BEEP BEEP BEEP is the sound I hear when the wheelchair van is in reverse. In the center of the cab are many giggles. Our daughter, Jess, is waiting for an adventure, and her Mom (me) is driving her group home van! This is our initial outing with me at the wheel, and I feel like a new driver taking my parent’s car for the first time.
Jessica was born in 1982 with a rare chromosome deletion. She needs total assistance with all daily living skills. From when she gets up until bedtime, Jess has caretakers to assist with every need. Jessica’s beautiful smile, robust enthusiasm, loving hugs, and sense of humor are some of her endearing qualities. Jess is the bright star in a dull room, the quiet giggle in the silence; she is the gentle hug when most needed.
So, back to Driving Miss Jess – It’s not my first time driving a wheelchair van; that experience happened many years ago when Jess was much younger and living at home. Now she is 40 and lives two miles from our house as independently as she can.
I often think back to when we decided to get our first wheelchair van. The decision to cross over to an accessible vehicle was monumental. This was our future; no more pretending that circumstances would change. We needed help in the form of a 3-ton truck with many modifications.
When I was in college, my parents gave me a Datsun 280Z sports car. I kept the car until we had our son Alex and needed a back seat. Before that, Jess and I tooled around town in my hot rod. When we were first married, and before kids, I made clear to my husband Mitch that I never wanted to drive a station wagon or similar suburban vehicle, which would have included minivans, but they weren’t invented yet.
My First Cool Car and Mitch’s Ride in 1977
Obviously, my priorities needed some tweaking. I guess karma’s a bitch because not only did we end up with a few minivans, we eventually ended up with a wheelchair minivan.
This demonstrates how life and family change your priorities because I was thrilled and grateful that we were able to purchase this vehicle.
Our first wheelchair van was a beige Plymouth Voyager. It was sent to a specialist to “Pimp my Ride” (for those who remember the MTV show). The company removed the middle row of seats and added supports, harnesses, a side-door wheelchair ramp, and other adaptations that are beyond my scope of automobile expertise.
We were genuinely excited to get our new ride. Ah—the ease of getting Jess around town, the fun it would be to arrive quickly and perhaps not be late for everything.
One story highlighting our transportation learning curve was an outing with our friend, Sheryl. Let me preface this story with a statement that our family loves ice cream. Many of our celebrations and everyday routines include this delectable frozen treat.
The day we received the van, our youngest daughter Carly, Jess, and I invited our friend Sheryl to the local ice cream stand in our new modified van. Sheryl got in the front seat as I attached Jess to all the harnesses, clamps, and hooks.
Time was ticking, and I was sweating profusely, trying to secure Jess to the van. Meanwhile, Sheryl was joking that if she knew it would take so long, she would have brought an overnight bag. She continued, “Perhaps I should call my boss to tell her I will be late for work tomorrow morning.”
Sheryl’s monologue only worsened my fumbling because I was laughing so hard I couldn’t do anything right. Thirty minutes passed before Jessica’s wheelchair was secured to the van. We finally got ice cream, and it got easier.
Most experiences that start as insurmountable eventually become doable; unfortunately, that is often another lesson learned in hindsight.
And now here I am again, Driving Miss Jess.
So How Is Mom driving an official Group Home Van?
It took a long time. First, I became a volunteer for the agency. This included a lot of paperwork, fingerprinting, online classes, and tests I needed to pass. Next, I received a road test to confirm that I was a competent driver. Finally, I relearned how to attach the straps, belts, and other safety paraphernalia.
And now we are on our first trip. Mitch and I are taking Jess out to dinner, and I am the official driver. Pulling out to the main road was unnerving, although I have crossed this path thousands of times. But now I was an official chauffeur.
Needless to say, we made the 3-mile trek to dinner and back. Our maiden voyage was a success. Jess and I have traveled several times since our first outing, and the independence and freedom for both of us are gratifying.
I still have trouble with the damn straps, but we are getting there.
If this blog resonated with you, my award-winning Memoir about Raising Jess could be your next book or gift for your favorite Booklover. Some of this blog was taken from our story of Raising Jess A Story of Hope.