I finally understand why my father smoked an entire pack of cigarettes each time he took my siblings or me on the road to practice driving. I’m sure he tried to quit many times, but every two years one of us turned 15, and it would start all over again.
For me, driving with my son has just replaced natural childbirth as the scariest thing I have ever done. In fact, if the statute of limitations hasn’t expired on those delivery room drugs, maybe I can ask for them now.
It’s not that my son is a bad driver. On the contrary, he’s really good, especially for a new driver. He has an excellent combination of caution and confidence. It’s just that having driven for 25 years, I know how distracted, disgruntled, delirious (and drunk) drivers can be. And don’t get me started on the impact of smartphones – texting as well as talking.
No matter how responsible my freshly-minted teen driver is, he is still a newbie. He doesn’t understand the passive-aggressive behavior of a car edging its way into your lane. He doesn’t get that a bus always has the right of way, even when it’s practically bull-dozing your car onto the sidewalk. (On the road, size does matter.) And with his oh-so- limited experience, he believes everyone is as hyper-focused behind the wheel as he is. If only it were so. Heck, if only I were as focused as he is when I’m behind the wheel.
Which brings up another point: driving with my son is putting a big damper on my personal catch-up time. I no longer talk while I’m driving or sneak a peek at my texts at a red light. I know that my son is paying closer attention than ever, and I take my new role-modeling very seriously. So mom and dad, I apologize in advance for missing our daily morning calls. I’ll call you when Jake turns 17.
For the first week after my son got his learner’s permit, I sat frozen in the front passenger seat (now I know why they call it “riding shotgun.” It is tempting to want to shoot yourself.) With my feet braced against the floorboard, as if there were brakes on my side, too, I drove around with my son, thinking to myself, “Is my life insurance paid up? Do I have on clean underwear? Did I throw out all the sex toys?” All in a vain attempt to assure myself that if, God forbid, we got into an accident I would not embarrass anyone from my grave– including myself.
After the second week driving with my son, I lost my voice from the strain of providing a constant stream of directives. “Stay to the left. Come to a complete stop. Watch the car in front of you, he’s braking. He’s BRAKING! “
So naturally, I spent the fourth week trying to keep my mouth shut, as it became clear that my instructions were confusing to my son. (“You can go in front of this next car” seemed to translate to “Move over immediately. “ )
The learner’s permit has been a learning experience for me, too. For one thing, I learned that I am a gasper. When it appears that my son is not going to stop in time, I gasp. When it appears that my son is going to drift into the next lane, I gasp. It has come to my attention that my gasping itself may cause him to get into an accident. Therefore, I have learned to hold my breath instead of gasping. If I am lucky, perhaps I will pass out if danger really does occur.
I have learned that, when my son is driving, holding the handle that’s located above my head is a sign of disrespect.
“Mom, why do you keep grabbing that thing? You never grab it when anyone else is driving.”
“Oh, really? Well, I guess that’s because I’m usually the one driving. I’m not used to sitting here.”
“Well, it’s kind of disrespectful to me, Mom. You don’t do it when Sean drives.” (Sean is my boyfriend who has been driving for more than 25 years. But okay. )
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t realize how you felt.” To myself I think, “Damn, grabbing that handle is the only thing keeping me from wetting myself.”
But I am trying to be supportive, so now I jam my elbow into my side whenever I feel the urge to grab the handle that the car manufacturers put there specifically to help Mothers survive the year of the Learning Permit. I think that it is actually called the “Oh, Shit Handle” in the owners’ manual.
And all of this was before he hit the highway.
Let me just say this about that: I never used to have bald spots where my eyebrows grow. I heard that pulling out your eyebrow lashes is a typical response to post-traumatic stress. I’m an overachiever; I do it in response to current-traumatic stress.
Suddenly, everywhere I look, there is a man-child driving his mother around in a minivan. How do I recognize her as a kindred spirit? Her lips are pursed tightly together. The fingers of her left hand are resting lightly against her lips to prevent any sound from escaping. Her right arm is in constant motion, reflexively reaching up for the handle and responsively pulling it back into her lap before her son sees. Her balding eyebrows are arched high above eyes that are wide-open in fear.
In the split second that our cars pass, I take all of this in. I never noticed it before … just how many learners are riding with their permitters. And I think, “This is not the worst thing.”
The worst thing will be next year, when all the minivans are filled with empty shot-gun seats, our sons are driving alone, and we mothers are waiting with lumps in our throats for them to come home.
I hope I look good with no eyebrows at all.