This essay was first published in Literary Mama
My sixteen-year-old son Will is in the driver’s seat and we’re bumping along a rural road, just after dawn, heading for a before-school rendezvous with his driver’s training instructor. Will’s profile surprises me—who is this young man resembling a heroic Greek statue, who only yesterday rode in an infant seat? Today, sandy brown hair hangs to his shoulders and his ocean-colored eyes are focused straight ahead. He is silent, and I wonder what’s on his mind. The roads in our region are narrow, damp, cliffhanging strands of pavement where logging trucks, passenger cars and delivery vehicles share the right-of-way. Today is Will’s final behind-the-wheel lesson before getting his driver’s license.
Will’s father died twelve years ago, way too soon for driving lessons, unless bouncing on daddy’s knees pretending to pilot a fishing vessel around Puget Sound counts. So I’ve been coaching him as much as possible between his official lessons.
We cross the first of three bridges and emerge from beneath the forest’s canopy. Fog conceals the river canyon far below. Above, filaments of white cloud remind me of an exquisite, creamy dessert. A slash of pure sapphire blue burns through the fog, promising a clear day—welcome after a stormy week.
The radio drones on about all that’s wrong in the world. I’m worried about a pressing work deadline, and the logistics surrounding upcoming holidays with our blended, geographically extended family. It will be the first gathering since my own father died. My children’s dad has been dead for more than a decade, and though I’ve remarried, the holidays always dredge up old grief.
“Do I keep the lights on if there’s no more fog?” Will asks.
“I keep them on all the time, especially on these winding roads.”
A dozen quail cross the road. Whenever I see quail on the road, I’m pulled back to the low moment, several summers earlier, when I hit a fledgling quail that flew directly into my vehicle. I stopped, cradled the tiny, barely-feathered bird, and tried to conceal my tears from the children inside the car. They watched, sharing my sorrow, as I placed the bird carefully into the blackberry tangles alongside the road.
“Do you think if we bring the little bird home, it might be okay?” my son had asked.
“No,” I replied, my voice crushed to a whisper.
Today, Will slows the car, maybe a bit more than necessary. He has learned to control speed around tight turns. He allows an oncoming telephone repair rig plenty of room on the narrow road, without sliding into the muddy-shouldered ditch. He’s been driving with his learner’s permit for six months, with plenty of practice driving in the dark, since my husband or I drive into town two nights a week, pick him up at the restaurant at 10 p.m. and let him drive home. There have been a few tense, close encounters with deer, landslides, or oncoming headlights in the rain. They say to let your young driver get as much experience as possible.
Learning to drive is an important rite of passage in our society, and one of the few rites with an actual written list of guidelines, a map to earning a license. I’ve come to realize that the territory of parenthood and the territory of adolescence are landscapes that defy quantification. Nobody ever handed me a map for how to be a mom, how to parent a son whose father has died.
In previous centuries, life moved at a walking pace. Social roles were assigned by birth or by ritual ties to earth and tribe. Today, social roles include many choices, and seemingly few constraints. Today, our lives move faster than the speed of a car, and driving is only one of many dangers a child will face. So, while Will learns to drive, I am learning to release him into the world, a difficult place where he will need to create his own niche.
When I tossed the car keys to Will a few minutes earlier, our postures mirrored the day, more than 30 years ago, when I first drove my father’s car. How nervous I had felt, how uncharacteristically patient my dad had been. He’d murmured, “Slow down,” as I reached the freeway interchange, poised for the curved ramp leading westward. “Slower, slower,” he said, resisting the urge to bail from the car as we hurtled at 50 mph around a curve designed for 35 mph. A big rig effectively blocked us into the fast lane for a full mile before I could safely lane change. When I finally merged and changed to a slower lane, my dad reminded me that we had ten miles more to go, and the safest lane is usually the fast lane. So, I merged back across two lanes of traffic, never taking my eyes from the road, afraid to breathe, afraid I’d never be good enough to get my license, or to earn the paternal seal of approval. When we reached home, my dad said, “Not bad for your first time on the freeway.” And that was perhaps the emotional equivalent of being taught to swim by being tossed into a pond. Part skill, part mastery of fear.
Recently the gears of family have slipped, loose and clattering, rearranged to an entirely new design. Just as young Will began to drive, my father, William—former master of the universe of Los Angeles freeways—surrendered his license when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Dad became dependent on my mom, my sister or me to drive him wherever he needed to be. William, supremely in synch with his role as family patriarch, always enjoyed being in control. Surrendering his license was a big deal. The brain tumor and other ravages of late-stage lung cancer limited my father in significant ways—especially speech and motor control. Yet he still knew short cuts to any destination, and was quick to tell me, as his chauffeur, when to merge, where to turn. “Don’t be in such a hurry,” he’d chide, when I gunned it to make a yellow light on the way to the oncology appointment. Towards the end of his life, Dad’s universe diminished: visits to radiation therapy, blood lab, pharmacy. Depending onhisstamina, I would prolong our afternoons together, detour on the way home. I tried to relieve the tension and pain with an ice cream, or fresh, sweet strawberries from the farmer’s market. Eventually, every journey required a cane, then a walker, eventually, a wheelchair. Until, one day, he was too weak to leave the house.
Even on my father’s better days, earlier last year, he didn’t have stamina to take on the grandfatherly role, supervising my son behind the wheel. My son has not pressed me to get his license, the way I begged my parents the moment I’d turned sixteen. Will is nearly seventeen now; and his after-school life is tangled enough that my role as taxi driver is time-consuming. In some respects, this lack of motivation—the delay of nearly a year in earning his driving license—may be an unspoken strategy to linger on youth’s side of the threshold to adulthood. In a year’s time, I’ll no doubt miss these interludes of shared companionship on long drives home from soccer matches, or the ten o’clock run home from work. But now some inner mother-clock prompts: time to nudge my son from the nest.
The radio commentator describes a fatal accident yesterday afternoon, on Highway 128 just east of Boonville, about thirty miles from our home. This news troubles me in equal measure with the litany of civilian casualties from the most recent bomb exploded in Iraq. There have been four major local car accidents this past year—most of them involving teenagers.
Why am I encouraging my son to learn to drive? I rationalize that he must earn his license so he can “fully participate” as a member of our car-dependent society. In doing so, I’m sending him toward danger—roads, other drivers, head-on collisions, eroding cliffs. The world brims with people who won’t always be kind to him. Even before he’s old enough to vote, my son will be legally allowed to drive to work in a vehicle that contributes to the destruction of the planet’s atmosphere.
I cannot protect Will from dangerous drivers, from random road conditions, anymore than I could protect him from the grief of losing his father when he was barely four years old. George died at sea, not in a car accident. Will’s grief, I can only imagine, must still darken many of his days. A great hollow space surrounds him, a space of silence instead of guidance from his birth father. What other rituals of manhood must my son must learn? What survival skills will he need, as the civilization motors forward, ever faster?
Will is braking, safely, at the base of a steep hill. He lingers at the stop sign before turning right onto Highway 1. A memory comes to mind—something important about Will’s dad: George always had contingency plans.
“Hey, Will,” I say.
“You need to anticipate stuff that might go wrong.”
We’re across Salmon Creek Bridge now, and Will confidently accelerates to the posted 55 mph speed limit.
“Like, what if a deer jumps into the road ahead?”
“Oh,” he replies.
“What would you do?”
“Stop,” he says with a get real mom, do you think I’m stupid tone.
“Right. But try to stay in your lane.” I explain that it’s dangerous to swerve, better to hit the deer than put the car in the ditch. I mention the time I hit a deer, the night an elk leaped onto his dad’s truck. I resolve to discuss more what ifs and contingency plans later, when we’re not cruising at 55 mph in scattered fog.
The radio blares additional details about yesterday’s local car accident. A woman veered off the right side of the pavement, then overcorrected to the left, into oncoming traffic, where she caused a head-on collision. The other driver and all passengers including her own ten-year old son, sustained major injuries. That child will wake up in a hospital and learn that his mother is dead. Even though we don’t know any of the people involved in this tragedy, experience has taught me that in the blink of an eye it could easily be us.
My relationship with my own father was tumultuous at times, and my relationship with Will’s father even more so; but at least I had the chance to accept or to deflect their advice. Will doesn’t have that luxury. The paternal guidebook is blank and he will have to guess about which roads to travel. And improvise when he feels lost.
Although the November air is cold and wispy with fog, someone rides a bicycle along the side of the highway, in the narrow band of asphalt between our lane and the ditch. Their bright yellow parka flaps like a flag in capricious wind. Will slows, and gives the cyclist some elbow room. I wonder out loud what the world would be like if we could go everywhere, safely, on bicycle.
Will replies, “It would be tons better, but they should build a bike path so you don’t get run over by big rigs.”
We live 14 miles from school, which might be a reasonable commute on bicycle if there were a trail that avoided the highway. Then again, as my Dad used to say, “We are where we are,” and we are now driving. At this rate, it looks like we’re three minutes early for Will’s driving school appointment.
“Hey, Will, what’s happening at school today?”
I make a couple more stabs at small talk, but Will dwells somewhere in his own psyche, either not yet fully awake, or unwilling to share the stuff on his mind.
“Mom, I’m trying to concentrate on the road,” he emphasizes.
“Okay, right. Good idea,” I reply. I’m surprised at what he says next.
“Mom, there’s thousands dead in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s just counting American soldiers. Nobody has an accurate headcount of the civilians.”
I don’t know how to respond. On one side of the highway is a drainage ditch, on the other side, a steep plunge into the Pacific Ocean.
“It’s a terrible situation,” I say. I’m not ready to dive into deeper discussion, beginning with the fact that our car is burning oil and gas, which comes from places like Iraq. It’s not even 7 a.m. and already I’m feeling the burden of being an “ugly American.”I wake up this way nearly every morning, or at least the mornings when the radio is on. As though, instead of coffee, I’ve gulped an overdose of free-floating anxiety and jittery fear. In another world—for example, in Iraq—we wouldn’t be able to make this basic trip from home to the store, without being interrupted: by combat, or landmines, by armed men at roadblocks. “I always wonder what it was like for Dad, in Vietnam,” Will says.
This is one of the things I cherish about road trips with my children: long, uninterrupted heart-to-heart talks that take unexpected detours. I turn off the radio and ponder how to respond.
“The thing is, your dad never talked about Vietnam.”
“How long was he in the Navy?”
“Five years, I think. That was way before we met.”
“Did he like it?”
Will flips the right turn signal, and slows. His hair drapes over his shoulders, and I suddenly accept that the days are past when I will take him for a haircut. He wears an odd array of clothes: torn khaki pants, paint-splattered tee shirt, and a much-worn sheepskin vest that belonged to his dad. While part of me thinks Will looks too sloppy, I am suddenly, secretly pleased that he has chosen to wear his father’s favorite old vest. The vest is a shield, or maybe a comfort, soft as a stuffed animal. Will parks safely, correctly, and turns off the engine. I exhale, realizing that I’ve been holding my breath.
“My friend Adam’s step dad is converting diesel cars and trucks to biodiesel.” Will points to an old Mercedes in the parking lot. “That looks like his car.”
“That’s a step in the right direction.”
“There’s the drivers’ ed guy.” Will grabs his book pack, lunch and water bottle and springs from the car. A quick hug, and my son is gone.
I walk into the post office to collect yesterday’s mail. The countertop holds an array of labels, envelopes and brochures. One stands out like a red, white and blue billboard: Men: 18-25 Years. You can handle this. You must register with the Selective Service System. One day, you lead them to preschool, I think, wide awake now and angry. Then it’s time for a driver’s license. And before you know it, there’s the summons to learn how to fight, to operate weapons of destruction, disguised as an invitation to adventure.
My dad’s been dead five months now. Will has tacked a photo of their last salmon fishing trip on the wall of his room. Next to it is a photo of himself at four, walking hand in hand with his own dad on a black sand beach. They are laughing, and ocean whitecaps roll behind them, foam laps at their bare feet.
I climb back into the car and open the windows. On my solitary drive to work, the wind whirrs along the edges of the car, and the icy mist brushes against my arms and face like soft, strong feathers.