My Driving Test

 I sat facing a felt-lined, black board with 20 rows of push buttons. A  random button would light up and stay lit until I tapped it, at which point another random button would light up  and stay lit  until I tapped it. “Slap the Lights,” was a component of my “drive-ability” evaluation. My performance on “Slap the Lights, “along with tests conducted in a simulated driving booth  (aka “Avoid Hitting Pedestrians”}, would determine  whether Dr. L., director of physical medicine,  would  clear me  to continue driving.


Last fish of the season. Axehead Lake, Cook County Forest Preserve, Oct. 29, 2016


Wisc. musky, . Oct 16, 2016

For the time being, I was practicing  on the  light  board,  gauging how many  lit buttons I could slap in one minute. My best time was 70, but that was with my right hand only. Using both my stroke-damaged left hand and my right hand,  my best score was 57. I was told by  Jenny, my OT, that a score of 55 or above should be enough to put me over the hump,  but she admitted that she was basing her prognosis on the  several-dozen patients  to whom she had personally  administered the test.  She could not tell me what Dr. L. considered a passing grade, because he had never shared that with her.

Be that as it may,  I  figured I might as well take the light board test and get it over with; this whole driving thing was causing me too much stress.   I told Jenny I wanted to do the non-driving portion of the test  two days’  hence,  my next scheduled OT session.

 Back in my room, Ron, my new roommate, was talking quietly to his wife Jennifer. The night before,  Ron had confided in me that he had underwent coronary bypass surgery. “It all went well, and everyone assumed I would be out of ICU within three days,” he explained, “but lo and behold,  on the morning I was slated to leave I realized that I was feeling a bit feverish.  So what is my first thought? Oh my God, I contracted one of those antibiotic resistant bugs! Luckily, it turned out to be treatable, but almost a week went by before the docs felt comfortable  transferring me out of the contagion unit, or whatever they call it.”

 Ron’s story was disconcerting because I would be facing surgery in less than two weeks.   After finally determining that my stroke management protocol needed a kick in the shins, Dr. M had put in an order for me to have surgery.  An “intervention radiologist” would be inserting a stent in my neck,  with the anticipation that, once inflated,  it would seal off blood flow to the immediate vicinity of my carotid dissection.  The  last thing  in the world I needed was to contract some sort of post-surgery superbug.

A little aside, dear reader.  My primary caregiver would tell me about a year later that I apparently have a kick-ass (not his exact words) immune system after I mentioned that I didn’t recall ever having  any sort of infection with the exceptions of  the common cold or the flu, and possibly, mononucleosis.  My layman’s explanation for this is that my immune system was bolstered by all the animal bites, scratches and stings I sustained as a kid, animal nut that I was, and still am. 

I ordered lunch and tuned into the Caylee Anthony trial  In a nutshell,  two-year-old Caylee, daughter of Casey Anthony, was reported missing on July 15, 2008. The report was filed by Cindy Anthony, Caylee’s maternal grandmother, who, along with her mother, shared the Orlando, Fla., household with George Anthony,  Caylee’s maternal grandfather.

Cindy Anthony told the 9-1-1 dispatcher she had not seen Caylee for 31 days and that Casey’s car smelled like a dead body had been inside it. An investigation was launched, during which time Casey gave detectives varying accounts regarding Caylee’s whereabouts including that Caylee had been kidnapped by a nanny on June 9, and that she had been trying to find her, too frightened to alert the authorities. Not surprisingly, Casey was charged with first-degree murder .

George Anthony was on the stand, looking very uncomfortable as one of Casey Anthony’s defense lawyers grilled him about his alleged affair with Krystal Holloway, a woman who had volunteered to help search for Caylee before her body was discovered.

Alerted, no doubt, by the telltale southern drawl  of presiding judge  Belvin Perry, who constantly interrupted the proceedings, a couple of nurses drifted into the room.  I filled them in on the latest. “It seems that George  is having to explain his relationship with that Krystal women,”  I explained.

 “He already denied having sex with his own daughter,” Gabby,  one of my nurses, informed us.

“Father of the Year candidate,” I quipped. The nurses caught a few more minutes of the trial, leaving just as my lunch arrived. For a change of pace, I was having the Burrito Grande, along with French fries, a fruit cup, and a strawberry milkshake.  I figured I had  gained maybe five pounds over the course of my six days’ hospitalization.

 After lunch I pulled out my copy of the US Department of Transportation’s perennial bestseller, Know Your Traffic Signs.  My goal was to memorize them while the CNN trial coverage droned on in the background.  I was glad for the  distraction, when, about a half hour into my studies, Ron hollered over from his side  of the room, wondering if I had finished, No Easy Day.  Jennifer, who was still at his side,  was respectfully quiet and attentive  as he and I exchanged more anecdotes about our respective military careers.

 Before I knew it, supper time had rolled around. I figured  I would partake of the personal pizza one more time before I put into force my resolution to sample some of the alternative I items on the menu. After  dinner, I settled in to watch Dear John, a love drama starring  Channing Tatum and a young female actress whose name escapes me.

Dear John started out promisingly,  with a grievously wounded Channing  Tatum  laying on the ground somewhere in Afghanistan. surrounded by his Special Forces buddies.   However,  the flick  abruptly turned south  when Staff Sergeant John  Tyree feels compelled to reminisce  over a woman he had met six years earlier,  and with whom he was still madly in love

 In contrast to the band of  brothers  compelled to  listen  to SGG Tyree’s parade of mawkish romance-movie clichés, I was free to fast-forward, which enabled me to watch the remaining three-quarters of Dear John in under seven minutes.

The following morning,  feeling alert and refreshed after  a nurse-assisted shower and a breakfast of French Toast and sausage, I checked in at PT to take my driving test. Assuming I passed this test, I would then take a road driving test with a driving instructor contracted by Evanston Hospital, who supposedly has expertise in evaluating physically impaired drivers.

Mastering the first component of the test was very similar to the light board test I described at the beginning of this post, with one difference: the moment a light flashed, I needed to depress a foot pedal mounted on the floor approximately where a car brake would be.

I should note that the left-side stroke I suffered had a devastating impact. I already knew  that I could no longer play the piano with both hands,  and that I could no longer jump or run. In time, I would discover that I could no longer wade my beloved Wisconsin  spring creeks, no longer swim, no longer paint watercolors or tie flies. But one thing I could do with a left-side stroke is drive a car, as long as it’s an automatic. My right foot and leg were perfectly functional. As you might recall, I had driven to and from Coon Valley, Wisconsin, a 600-mile round trip, during the five-day span when I was still in denial about having suffered a major stroke.

Next on the agenda was the test that would assess my knowledge of the rules of the road, as demonstrated by my ability to identify the various signs. My game plan in preparation for this portion of the test was to first skim through the USDT’s traffic sign book, test myself  on how many signs I knew from sight, and then go back and more thoroughly study the ones I missed.

In hindsight, the most positive thing I can say about this strategy is that the identification of road signs, whether in silhouette or with markings intact, is only effective if one can remain focused on memorizing the signs  while resisting the impulse to glance up at the TV to see what’s  going on with the Kaylee Anthony trial.   I flunked  the sign test by  one incorrect response.

I retook the sign test and passed it, which left only the road test.  And I should  mention. The cost of this test is $470,  out of pocket. On the assigned day of my test, I met my tester.  “I’m doomed,”  I  thought, for no other reason than the uncanny resemblance he bore to a former  boss, who, after nearly a year of baiting me, finally provoked me into saying something that  met the corporate definition of “insubordination.”

 My tester was small in stature with close-cropped hair going to gray,  and a mustache to match.  I easily could have found  amusement in speculating whether he was trying to emulate deputy Travis,  Junior (played by Robert Ben Garrant), from Reno 911, had not the  stakes been so high.

“Hello, I’m Mr. Cunningham,” he greeted me with stilted formality.”And this is Kate,” he said, gesturing to a twenty-something woman standing by his side. ” Kate’s a  physical therapist intern. She’ll be my extra eyes and ears, so to speak.”

Great, I thought, suddenly observing that Mr. Cunningham was  wearing what appeared to be rather thick glasses. And then, I couldn’t help but wonder: What if this guy was half-blind and actually did need an extra  set of eyes and ears? What if he was half-deaf to boot? I followed Mr. Cunningham and his seeing-eye girl out of the hospital. The only car in sight was a black Kia sedan, no doubt the car that would decide my fate.

“Step into the car, please,” Mr . Cunningham said,  and then scrutinized me as I eased my torso into the Kia’s small interior and then struggled to lift my stroke-affected left leg over the door panel and into the car. To my immense relief, my entry into the car wasn’t pretty, but I was able to accomplish it in one take, so to speak.

I was instructed to exit the hospital, turn right onto Central Avenue,  and continue driving west on Central until I was instructed to do otherwise.

I was on the road for less than a minute when Mr.Cunningham said, “So, tell me about yourself.”

“Anything in particular?” I queried, feeling nonplussed and a little annoyed, not so much by his request, artless as it was, but by my desire to concentrate on driving.

“You know, as the operator of a motor vehicle, you will frequently be transporting passengers, in addition to yourself,” Mr.Cunningham intoned. “Human nature being what it is, you likely will be conversing with them, so I’m curious about this: Can you talk to a fellow passenger and still maintain road awareness?”

I proceeded to give Mr. Cunningham the broad particulars of my life: marital status, number of children, occupational status, etc. Glancing over at him at one point and suspecting that he that he was not particularly interested in what I was saying,  I leaned over my shoulder and asked Kate, who was sitting directly behind me, “So, how do like being an intern?

Kate squeaked out a startled, “Me?” followed immediately by Mr.Cunningham’s stern pronouncement, “Don’t converse with anyone but me.”

Stunned by his rudeness, I locked my eyes on the road. Moments later, Mr. Cunningham said, “Turn left here.”

“You mean get on I-94?” I asked, as I sailed by the I-94 entrance ramp.

“Yes. Mr. Cunningham replied.

“Would you like me to turn around and re-enter it?” I asked, incredulous that he had issued his directive at a point when I would’ve had to swerve across a lane of traffic to comply.

“Is that what you think you should do?” he asked.

“I do,” I replied, ” because that’s what you asked me to do.”

“Very well,” he responded.

I made a right turn on the nearest side street, pulled into a driveway, and carefully backed out. I noticed that both Mr. Cunningham and his intern were writing in their notebooks.

If we can  pause for a moment, dear reader, I’d like to insert a brief missive regarding my personal relationship with the I-94 Eastbound entrance ramp.  Even before my stroke, I had a pet name for this ramp: “Shit Chute.”  when you enter this ramp,  you will not see what is happening on I-94 until you are less than 70 feet  from where it merges into the interstate proper. Meanwhile, the westbound exit ramp for Dempster is only one-eighth of a mile  ahead of you.  Here’s The end result of this  less-than inspired bit of engineering whimsy: motorists who realize at the last moment that they need to exit at Dempster East; motorists who think they want to exit at Dempster  East, but who in fact really want to exit at Dempster West; and motorists who legitimately do need to exit at Dempster East, which compels them to  merge onto the the same lane that you are using to enter the interstate.

This time I had  to turn  left to enter the ramp, but then I noticed that several people – a man, a woman, and two children — were walking along Dempster, just off the curb, and were just seconds away from walking across the entrance lane.

“Better wait for those folks to get across,” I said aloud. A moment later, I was startled by the bleep of a horn. “Easy dude,” I mouthed into the  a rear view mirror when I realized it was the driver behind me  who had honked his horn.

“You’re clear now,” Mr. Cunningham offered helpfully.  I worked my way cautiously down the ramp, realizing that the oncoming traffic was fairly heavy.   I’m going to ease in slowly, I said to Mr.  Cunningham.

 Once on the interstate, I was nonplussed  when Mr. Cunningham directed me to take the next exit. He then directed me to pull into a strip mall. “This is  the halfway point in our evaluation when I usually  offer  feedback as to how it’s going.” He turned  toward the back seat and said,Would you  like to begin, Kate?”

“No, you go ahead,” was Kate’s courteous reply.

 Mr. Cunningham flipped through a couple of his notebook pages  and then delivered his verdict. “Rather than dwell on the individual things I observed — your confusion when I asked to get on the expressway, your tendency to talk to yourself while you drive, your inability to smoothly merge into traffic when you entered the expressway, the fact that you failed twice to stop for a full three seconds at stop signs — I would feel more comfortable addressing an overriding global issue.”

WTF!?!  I felt deeply insulted. Given the inherent stress of  the situation, I thought my driving certainly passed muster.  And  what did he mean by “global issue?”

Before I could gather my wits, Mr. Cunningham elaborated. “Operating a motor vehicle involves thousands of  complex bits of  sensory input  flowing back and forth from the brain to the  eyes, ears, and muscles. In time, unimpaired drivers  intuitively integrates this input.  Driving becomes relatively effortless.  But a driver with an impairment,  even a relatively minor impairment,  now has fault lines  that  have opened along this network.  So the goal of  physical and  occupational therapy is to identify these fault lines  and find ways to  compensate for them.”

  At  this point, Mr. Cunningham leaned over  and asked Kate the intern if she agreed with his analysis.

“I think so,”  she concurred. ” Mr. Cosgrove does seem to  be overwhelmed with all the sensory input.  Based on what I have seen of his driving, I can’t  say he has done anything that’s actually frightened me. But I  would recommend  another round of physical and occupational therapy.”

 At that moment, it did not occur to me that the outcome of another round of physical and occupational therapy would  dictate a a retest, and hence,  another $470.  Instead, I asked, “So, are you telling me that I failed my test?”

“Not at all,”  replied Mr. Cunningham. “Like I said this is the halfway point.  I will give you a full evaluation when we return to the hospital.”

 In fact,  we made a beeline straight back to the hospital.  At one point, Mr. Cunningham observed that I was hugging the centerline, something he claimed I had a propensity for doing. “Here, let go of the wheel and let me show you where you should be.” He then proceeded to  ease the car a little to the right. “Isn’t that better?”

” I suppose,”  I replied, barely disguising the note of exasperation in my voice.

 Needless to say,  once back at the hospital,  after consulting privately with Kate, Mr. Cunningham delivered the bad news.  In addition to the flaws he had already mentioned, he added a new one:  difficulty in  staying in the proper lane.  He reiterated that another round of physical and occupational therapy would probably enhance my ability to pass the retest.

 Did I think  I was an impaired driver? Hell no!  And I had no intention of shelling  out another $472 to support Cunningham’s racket.

One thought on “My Driving Test

  1. Loved reading this Tom. I can’t imagine the fear you had at the possibility of not driving. Little did we know as young 16 year olds growing up that dad’s usual “no” to our very carefully thought out attempt of asking for the car would result in getting our own cars and freedom. Or so it seemed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s