed into the rail trolley he was working on. He had the presence of mind to lean forward, out of the direct path of the engine, but he ended up with internal injuries and fractured ribs, a back injury that took time to heal. Somehow he recovered from it. Miraculously, his back hasn’t bothered him since.
But now his legs give way from time to time, like when he’s standing at the sink doing dishes. The doctors say there’s nothing that can be done. It’s his back, and Bill’s 89, and it can’t be fixed. He says it’s not painful, but I can see it’s getting him down. For one thing, he can’t dance any more. And there’s the not-knowing when it will happen again.
Bill mows and rakes the leaves off the nature strip all up and down our street. He does it, just because, as a kind of a service to the street. I’ve never known anyone else who took on such a thing.
‘Top o’ the morning to you, Treasure!’
Our paths cross almost daily, as I head down to the shops, check for mail at the post office box, and he is out there with the rotary mower or the rake. Most days, in this colder weather, he wears a vivid blue jumper and black track pants with a white stripe down the outside of each leg. His hair is pure white, his eyebrows jaunty.
* * *
A few days ago Bill began talking about the importance of having a car. I can’t remember how we got onto it. He said he’d known a number of women who’d relied on their husbands to drive and were left helpless, stranded, when their husbands died. I said I had a licence but didn’t drive – had never been a regular driver. He said that one day, when I grew up, I should do something about that.
‘Bill,’ I said, without rancour, just to set the record straight. ‘I’m 47.’
He said right back, without apology, ‘I wouldn’t have guessed that.’
He offered to drive me anywhere if I needed it.
* * *
From Bill’s perspective, I probably don’t seem very grown up. It’s not just the way I look. He knows I’m single again, and that I’m an apartment-dweller, and I’ve told him enough that he’d have surmised I’m a renter, not an owner. So I’m unmarried and unmortgaged, and because I’m clearly not heading off to work every day, and not accompanied by children, he must also have surmised that my life is relatively free of what most people consider to be normal adult responsibilities. And perhaps that translates into the idea that I don’t have them and never have had them. Not true, but on the other hand, I can understand why it would look like that.
As for the matter of the car – I’ve never had one – not wishing for the expense, even when my income was, shall we say, considerably better than it is at present. I’ve also felt I was making a positive choice, environmentally speaking. Doing without a car is a viable option when you live in a city with good public transport, as long as you are reasonably mobile – especially if you can manage to live in an area that offers almost everything you need close by. I live five minutes from the shops; two minutes from a beach. Having a car under these circumstances does not seem like a necessity; it seems more like luxury.
The thing is, too, I love walking: the slower pace of it – being outside – how getting out there engages all my senses – how good it feels to do it – how much better I feel when I do it regularly. I fear what having a car would do to my life. The thought of replacing walking with driving around in a box makes me feel claustrophobic. Although, of course, it doesn’t have to be like that.
But there’s this, too: I don’t believe the shape of my life has to be the same as anyone else’s. I have resisted the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle pressure to have a car; to treat it as a fundamental rite of passage. Maybe it’s just a thin branch thrown down across the quagmire of (my own) conformity.
My father said more than once that having a car would change my life. He was right, I am sure; but in the end, there have always been other things that mattered more.
* * *
Once I tracked down a woman who’d been a friend in primary school. In her spare time, she raced Porsches; Boxters were a favourite. She said she’d seen a photo of one in a magazine when she was in her teens, and decided that was for her, thank you very much. She stuck the photo up on her bedroom wall. She’d earned enough to buy her first Porsche by the time she was in her early 20s.
We didn’t have too much in common – the fact that I didn’t drive at all was a bit of a kicker – and we soon parted ways again. But I think, sometimes, of her determination, and what surely must have been courage.
In my former friend, I think I may even have detected a streak of ruthlessness.
* * *
Of all the road trips I did with my father in the American West, there is one that reverberates in my memory in a way quite different to the others: Glacier National Park in Montana, just south of the Canadian border. I remember the window of the car wide open as we drove through the woods, me sitting up on my knees in the passenger seat with my face out in the damp rushing air, breathing it in, the fragrance of deep wet earth and green. The absolute ecstasy of it.
* * *
There is a sense of being confined without a car. My world seems very small at times; I’ve seen enough of it to have a sense of what I’m missing. I have to ask myself: is there another reason for not getting a car; for not driving?
In my heart of hearts, I have to admit it: there is fear.
I’m terrified of the major roads in my city – the sometimes enormous and complex intersections; the confusing spaghetti of options in some of the newer areas where even experienced drivers can find themselves tearing out chunks of hair as they go shooting off down the wrong road. The signage is not always all it could be.
There is also the complicated fear of negotiating the buying of a car … finding, without unduly calling attention to my small size, a car in which I can feel comfortable; in which I am able to see properly out the windows in all directions without sitting on pillows; in which I am able to go for longer drives without developing an aching back from stretching and craning to control a vehicle that is in all crucial ways just a little too large for me. And how to sort this out while navigating sales pitches and all the rest of it … and to somehow do all this when I have not ever been a regular driver, so that merely getting in a car and turning the key feels unfamiliar, highly deliberate and thought-filled. Driving has never been second nature to me.
Intellectually, I’ve half tackled the problems already. Plenty of cars now have highly adjustable driver’s seats, and features well suited to a smaller person, like a lower dashboard. There are services where they do your car shopping for you, too. Plus, I can get a few driving lessons to build my confidence. So that all sounds good.
But then, I imagine I’ve got the car and it’s all sorted: there I’ll be, out on the road. Exposed. My mind fills with images of terrible accidents; bodies mashed, torn apart.
How does everyone else who drives overcome this terror? I’m full of admiration for anyone who just gets out there and does it.
Until I grapple with this, I know I will not truly have taken full responsibility for my life. I will have let fear overcome the practical desirability of being able to drive – and the desire, I must admit it, to be able to move more freely in a wider world.
* * *
But there’s a conundrum there.
What if my fear is helping me: helping me to live by my principles, in relation to not having a car? In other words, providing the emotional underpinning to the living-out of my ideals? And shouldn’t I be guided by those, first and foremost?
But the fear – my consciousness of it – is a sign that I have yet to genuinely and whole-heartedly make the decision: whether to re-commit to not driving; or whether to commit to re-learning how to, and to getting a car. At least trying it.
What of the environment, living life my own way, etc., etc.?
I can see that driving might allow me to be more effective in the world, and to enact other ideals that matter to me: like being useful to others; like knowing and experiencing this country for myself; like being willing to change, to try things another way.
I don’t have to betray my ideals. I just need to find another way to live them.
* * *
Facing fear … deciding … committing … and tenaciously, ferociously, trying and trying again for the things that matter.
* * *
Bill has lent me the book his three daughters prepared for his 80th birthday, celebrating his life. He says bashfully that it might be a bit on the rosy side, but I want to see it.
After I look through it, I wonder about the nature of courage. It’s clear Bill has it. He encourages and emboldens others, like the new ones who’ve come to be part of the Thursday dances which he MCs. He keeps his family gathered close, without suffocating them.
In the book, several people who attend the dances write of that thing Bill does at the end, when they’re all gathered round in a circle singing ‘Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye.’
How he cries ‘Can’t hear you!’, drawing even the shy ones out, into the light.
* * *
I can’t help feeling that Bill divined in me, not so much a person young and irresponsible, since I’m anything but, but a person who has not quite tackled all the fears that have shaped and limited her life.
He’s right. I still have some growing up to do.
© From the desk of a tiny person 2015