Monday, March 7, 2011

Sense of Direction

I would like to share with you an excerpt of a story by Michael Gartner, president of NBC News:

My father never drove a car. Well, that's not quite right. I should say I never saw him drive a car.  He quit driving in 1927, when he was 25 years old, and the last car he drove was a 1926 Whippet.  "In those days," he told me when he was in his 90s, "to drive a car you had to do things with your hands, and do things with your feet, and look every which way, and I decided you could walk through life and enjoy it or drive through life and miss it."  At which point my mother, a sometimes salty Irishwoman, chimed in: she said. "He hit a horse."

"Well," my father said, "there was that, too."

So my brother and I grew up in a household without a car. But, sometimes, my father would say, "But as soon as one of you boys turns 16, we'll get one." It was as if he wasn't sure which one of us would turn 16 first.  But, sure enough, my brother turned 16 before I did, so in 1951 my parents bought a used 1950 Chevrolet from a friend who ran the parts department at a Chevy dealership downtown.  It was a four-door, white model, stick shift, fender skirts, loaded with everything, and, since my parents didn't drive, it more or less became my brother's car.  Having a car but not being able to drive didn't bother my father, but it didn't make sense to my mother.
So in 1952, when she was 43 years old, she asked a friend to teach her to drive. She learned in a nearby cemetery, the place where I learned to drive the following year and where, a generation later, I took my two sons to practice driving. The cemetery probably was my father's idea. "Who can your mother hurt in the cemetery?" I remember him saying more than once.

For the next 45 years or so, until she was 90, my mother was the driver in the family. Neither she nor my father had any sense of direction, but he loaded up on maps -- though they seldom left the city limits -- and appointed himself navigator. It seemed to work.
After he retired, my father almost always accompanied my mother whenever she drove anywhere, even if he had no reason to go along. If she were going to the beauty parlor, he'd sit in the car and read, or go take a stroll or, if it was summer, have her keep the engine running so he could listen to the Cubs game on the radio.  If she were going to the grocery store, he would go along to carry the bags out -- and to make sure she loaded up on ice cream. As I said, he was always the navigator, and once, when he was 95 and she was 88 and still driving, he said to me, "Do you want to know the secret of a long life?"

"I guess so," I said, knowing it probably would be something bizarre.

"No left turns," he said.

"What?" I asked.

"No left turns," he repeated. "Several years ago, your mother and I read an article that said most accidents that old people are in happen when they turn left in front of oncoming traffic.  As you get older, your eyesight worsens, and you can lose your depth perception, it said. So your mother and I decided never again to make a left turn."

"What?" I said again.

"No left turns," he said. "Think about it. Three rights are the same as a left, and that's a lot safer. So we always make three rights."

"You're kidding!" I said, and I turned to my mother for support.

"No," she said, "your father is right. We make three rights. It works."  But then she added: "Except when your father loses count."
I was driving at the time, and I almost drove off the road as I started laughing.

"Loses count?" I asked.

"Yes," my father admitted, "that sometimes happens. But it's not a problem. You just make seven rights, and you're okay again."

I couldn't resist. "Do you ever go for 11?" I asked.

"No," he said.  If we miss it at seven, we just come home and call it a bad day. Besides, nothing in life is so important it can't be put off another day or another week."

My mother was never in an accident, but one evening she handed me her car keys and said she had decided to quit driving. That was in 1999, when she was 90.  She lived four more years, until 2003. My father died the next year, at 102.
A few weeks earlier, he had told my son, "You know, Mike, the first hundred years are a lot easier than the second hundred." At one point in our drive that Saturday, he said, "You know, I'm probably not going to live much longer."

"You're probably right," I said.

"Why would you say that?" He countered, somewhat irritated.

"Because you're 102 years old," I said..

"Yes," he said, "you're right." He stayed in bed all the next day.  That night, I suggested to my son and daughter that we sit up with him through the night.  He appreciated it, he said, though at one point, apparently seeing us look gloomy, he said:
"I would like to make an announcement. No one in this room is dead yet"

An hour or so later, he spoke his last words:
"I want you to know," he said, clearly and lucidly, "that I am in no pain. I am very comfortable. And I have had as happy a life as anyone on this earth could ever have."
A short time later, he died.

I miss him a lot, and I think about him a lot. I've wondered now and then how it was that my family and I were so lucky that he lived so long.  I can't figure out if it was because he walked through life, or because he quit taking left turns.  Life is too short to wake up with regrets. So love the people who treat you right.  Forget about the one's who don't.  Believe everything happens for a reason.  If you get a chance, take it &; if it changes your life, let it.  Nobody said life would be easy, they just promised it would most likely be worth it."

And so as I reflect on Michael's story of his aging parents, the last part is so true. About being with those that treat us right.  I also began to think upon the wisdom of making only left turns as they grew older, just to be safe.  I suppose that is true, that as we grow older, we grow wiser and learn the safer path, even if it is less conveinient.  But sometimes we take wrong turns and there are one way streets.  Even when you think you are certain you know where you parked, after making circles to find your way back, it can be quite a journey. Sometimes when we make a wrong turn, in the moment we think we are doing the right thing. In the journey of being lost without knowing, sometimes it is what has made us what we are if we are able to look back and let go of how we got to the destination and accept where we are. But the reality is, sometimes we make the same mistakes again. Have you ever made the same wrong turn over and over to get to a place, because that is how you got there the first time? I've done that.

I have made many many wrong turns in my life. Some because I was naive and adventurous. Some were from being vulnerable and trusting someone else. And some were from simply not keeping focus on what was in front of me and looking too far ahead.

I was walking the streets of NYC this weekend with friends.  I hadn't been in the city in at least 20 years. Though there were many familiar sites, memories and love for the city, I still found myself overwhelmed by keeping track of directions.  NYC for many who have not been there is a scarey place.  Perhaps because of its size, or simply fear of the unknown.  But really much of the city is on a grid.  If you keep in mind where you started, you can make only left turns and come right back to where you started.

Though I would have likely found my way alone, it was always comforting to be part of the group.  If one of us forgot a turn, another took over and so on until we found our way through the city.  For some of my group, it was their first time to NYC.  We made a few wrong turns looking for things, but found new sites to adventure instead.  Going on an adventure sometimes means not holding to a plan or following a map.  The key to finding our way back was in trusting one another and in making turns toward the things that looked familiar.

Haven't you always found a sense of relief when you stumble upon a familiar landmark after many wrong turns? When we know we are not alone in not only making wrong turns and not being perfect, we can be ourselves even more. I wish I could say I will never make another wrong turn again or find myself feeling alone or lost. I wish I could say I will never be hurt again by those who would treat me wrong.  But then, I think I might miss out on the adventure of life when getting lost yields something good or helps me find something amazing I wasn't looking for.

I suppose the story made me think upon this past year and those I have lost because of my disease, and those that remain.  Life is short and I have had to let go of many things, stop and ask for directions or let go of what I cannot find.   I have also gained many new relationships and adventures I would have never been a part of,  for it not for the "wrong turn" cancer led me.  Cancer does not define me, but it has changed my life.  I did not used to accept saying that cancer has changed me. I believed that despite my changed outer looks, inside I was still the same person.  I did not like to think that such a small word could put my life in directions I would have never ventured.  What I have come to learn is that I have company for the ride.  I am not alone.  At times the journey is lonely, but when I remember I do not have to find my way back alone, I can keep walking ahead.


  1. Beautiful story and thoughts Laura! Keep writing and always remember you are not alone! Natalie

  2. Thank you Natalie. I know you understand! The same thought goes to you.

  3. Wow. Great post, looking forward to your next one!


There was an error in this gadget