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My View: Without our cars we have no autonomy

By Sharon F. Cramer

We’ve all experienced it – car gets a flat. I was lucky: Mine happened near home, midafternoon. With roadside assistance called, I breathe again, and wait.

I never learned to change my own tire, and recalled options in the days before cellphones – walking up the road to a gas station or pay phone, or hoping a capable stranger stopped.

Now, while I wait, memories of helpers appear: my dad, who taught me to keep “in case of emergency” items in my car; my husband, who met me at the S-curves on Delaware to wait for the tow truck (too dangerous a place to change the tire); my colleague, who alerted me to my car’s flat in SUNY Buffalo State’s parking lot.

Each of these men dealt with the reality of flats as predictable and routine, while I experienced any thought of flat tires as glaring exceptions to my confidence and competence.

This flat tire brings my day’s schedule to a stop, forcing a sacrifice of my treasured autonomy. I double-check myself, realizing my hiatus is temporary, a brief inconvenience – hours long, daylight, near home.

While I consider how parts of my schedule can be shifted around, I unexpectedly get sucked into a hurricane of empathy. I newly view friends whose animation is completely, often unexpectedly, halted – by a fall, a family member in need, a surgery. This flat tire clangs a bell of “What if …” that normally remains silent.

Now, I hear the noise of “can’t” and “wait” jangling as my friends must hear it – a clatter that won’t stop as they reorganize upcoming weeks, months. I hear the squawking in their heads, see the commotion in their lives, as they develop different routines matching their enforced suspensions.

Getting into my car is normally like putting on a coat – mindless, automatic, totally predictable. Missing the gleaming, unappreciated freedom of “working wheels” summons conversations with my sister from nearly a decade ago, about how to help our dad realize it was time to stop driving. At age 87, he retired from work, but driving – he learned in the Army, and it remained part of his identity.

We tried to convince him to “retire” from driving, to intentionally choose travel that didn’t put anyone at risk.

Throughout the dialogue with him about his car, I never connected with the emotions he must have felt. Intellectually, I knew we were asking him to give up his independence, justified our intrusion into his life because of our concerns for his safety.

My flat tire brought me inside his feeling of panic at being forced to stop. I realized we had been talking to him in one language, and he heard us in another. He finally stopped only when he got lost a mile from his house, during a snowstorm (fortunately rescued by a police officer who checked on his stopped car).

Now, I can see that he stopped because the fear of giving up driving got replaced by a bigger fear, of getting lost.

The sounds changed for him, from the music of independence to the honks of drivers pressing him to move. The lyrical sounds of my driving life, so different from his, begin again, while roadside assistance replaces the flat.

Watching, I recall how some physically limited people refer to others – as TABs (Temporarily Able Bodied).

They know most people will have mobility issues. I now extend that descriptor from my body to my car’s, as I gratefully, happily, drive away.

Sharon F. Cramer, Ph.D., has loved driving for over 50 years, and has 74,000 miles on her 3-year-old car.
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