Claire Smith remembers the day her late husband, Arnie, came home from the dump and handed her his car keys.
“He said, ‘Here, Claire, here’s my keys. I’ve never hurt anybody and I don’t want to.'”
That was many years ago, right around the time she was getting worried about her husband’s driving because he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
She also was relieved that she or someone else did not have to make the decision for him.
“It’s a choice you have to make, not have somebody else do it for you,” she says.
Claire, now 80 and living in Madison, watched her husband die a slow death from Alzheimer’s in 1994. It was heart-wrenching, but she helped him all she could and kept him at home as long as she could until it was time to put him in the veterans’ home.
After that, she visited him every day and talked to him, even though he couldn’t talk back.
“I have no regrets,” she said.
Now living alone, she misses the companionship of her husband, whom she loved dearly; but she has happy memories, and they are precious.
Claire doesn’t see well. She has had cataract surgery on both eyes. She also has arthritis and emphysema, but she doesn’t worry about it, because she has a wonderful doctor, Roger Renfrew, with whom she can discuss anything, she says.
“He’s one man I love,” she said recently in her small, immaculate Madison apartment, decorated with all sorts of colorful knickknacks and photographs from her past.
“Dr. Renfrew’s been good to me. I see him take care of patients, and he’s such a good doctor. He’s a good man.”
Not long ago, she sat in Renfrew’s Skowhegan office and explained in great detail how she came to give up her driver’s license two years ago, all on her own, at 78.
She said she prepared herself by starting to think about retiring her keys two years before she actually did it.
“I told Dr. Renfrew it’s the best thing I could have done because my arthritis was bothering me. Now I don’t miss my car, and I wish I could pound that into everybody’s head. Everybody bugs me to no end. They say, ‘You got to miss your car.’ And I say, ‘No way. I don’t have to worry about it.'”
She is lucky in that her daughter, Belinda, gladly takes her wherever she needs to go. Claire also hired a senior companion who, for $3, drives her to Hannaford once a week to buy groceries.
An upbeat woman who laughs freely and often, Claire looks younger than her age, with her smooth gray hair combed back and large eyes that sparkle through wire-rimmed glasses. It’s also the giggle that belies her age.
“I don’t feel 80 — I really don’t,” she says, beaming.
A longtime certified nurse’s aide and senior companion, Claire worked with a lot of clients who, when they had to stop driving, felt they had lost their freedom and independence — and to a certain degree, their dignity.
She understood their pain.
“You can’t just do it cold turkey. It’s hard for people to give up their licenses. You have no idea. But oh, if people could do it joyfully.”
She points to the benefits of not driving.
When she sees gas prices soaring and thinks about the cost of maintaining a car, paying for insurance and having to move it for the snowplow, she is doubly relieved.
She wonders aloud about the people on the roads who should not be driving.
“You don’t know who’s behind the wheel, but they can’t say Claire’s behind the wheel,” she said.
As our visit nears an end, she recalls the time she took care of a psychiatrist who was ill and in the hospital.
On her supper break, she approached him to ask about a few things, knowing he was an expert in ways of the mind.
“I asked him why it is I like bright colors and he said, ‘Because you’re happy.’ And it’s true — I love life. Life is really what you make it. You can be miserable or you can be happy, and I have a peace within as well as without. I know a lot of people don’t have that, and it’s sad.”
By now it’s time to go, although I could stay and talk to this delightful woman for hours. I step out of her apartment and into the rain and run to my car.
When I look back, she is waving through the glass door and smiling.
“I love you!” she calls out. “Smile when you think of me.”
Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 24 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]