Tonawanda News — It must have been a terrible scene in Monday’s earliest hour along a dark and deserted portion of the thruway on Grand Island. Three young men laying dead, a fourth clinging to life.
An elderly man — described by neighbors as kind and friendly, the same as every old guy who lives down the street on every block in America — had gotten into his car and turned the key. It was a clear, beautiful summer night, but inside the cab of that sport utility vehicle the fog was thick. The traffic signs the rest of us barely notice as we get on the highway were obscured to him. Why he was driving, much less where, probably wasn’t any clearer.
Upon learning the news of the crash that claimed three men in their early 20s, my mind immediately flipped through the questions we all ask: How could something like that happen? Why was that man driving? Why didn’t someone stop him? How did it take eight miles and a trip the wrong way over a notoriously narrow, long one-way bridge before tragedy struck?
In the space since that news was first learned, I’ve found myself wondering another question: How is it possible this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often?
In some respects our society caters to the needs of the elderly to a near obsessive degree. Social Security, Medicare, the AARP, senior centers, Meals on Wheels — I could go on and on — all put in place and paid for by the young to help the old write life’s last chapters with maximum grace and comfort.
And yet in matters deemed too sensitive — or too sad — we ignore the effects of aging.
We do so to our own peril.
Our society celebrates the laudable parts of getting older. We love our grandparents with ferocity, revere their wisdom. Their affection is met with a genuine and unmitigated sentimentality that rarely can compare with that of parents, siblings, friends or lovers.
If we really want to do a service to those aged loved ones in our midst, we owe it to them to meet the challenges they face with equal ferocity.
There are signposts along the way. Much like the ones missed in the fog surrounding Monday night’s tragedy, we pass them without heeding their warnings.
No one likes to consider a parent or grandparent’s slow decline to the inevitable fate awaiting us all. It is a morbid, grief-stricken, terrible train of thought that leads us not only to consider the mortality of those we love, but our own transience, too.
Nonetheless, it is also a plain reality that at various junctures we will all be forced to stop living life a certain way. It might begin with selling the 50-year family homestead — the unused space a burden to clean, the lawn a hassle to mow and the driveway always in need of shoveling. A condominium is just easier.
Eventually for some, the toll a Western New York winter takes might be enough to force a hasty retreat to the warmer confines of a Sunbelt retirement community, replete with its joint-friendly single-story floor plans and slower, safer golf cart trips to the library, recreation center and grocery store.
Others prefer to stick it out here and continue living life the way they always have perhaps out of stubbornness — or a genuine desire not to give any ground to nature’s cold rules of the road.
And, out of deference to that admirable posture we let things slide. Good judgment — that, maybe dad shouldn’t drive anymore — morphs into making dad promise he won’t drive at night or in bad weather. And there was that time the police called when dad couldn’t find his car in the parking lot at the store and thought it had been stolen — even though it was still right where he’d parked it and you’d spotted it immediately.
And finally it ends with dad waking in the middle of the night, confused a bit about when his doctor’s appointment is scheduled. And then a police officer calls again, this time with a much more serious tone and at one in the morning, not one in the afternoon.
Most times tragedy is averted — a close call that shakes us to sensibility. If Monday taught us anything, sometimes that call comes too late.Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.