Most of the time, you're sitting at a red light and nothing happens, it turns green and you go on your way. But sometimes, things happen . . .
I was making my way home the other day and found myself sitting at the head of the line at the big, busy intersection of highway 70 and highway 86, just north of downtown Hillsborough. My mind was making a small grocery list, it was noontime, and there was a lot of things I had to do after lunch. But all that was swept from my mind when the light turned green.
I hesitated to take my foot off the break and hit the gas, because I noticed two big black guys jump out of the tow truck they were riding in - they were stopped behind a small silver sedan headed north on 70, I was headed south on 86. I watched the men as they chased the little car that was rolling through the intersection against the red light it had just been given. It wasn't being driven, it was rolling. And it's driver was slumped over the wheel. This realization filled me with all sorts of questions and horror. I watched as one of the men bravely stood in the intersection and put up his hands to stop any traffic from proceeding. His cohort ran after the car now gliding along at a good clip, maybe ten or fifteen miles an hour. I held my breath as he reached the driver side door and tried to open it, it was locked. He ran along side and pounded on the window. Was the driver dead? The car held a straight line. Cars were coming from all directions completely unaware of the little runaway car. What would happen next? It was terrifying to watch.
Horns began to blow. The people behind me were furious at me. Why wasn't I going? The third man in the tow truck, the one at the wheel now positioned the truck in the intersection to aid his friend who was trying to stop traffic. More horns blew. I turned just in time to see the little sedan jerk to one side and enter the parking lot on the right of 86 - the driver was conscious! The thumping fists of the man running along side raised her from her dreams.
I drove through the intersection and swerved into the parking lot. The three black men from the tow truck were running to the little car. I rolled down my window and called to them, "Is she okay? Shall I call 911?"
"We don't know, please come talk to her!" They needed a woman to help them now. I stopped my truck and jumped out. "She's confused, will you talk to her?" I went to the passenger window of the car which was rolled half way down. There at the wheel sat a portly elderly woman huffing and puffing. I would come to find out her name was Mary Alice and she was 80 years old.
"M'am, are you alright? Do you need us to call an ambulance?" I asked her, and then I looked at the men, they were all out of breath too. We were in shock. And the traffic out on the road behaved as though nothing had occurred.
"I'm wide awake now, wide awake. I haven't had anything to eat." She gripped the steering wheel hard with both hands.
"She's got Ohio plates, did she come all the way from Ohio all by herself?" asked the youngest of the three men, tall and built right, like a quarterback.
"M'am? Are you traveling? From Ohio?"
"No, no, I'm from Mebane. I was coming from the hospital."
"Yes," she took another deep breath, "I haven't had anything to eat. I had an MRI."
"Were you on the highway? On 40?"
"Yes, and I didn't feel well so I got off and heeeere I am. I must have fallen asleep. But I'm awake now, thank you, thanks to all of you. I will just drive home now." She started up the little car. I looked at the men and we all shook our heads in agreement.
"M'am, there's a hamburger place right here, we want to buy you some food, it's not safe for you to keep going with no food." We all leaned closer to the car, ready to stop it if she tried to drive away. "Please," I pleaded with her, "stay here with us and have some lunch. We want to make sure you're okay."
"Oh, that's alright, you all go on, I'll be okay." She continued to grip the steering wheel and the older man, the man who had been driving the tow truck insisted she park the car and let us buy her some food. She gave in and we pooled our money. The small man, the one who had chased her car and thought so quickly to bang on her windows would order her food. She swung the car around and parked it next to the Highway 70 Burger Grill. The red neon light buzzed over the sound of the sun and the panic that still rested in our guts. The older man asked her what she wanted to eat, "What can we get you?" She sat back in her car seat now, color was returning to her cheeks, she undid her seat belt, "Just a soda and some potato chips," she answered. He looked at me and I tried to get her to have more, "What about something hot? A hamburger?" And suddenly I felt like my grandmother, who's answer to any ailment was a hamburger - bad day at school? Have a hamburger. Fall off your pony? Have a hamburger. Sad because of a pimple? Have a hamburger. Mary Alice decided on French Fries and a Diet Coke. We wanted her to eat more, but we had gotten her this far, and at least I could ask her questions. I began firing questions at her, my phone still in my hand ready to call 911. "So you were in the hospital?"
"Yes, had an MRI this morning at 7:30. Been up since 5:30. I couldn't eat. They won't let you eat, you know. I had to drink that stuff, a big big cup of it . . . "
"Barium - they made you drink barium. I know about that. It's awful stuff. Makes yer insides glow."
"Is that what it does? Gracious. Haven't had anything to eat since last night."
"And they let you leave? Without eating?"
"I'll never do that again. Next time I'll have my neighbor drive me."
"So yer from Ohio?"
"Oh yes. My sons still live there." And then she confided in me, or at least lowered her voice in that confiding sorta way, "The car belongs to my sons. That's why it's got Ohio plates. They bought me the car. They told me, "Ma, we want you to have a nice car. But don't get into any trouble or we'll have to take it away. If they found out about this they'd ground me for sure. Oh boy, I learned my lesson."
"So you were on i40 coming from the hospital?" I repeated questions, I wanted to make sure she was telling me the truth. She was and she was clear as a bell. I put my phone in my pocket and began to relax. The tall young guy walked over, "So she's not from Ohio?" I explained she lived here, but she used to live in Ohio and she piped up, "I'm eighty years old. I used to live in Ohio, near the Pennsylvania boarder, near Erie, Pennsylvania. I came down here for a visit with a friend and I liked it so much I stayed."
"I was just up there M'am. Near Erie and round the woods in Ohio." The young man brightened up, "I was up there with my hounds. I hunt coon dogs. We went up there for a trial. Took 77, do you drive 77?"
"Oh my sons drive me now, when I go for long trips like that. They won't let me visit without coming to get me. One of my sons is a truck driver."
The young man looked at me, "Hey, don't you ride horses?" I was completely surprised. Although I was wearing my paddock boots, but, how did he know?
"Yes, yes I ride."
"Weren't you with that man who's horse fell out of the trailer?"
"Um, what? No, gosh, no. " I had visions of another disaster on the road.
"But I know I've seen you riding your horse. Up there on Schley?"
"Well, yeah. But how?"
"I helped bale some hay up there, maybe you rode by?"
"I guess I did. That must be it." The french fries and the soda came and I wanted to ask the young man about his coon dogs, but we all sat there and watched Mary Alice drink her soda and eat her fries - she belonged to us in that moment, she didn't know it, but she did, and we weren't putting her back on the road until she ate the food we got her. The old man took me aside, "Shouldn't we call her family?"
"She said they'll take her car away. I don't want to get her in trouble."
"Me neither, I think she's learned her lesson."
"M'am, will you give me your phone number so I can call you later? To make sure you got home alright?"
"Yes, that would okay."
She gave me her number and told me to let it ring several times. She started up the car and we watched her drive away. It was a risk perhaps, but who were we to keep her? Of course, questions ran through my head all afternoon - what was the MRI for? Was it related to her passing out at the wheel? Would she pass out again? I reassured myself that she passed out from hunger, not from something more serious. I thought about calling the hospital - how could they let her leave with no food? But again, I didn't want to get her in trouble. I didn't want to intrude into her life too much. Some might say it was my duty to intrude. I remember how hard it was to tell my grandfather not to drive on the highway anymore. He was 95 years old. The state of Connecticut renewed his driver's license when he was 93 - with an expiration date that carried him till he was 98, so they were no help in discouraging him from taking to the road. He promised me not to drive on the highway, only the secondary roads, which was risky enough. A week later I got a call from a friend who knew we had told Pop to stay off the highway, "Saw Tommy on I95 near Stamford today. He was going 35 in the right hand lane!" I called Pop that night, "Pop, I've got spies and you're busted! Stay off the highway." He cursed me, but he stayed off the highways. I didn't worry so much about him. I worried about him wiping out a family. And so I regretted not getting another number from Mary Alice, her sons' numbers, but she's only 80, I want to believe that she's too young to lose her right to drive, to lose her freedom. In this world of rules and laws, I didn't want to be the one to narc on her, I want to believe that she learned her lesson. Aren't old ladies entitled to a second chance? Isn't a woman who gave birth to three sons entitled to a secret? And yet there's a part of me that worries, I'm a worrier, it's my core really.
I called her number an hour later. She answered the phone, "If I sound funny young lady, it's because my mouth is full. I've been eating ever since I got home."
"I'm glad yer home Mary Alice."
"Me too. I am going to thank God for all of you in my prayers when I go to sleep tonight."
Many years ago I decided that when I reach the age that Mary Alice has reached, I will live somewhere that requires no car - Mexico perhaps, Argentina better yet - I will drive a pony and cart to town, or a motorcycle maybe, and last resort, a large tricycle with a basket for my groceries. I don't want to be old in America, especially old and alone, it's my greatest fear, because this country is so terribly mean to old people, terribly terribly mean.