My father hated me for the rest of his life (when he knew who I was)

Stealing a car for the right reasons

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I helped commit grand theft auto.

We didn’t get caught.

There’s a bit more to it than that, of course. Not a happy story. It gets worse before it gets better, and honestly, it doesn’t get much better.

My father began to show the signs of dementia several years ago. The usual: forgetfulness, mood changes, conversation looping. His personality didn’t so much change as revert — he went back to the petty, self-centered man I grew up with, which was sad for my wife, Deb, who had bonded with my father² early in our marriage, and enjoyed being with him after her father died.

My father bought a new car, the same model he bought every 2-3 years. But being a newer version, it had all the new electronic gadgets, and my father couldn’t figure them out. Rather than return the car (and admit he had not actually test-driven it, which would make him look foolish) he stubbornly kept it, even though he would wrestle with the digital control panel just to listen to a radio station. (And no, he didn’t pull over to the side of the road first.)

Also, he had leased the car, rather than bought it. Some people thought it odd (my father had always maintained that only suckers and businesses leased cars) but others (okay, just me, mostly) took it as another sign of dementia.

And then the accidents started. No injuries, nothing got totaled. But fender-benders and scratches and cops having to file reports.

And so, when his drivers license expired, no one was surprised that he failed the renewal. Except him. And he protested the test failing him, and got a special exam (paid for by him, I think). The special examiner was supposed to take him through the tests in the parking lot, then direct him out on the road, but she stopped the test half-way through because she was worried that he would be a threat to himself, pedestrians, and other drivers. He had trouble following verbal directions, reading signs, and keeping clear what it was he was supposed to be doing.

So, no license, no problem, right? Nope, my father still had the car, and since he knew the examiner had failed him unfairly, he was still (in his own mind) allowed to drive.

By this time I had thrown up my hands. My sister, who was helping my parents as much as she could (we live in Pennsylvania; my sister lives in California; my parents lived in Illinois) declared that it was okay, our father understood he was no longer supposed to drive (even though my father declared he understood no such thing). So Deb and I decided to make his car unavailable.

My parents were still living at the house they’d owned for years, although now with an on-site caregiver that my sister had contracted. My wife paid my parents a visit (I was not invited — my father and I were no longer on comfortable speaking terms, and my mother’s dementia has advanced to the point that she no longer recognized anyone in the family except my father, and some days even that was iffy) to say hello, help with things around the house, and generally chat.

As Deb left their house, she disconnected the battery cable on the car, then left a note for whomever was called to service it. The note said that the owner had dementia, and was unable to drive but thought he still could; they should tow the car to the dealership [address and phone provided] and talk to “Ed” (my wife had talked to Ed beforehand to warn him that the car would be coming; Ed was totally on board with the plan). The plan worked; the guy who came to look at the car explained to my father that it needed a shop repair only the dealer could do, and Ed called to explain to my father that, well, it was kind of complicated with this model, and it might be a week or two before the parts got in. And then Ed told him the same thing when my father called again. Every day.

So, no car, no problem, right? Nope. My father became more and more upset about the car not being returned. It turned out he had found the note my wife left, so he accused us of stealing his car. He called us at all hours and demanded we return it. (In some calls he seem more distressed about being referred to as suffering dementia than anything else.) He called my sister at all hours and demanded she return it. He threatened to cut off all contact with the family unless we returned it. (At one point, he “cancelled Christmas” by telling us he would not have a tree up, nor any decorations, so there was no point in visiting him or my mother for Christmas, because we’d all ruined it.)

So my sister returned the car. Rather, she had the dealership return it, and send the keys to her and my wife, but told our father Deb had the keys. So the calls to us continued (not that it mattered, we had already stopped accepting them).

My sister’s rationale was, “See, Dad, you have your car back! It’s a win!”

Or as Deb put it, “See, Dad, you have your car! Your little girl still loves you, even if your son and his horrible wife don’t!”³

My take was, “See, Dad, you have your car! But can’t drive it! Have fun looking at it every time to go into the garage! (And this supposedly makes him happy because… why?)”

But at least with the new keyless cars, nobody but the dealership can make fob replacements. We all thought.

So no keys (keyless fobs, whatever), no problem, right? Nope. I did not know, having an old key-required car, that third parties can, indeed, make copies of electronic fobs. And our father told my sister he found a third party provider. (We suspect a well-meaning friend told him.)

This is where the grand theft auto part comes in. My wife and I talked the whole thing over beforehand. We agreed that this would make my father hate us forever,⁴ but better that than knowing some family out there was without a parent or spouse or child because my father could not remember which pedal was the brake.

My wife called the police department in my father’s town and asked a sympathetic desk officer if there was a problem with someone who was not on a lease returning a vehicle before the lease expired. Well, said the cop, legally the car belonged to the dealership, but an authorized driver should be the only one driving, so strictly speaking she was stealing the car. My wife explained the background. Ah, said the cop. Okay, once the car is back at the dealership, you’re home free. So don’t get pulled over on the way. Good luck!

Deb flew in, had a taxi drive her to my parents’ house, got in my father’s car with the key fob she’d brought along, and drove off to the dealership. So for twenty minutes or so she’d committed grand theft auto (but I helped!). And my father indeed hated us forever. He barely spoke to either of us at my mother’s funeral last year.

And all along the way in this story, there were people, not all mentioned, who helped us because they’d experienced, or knew about, some sort of tragedy resulting from a demented driver. They had seen a story on TV, or had a friend of a friend, or a close relative; all the stories involved people who wished someone had taken away a car when there was still time. In a way, all were complicit in grand theft auto, but I doubt any one of them would have done it differently if given another chance.

¹With some modifications because it was my first Quora post, and they don’t know me there. Also, some things have been simplified for clarity, because otherwise I’d have to incorporate diagrams.

²My father would bellow across the house to my mother, “DEB & I ARE GOING OUT!” (He liked to take Deb on errands with him, and she enjoyed tagging along.) My mother would walk over (not that big a house) and query, “Are you taking Jack?” Pause. “Sure!” said my father. “Jack, want to come?”

³The relationship between Deb and my sister was a bit strained at that point. (“You emasculated my father when you took his car from him!”) And continued downhill when Deb found out at my mother’s funeral the version of the story my sister had been telling the relatives. (I did not show up in a good light.) However, I was very impressed by the number of cousins who came over and said they forgave me, which I appreciated initially and then even more when I found out why I was being forgiven.

⁴And he sort of did, although his condition got much worse very quickly after my mother died, and he now has no idea who we are or what happened.

ADDITION: My father died in December 2019. He never forgave us, as such, but Deb did talk to him one time by phone where he remembered who she was while also forgetting about the car incident.

Written by

Husband & retiree. Developer, tech writer, & IT geek. I fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, and scratch where it itches. Occasionally do weird & goofy things.

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