Milestones

There has been a milestone event playing out in our house the last few months, which has been both utterly terrifying and blessedly freeing. The small child worked toward and received his driver’s license. We started this journey last summer when he was tasked with completing an online program for the classroom portion of drivers education. After three months of little forward progress in the curriculum on his own, I gave him a deadline. Finish it or I will end you. I was impatient. I needed him to have that license.

When your child is in elementary school, they usually want you to go on every field trip, and they’re proud to show you off if you come to school for lunch or Career Day. When they’re in middle school, and your presence is needed at school, you better walk 30 yards behind them, do not talk to anyone you may know in the halls, and leave immediately after your business is complete. When they’re in high school, you find yourself wearily schlepping all over town doing drop off and pick up for sports practices and games, or video-game marathons,or just social calls. And since you’ve been playing taxi for them for what feels like 47 years, I can tell you, the idea of not needing to do that any longer is intoxicating.

So, with the threat of death looming over his head, my son slogged through the driver’s education classroom material and was ready for behind-the-wheel instruction over the winter holiday break. His experience with an instructor would not be the first time he had driven. He was required to drive with a parent for a ridiculous amount of hours before I could even register him with an instructor. I had started by taking him to the local elementary school to practice in the parking lot. The wide open space with no obstacles emboldened him to casually drape one hand on the wheel and take the turns around the bus loop a little fast, and I sat dutifully in the passenger seat offering constructive criticism and sprinkling in praise and encouragement. After those first few drives through the parking lot, I came home feeling accomplished and superior. When I learned to drive, my dad acted like I shaved 20 years off his life and I had heard horror stories from friends whose own kiddos had landed in ditches and caused serious damage to the undercarriage of the car by rolling over parking curbs. My kid was going to be different. His handling of a 4000 pound mobile deathtrap was impeccable and I was confident that would translate well to the highway.

The hours that had to be completed behind the wheel with a licensed driver before actual instruction began had to take place on an actual road. This road preferably had to be traveled by other drivers. We live in the country, so we have a main four-lane highway through the county and hundreds of two lane, curvy roads with low speed limits that encourage springtime Sunday drives. I was nervous about him driving on either, but I stoically strapped in and said, “Let’s get it.”

As soon as he left our street to turn out onto the main road, I was terrible. I was a vibrating ball of anxiety. My head was a swivel on my shoulders, trying to see every form of danger from every angle. My hands were white-knuckled in fear as they grasped the edges of my seat, hopefully, out of sight of my teenager. And my mouth, sweet baby Jesus, my rapid fire instructions and advice could not have been processed by a sober, intelligent, middle-aged pastor, let alone a Nervous Nelly teenager taking his mother’s car for a drive for the first time with 18-wheelers zipping by, two months of classroom curriculum advice screaming in his head, and the weight of concern about crashing the car and being completely humiliated. It was not our finest hour.

But we got through it. And every other day or so we added more time and distance, and soon, when I was picking him up from school, we would just switch and he would drive us home. He became more comfortable, and I started using the time to answer work emails from my phone. That is not to say that I was no longer worried or nervous. No, I was just learning to hide my anxiety better. Instead of gripping the seat, I was gripping my phone. Instead of the stream of directions out of my mouth, my head was screaming inside itself and my eyeballs took turns popping out of their sockets or squinching closed in the hopes they controlled the car onto a safe path.

When I was finally able to leave him with the instructor, it was a mixture of uncertainty and accomplishment. I had imparted all the knowledge I could, and yet, I had no idea if it would be enough to get him through the two-week class with a passing grade at the end. His instructor was an older lady that we called Mrs. T. She appeared old enough to have been driving for at least 45 or 50 years, but she was hip enough to be driving a Prius. She was from the generation that demanded you respect your elders and if you didn’t, she’d certainly find a flimsy, narrow switch to correct your behavior. They pulled out of the parking lot, and I know the words, “May the odds be ever in your favor,” escaped my lips-  both for my son who was now at the mercy of a woman who was not gonna play with him, and for her because, honestly, I still didn’t think my son had the knowledge and experience to be left alone.

When they returned two hours later, Mrs. T was complimentary of my son’s driving and gave me some things to remind him of before their next class. The road had still been snowy that day, with slushy mounds piled up from the plows on corners, and she said he cut the snow piles too close or took the car through the edge of them. So, not terrible - he didn’t run stop signs, or fail to yield, or have a complete mental breakdown on a nearby interstate. I was encouraged. And with Mrs. T was the type of woman who would have told me if he had been a complete disaster. The rest of his behind-the-wheel instruction week was uneventful, and he was rewarded with a signed piece of paper indicating that our great Commonwealth now recognized him as a full-fledged driver with no need for adult supervision in the passenger seat.

I was elated! I hugged him! I took a picture!

He smugly relented to my enthusiasm with a shy smile of pride and then demanded that I stop making a fuss and retreated to his room.

To mark the milestone, he grandfather has allowed him to borrow a 15 year old Ford F-150 that requires me to get a run and jump just to get in and costs a bazillion dollars to fill up with gas. But it’s big, and I keep telling myself that mass will win everytime. When the winter holiday break was over, he was allowed to drive to and from school. The night before his first day, I did not sleep at all. I had thoughts of deer jumping in front of his truck, or drunk drivers swerving into his lane, or logging trucks losing their load in front of him, or him getting stuck on railroad tracks and a locomotive t-boning him. (Note: there aren’t railroad tracks anywhere near his route to school.) We instituted a rule: he would text when he arrived at school and in the afternoons again when he was home. That first morning, I watched the little blip of his truck on my GPS make its way down the four-lane to school, and on cue, I received a text when he arrived. We repeated that process that afternoon.

It’s been two-weeks. He has given me no reason to worry and it’s starting to slip my mind to check his progress on my phone in the morning and afternoons. My husband and I have found new freedom for date nights because now there’s no driving to pick him up from school to take him home, and then traveling back into the city. When he wants to hang out with friends, he gets himself there. When I’ve forgotten to get a block of cheese for dinner, I’ve sent him to the store.

I’m not convinced that he’s ready for a cross-country trip with the dog, but my anxiety has subsided a bit. There is no greater fear than allowing your child to drive. He’s out there where anything can happen and I cannot control his environment. He has gotten to the point in his life where he will have to make split second decisions that I cannot help him with. When he’s in an accident, he’s going to need to step up and be an adult and following procedures that are foreign to him. At some point, he’s going to have to make the decision for himself if he’s too tired to drive, or if he’s had too much to drink. We have arrived at that point where my small child is no longer a child, but in that weird purgatory of still being under my roof, my rules, and being his own man.

And so this milestone can only be marked with a flag of quiet unease and reverence as the Universe makes him one of her own. May the odds be ever in your favor.

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