Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Last Wild Ride

Don was not supposed to be driving. He has dementia. His wife told me before we left
the house, “He is not to drive” and she knows what she’s talking about. So Don and I took off in their Subaru Forrester with me behind the wheel and headed up to Louella’s Cabin. It’s about fifteen miles from our home in Sequim, a beautiful drive up into the foothills of the Olympic Mountains.
Louella was Don’s Grandmother. She and her husband built the cabin in the early 1900s, when the Peninsula was sparsely populated. It is now owned and run by the Park Service and can be rented. I had been to the cabin with Don once before, before he had dementia. He and I had walked around the cabin and looked in the windows. Don was excited to point out the pictures hanging inside on the cabin walls. They were pictures of his relatives. I really couldn’t see them clearly, but Don told me who was pictured in each one. We talked with several of the neighbors.
They were excited to meet the grandson of Louella. Everyone in the area knows a little about Louella or at least they know her name. At the intersection of Louella Road and the gravel road leading up to the cabin, a Park Service sign identifies it as “Louella’s Cabin”. 

On the drive home in my car on that first trip, Don made sure I took the narrow asphalt road that angled off the main road leading down the mountain and ending at Highway 101. He told me that when his grandparents lived in the cabin, the road was dirt and/or mud, and Louella would harness the mule with a rope, throw saddle bags over his back, and walk the five or so miles down to the Blyn store to get supplies.
When we reached the cabin, I parked the Subaru in front and Don and I walked into the woods behind it. He told me he had roamed these woods often as child. As we walked, Don whistled. He is an avid whistler. He doesn’t whistle complete songs, only pieces. Once on a walk, I asked him what he was whistling and he said he didn’t know. I was able to identify a few of the songs, but Don really wasn’t that interested in knowing what they were. He became a little disoriented a few times as we traipsed through the woods, but clearly he enjoyed being in the familiar territory of his childhood. When we returned to the car, I opened the driver’s door and started to get in when Don called out, “I’d like to drive.”
I hesitated, but there was something in his look that caused me to toss him the keys. He caught them one handed. He drove slowly and carefully down the driveway and out onto Louella Road, but as soon as he turned down the narrow asphalt road leading to Blyn, he sped up. The road is windy and my body was thrown from side to side. “Don, don’t you think you should slow down?”
He looked at me with fire in his eyes and continued barreling down the mountain. What have I done? Don’s wife told me not to let him drive and now we’re both going to be killed in a fiery crash.”
“Don, you need to slow down.” I yelled, but instead of slowing down, he accelerated. My good friend with dementia seemed to be channeling Mario Andretti. He flung the car We came around a sharp turn and onto a dirt road. We were heading straight for the cliff edge overlooking the river. I braced myself for a “Thelma and Louise” ending, but suddenly Don rotated the steering wheel, putting the car into a sideways skid, and we came to rest at the edge of the steep embankment. Don looked at me and smiled with open, clear eyes. He was completely focused and aware of what he was doing and never looked more alive. I realized he must have driven these roads hundreds of times. I relaxed after that and let Don skillfully maneuver the car down to the highway.
My relaxed attitude quickly dissipated when we got to the busy intersection. Don was having trouble deciding when to pull out into the traffic. He began inching his way out as cars whizzed by.  I realized his disorientation was back and he needed my help.
“Don, pull over, I can take it from here.” He looked at me, his focus and clarity gone, replaced by uncertainty and confusion. He got out of the car and walked around to the passenger’s side and I drove home.
Don now lives in an assisted living facility. We are going to visit him next week. I bet he’s made lots of friends in his new home and I hope he’s still whistling. I’ll never forget going with him on his last wild ride.