I’ve been driving something for as long as I can remember. It started with the blue-and-white pedal car my grandfather got me when I was 3 years old.
Soon enough I had a Hawthorne 20-inch single-speed coaster-braked bicycle. We ordered it from the Montgomery Ward catalog and picked it up from their local store — a precursor to the modern-day Amazon locker.
I wore out several stacks of baseball cards by attaching them with a clothespin to the bike frame so they would vibrate against the wheel spokes.
When I was 8, my grandfather decided it was time for me to learn to drive the family tractor. A Ford 9N, it had a manual throttle and a separate brake for each rear wheel.
There hasn’t been a time in my life since I was 16 that I haven’t owned a sports car. Even when I was studying dance at the Juilliard School in New York City, I kept an Alfa Giulietta Spider Veloce in my grandmother’s basement in San Francisco.
I couldn’t imagine a life without the thrill of running a small-displacement engine to 6,000 rpm — or getting the revs just right as I double-clutched into a perfect downshift.
A sudden crash
As SCM readers know, that all changed on January 6, 2019, when I suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. The doctors told me I was lucky to be alive. My left side was completely paralyzed. Suddenly the possibility of driving a sports car seemed just a faint — and most likely impossible — probability.
Through months of intensive daily rehab, I regained use of my left arm. My left (clutch) leg is coming back — but more slowly.
Three months after my stroke, I was cleared to drive an automatic. My daily driver is a 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT automatic. Loyal and reliable, it reminds me of a good-natured Golden Retriever, always eager to please.
I decided my first solo post-stroke drive would be to Cannon Beach, about 80 miles from Portland, OR, on picturesque State Highway 26.
I walked to the car with my cane, opened the door and slid behind the wheel. I practiced moving my right foot from the gas to the brake.
As I started the engine and pulled into traffic, the sensations came at me in a rush. One of the byproducts of a stroke is “neural fatigue.” My brain is constantly running near redline because so many things that were once automatic now require specific, directed thoughts.
The first few blocks were terrifying. I felt like every other car on the road was determined to hit me or cut me off. I had to silence the radio to keep my brain from total overload.
As I pulled onto the four-line highway towards the coast, I was the slowest car in the slow lane. I learned there are many impatient drivers who enjoy using their horns. A few of them waved their fists as well.
After about 15 minutes, the traffic thinned out, and my brain began to do a better job of assimilating the information it was getting.
I realized I was driving!
I was driving alone!
After three months of wheelchairs, I had control over my destination. It was incredible.
I marveled at each fuel stop. Oregon’s antediluvian “No Self Serve” gas station laws became my new best friend.
Drive-through burger and latte stands were a source of wonderment. I said, “Double-tall non-fat latte, please,” at a screen and a few minutes later it magically appeared. No waiting for a nurse to run to the cafeteria for me, or depending on the kindness of friends.
I drove to Cannon Beach, took a few pictures of Haystack Rock and came home. I savored the forested coastal range of Oregon as it unfolded before me.
I still had to be thoughtful, as I needed a cane at rest stops. I moved slowly and carefully. My biggest fear was and is falling. And I was alone.
But I was driving.
The shrinking distance to full recovery
I thought about my favorite video — of daughter Alexandra and me in our ’65 Spider Veloce speeding along Marmot Road on Mount Hood. It’s a never-ending cascade of up and downshifts, heel-and-toeing and jumping on the throttle “just so.”
Driving the Hyundai Elantra isn’t like that.
But I could savor those sports-car memories while behind the wheel of practical transportation.
The distance between being paralyzed and driving is a wide one. The distance between driving any car and being back on Marmot Road? Not so much.
I’m thankful to have a second chance at life. My left leg is responding to therapy (I’m in the gym twice a day) and chances are good I will be able to drive a stick again. If not, there are many interesting two-pedal cars for me to choose from.
And I will always have my memories of my grand drives in great cars to sustain me — as they did when I was immobile.
I never realized how lucky I was to be able to drive any car on any highway, starting and stopping where I pleased. I had unfettered personal mobility.
I will never take that for granted again. ♦