When I saw my son sitting there behind the wheel, swells of strange, unsettling feelings rose up within my body. At age 15 years, eight months, nearly 6 feet tall and broader than I, he continues to see the world as a giant sand box where reality can become anything you imagine. In our efforts to create a worryless boy, we feared that parental demon, irresponsibility. “It’s good enough” is his enviable smiling response to demands of excellence.
There was something in his assurance as he started the car that drowned all tenderness and made me feel like a butcher wielding a cleaver with this virginal driver. I was anticipating pride, not this urge to set this lad straight. He backed out the driveway as I vainly searched for a script to this rite of passage, finding instead a flow of adrenaline that seemed to be ending on my eardrums and anxious tongue.
“Tell this boy what the world of driving is all about” I heard the beast in my breast advise. I clamped my seat belt on and felt some force hurl me out the door of an airplane. As I started to free fall I shouted to the pilot as he shifted to drive. “Put your seat belt on. Don’t you know you can go through the window.”
“It’s on, Dad. Besides I’ve got a bag over here.”
“Bag? What bag?”
“The SRS,” he answered in his most respectful tone.
“Bags, bags. Put your belt on and keep it on. Don’t talk when you’re driving. You can’t trust bags. There are no substitutes for alertness and attention.
“Put your signal on. Now. Right now. Check that seat belt. Check the emergency brake. Look left. Back. Forward. Adjust the mirrors. Now, not later. Now.
“You turned too sharp there. Didn’t you? Yes. Watch that.”
He said nothing as he drove on, aware of my hawk-eyed observing. The silence offered time to prepare my lecture. Words vied for expression.
“Defense is the name of this game. You are strictly a one-way player in this game of driving. You drive defensively or you crash. See that car up there? You’re too close. He could stop suddenly. Or have a blowout, or ....”
“What’s a blowout, Dad?
“See that. You’re driving and you don’t know what a blowout is. A blow out is a tire that blows up, and out, I mean.”
“Safety tires don’t blow out anymore, Dad.”
“See, what I mean. Who says? You’re too close to that guy, slow down.”
“OK, Dad,” he said calmly.
His calm response to my badgering speech spread across the seat. Why isn’t he nervous? I studied him. As he drove on, I realized he knew what to do. He was competent, careful. He had finished the driver’s ed course. What had I expected? A flash of envy appeared. How did an anxious guy like me produce this unanxious boy? Get nervous, son. You’re learning to drive, I thought. Primitive societies abandoned their young boys on the top of mountains or in the deep forest from which they would return men, matured by fear, the mother of ingenuity and courage.
Eskimo men take their sons on a threatening fishing trip, others go to the river, jungle, swamp where masculinity is tested in deeds, feats of strength, survival against the elements.
I had taken my son to the driveway behind our new Volvo where he was teaching me a new brand of paternal fear. To this terror was added an $870 increase in car insurance, more for boys because they get in more accidents than girls. An article in the morning’s paper offered that 57 percent of 1,000 teens polled reported they had driven under the influence of alcohol and 78 percent reported they had ridden with a drunken driver. For these terrors my compensation will be freedom from taxiing to his assorted adolescent assignations such as mall, music, barber, games, school, friends and recently, females.
We were at the school parking lot now where he will practice parallel parking. I try not to think about my lousy record at this urban sport, a slightly under 50 percent success rate; rarely have I hit it on the first try. Early on I declared myself victim of spacial and gross motor dyslexia to counteract repeated failures at parallel parking. I’d drive double digit blocks for two spaces.
Now here I am in the role of instructor. As troubled fathers do in tough situations, I assumed a take-charge, authoritative stance, barking orders that come more from desperation than knowledge.
“Get real close to the car along side. Cut it to the right … sharp now ... right about ... about here, but not too ... the other way. Slow now. All right. You’re in. Now start over.”
After three of these I was sweating. Hitherto proud of my articulation, I realized I could not come up with the correct words to describe parallel parking and found myself groping, even for the basics, such as “atta boy,” “now,” “good,” “far enough” to describe angles and lengths.
My son remained stoically tolerant of my hindrances, rescuing me from this, one of my worst parental moments with the humble words: “I need some practice.” I sat on the grass and watched him manipulate the car, convinced that poor parallel parking skills are hereditary.
He looked small behind the wheel, isolated in the seat. I recalled the many fine feeling moments he and I had shared on a common seat. A bright white x-ray waiting room bench where we fearfully waited for the diagnosed word on a growth on his knee, the locked-in seat of the Green Monster where he, at age 8 and I, at age 40 were taking our virginal roller coaster ride. When it was over my white-faced terror matched my knuckles and contrasted his red-faced excitement. “Let’s go again” he had said.
I had sat on that car seat so sharing his sadness on the day he had gotten cut from the seventh-grade team that I could not speak. And we had laughed on that seat together, and been happy, and quiet, and bored, and neutral, too. Our seat time was over now. And I realized why my head ached and what the beast inside was feeling. An image from the past persisted.
We were behind a wheel, he on my lap. Together we pulled the wheel, floored it as we vied for open space. Opening up now we take one car at a good clip when another car hits us broadside. Both cars bounced back. In the moment I saw terror on my son’s face then, looking at me he saw me laugh, then scream with boyish glee. “Let’s catch that guy,” I said.
We steered our bumper car wildly as we pumped our bodies to get moving faster. We smashed often, collided, careened off walls, laughing and shouting with a wild abandon reserved to that peculiar loosening spirit that bumper cars bring. We ran, hand-in-hand from exit to ticket line three times.
Could a dozen years have passed since that day? I see the boyish face, full of excitement and eagerness that I vicariously swallow. And I understood my harsh manner at this moment. Jumping up I open the car door and shout. “Cut it sharper, you might hit that car. These aren’t bumper cars you know.” I slam the door, grateful for the cantankerousness that drowns bumper cars and the end of boyhood.
Ray Lovett is a psychotherapist in Dorset specializing in online consultations and treatment (www.raylovett.com).