I feel trapped. My Grandmother Estie’s red BMW is in my mother’s driveway. The car is for me to use, just in case. But I won’t drive it. I can’t. With all this stress the best I can do about my driving phobia is to berate myself. Other than that, Mom and I enjoy each other’s company. She even tells me how much I’m helping just by being there and spending time with her and Gram. Months have gone by since I was in Milwaukee for mom’s breast cancer. Now, I’m back. This time I’ve brought two-year-old Gus with me. Mom is doing great, and is cancer-free so far. This time Gram is in the hospital. She has pneumonia and her lung has collapsed. She’s eighty-eight years old. This is first time I’ve seen her in a hospital.
I’m here to stay until there’s an “outcome,” meaning until Gram comes home or takes a turn for the worse. I can’t bear to think what that would mean. Jack is at home in Berkeley with Simon, my first grader.
In the hospital room, Gram’s face is puffed up from the prednisone she’s taking to keep her breathing. I go in when she’s sleeping because she doesn’t want anyone seeing her when she’s so weak. I go back to the waiting room where Mom is playing with Gus. Mom drives us home. My phobia binds me to my mother’s schedule.
Nights are the hardest. Gus isn’t happy sleeping away from home. He cries unless I stay with him. I’m tired and wishing for alone time. Every time I think he’s drifting off I get up to leave. Sometimes I even make it to the couch in the next room, TV remote in hand. Then he lets out a high-pitched wail. I go back in and find him looking around, confused in his unfamiliar crib. I repeatedly try to sneak out for two hours before he falls asleep. Night after night.
The daytime is better, even fun. We’ve got a rhythm going. Gram is getting stronger and letting us visit. Mom takes us to see Gram in the mornings and then takes us out to lunch. In the afternoon, she takes us home and we both take a nap. That’s the quietest time; he goes down easily, not like at night.
In Gram’s room one day she eyes me as I’m giving her a foot massage. “Are you driving?”
“Not at all?” Her tone is light, nonjudgmental.
“Not at all.” I reply with no embellishment. I rub a little more lotion onto her surprisingly soft, uncalloused heel.
“I didn’t drive for a long time after I had your mother and Jane. In fact, I sent them to private school because the bus came all the way to our house. You had to drive to the public school bus stop. And then one day I just got in the car. I started with around the block. I’d do that a lot. And then every day a little more. And then one day it didn’t matter so much. I just drove everywhere.” I notice that her toenails are perfectly manicured, palest pink with white French tips. Her long toes are a bit wrinkled, but her size sevens look strong, unexpectedly graceful.
“I never knew that about you. Why did you start driving again?”
“I don’t know. I just got sick of staying home. “I’m just starting to take it in when my mom arrives with Gus. He bounces over to the bed with lemonheads for gram.
“My favorite!” she exclaims.
“Mama told me.” Gus smiles.
I wash foot lotion off my hands in the ugly hospital bathroom. We get to bring Gram home to her house today. She’ll spend this last year of her life in her bedroom decorated with pink flowers, overlooking her garden.
Weeks later, I’m back home in Berkeley. It’s late at night and Jack and I argue. It was his turn to put the kids to bed and he has let them stay up too late. I come downstairs to remind them of bedtime and Jack snaps, “Stop talking, Becca! You asked me to take over and it’s fine. I’ve got it under control. Go upstairs.”
“Don’t talk to me that way,” I spit out, stomp upstairs, and slam the door. Of course half an hour later, after I’ve wound down, the house erupts in tears, bedtime protests, and yelling. Not an unfamiliar scene, but I’m steamed. Suddenly Jack charges into the bedroom where I am watching TV and says “I can’t handle this! You take over!”
Oh no. No way. “Uh, I don’t think so. I nicely reminded you to get the bedtime routine going and you told me it was under control. Now I’m tired and want to go to bed.”
He huffs out and the melee continues. I can stand it for about ten minutes. Then I march in and tell Jack to go, snidely saying he’s not “handling it right.” He’s furious. So he stalks out. I settle the kids down and finally they go to sleep, but they’ve registered the tension between us.
Feeling guilty for my part in fighting in front of the kids, I wander into the office where Jack is typing away at his computer.
“I’m sorry this night got so messed up.” I wave a white flag.
“Uh huh.” The vein in his neck pulsates and he doesn’t look up from the keyboard.
“Come on, let’s talk about this. Let’s not go to bed angry.” Silence and typing.
“I really needed you to put them to bed, I’d had enough. And I could see that the evening was going to get away with you. . .” I keep trying.
“Uh huh.” Type, type.
“So you’re not gonna talk.”
“You have to.”
“Don’t push me. Try to make me and I swear I’ll take the keys and go out.” His words come out in a barrage, timed with the sounds of his fingers, still typing mysterious computer codes.
From here the argument can go two ways. Either Jack will relent and we’ll talk, or I’ll pester him until he does take the keys and goes for a drive. But we’ve been working on this and he tries not to leave. I try not to pester so he can have some space to decompress.
But I can’t try for very long. I don’t want to. I’m seething. I want to break something, go nuts. I want to turn over his desk and kick the shit out of that damn computer, but I’m trapped. As usual. If he needs space, he can go. I can’t. I don’t drive. If we need time apart, he’s the one who always gets to go. I’m suffocating. It’s so hot in here.
I go into the bedroom and sit down on my side of the bed. What can I do? I spy the car keys on his bed stand. I don’t think. I just take them and put on my jacket. I peek back into the office:
“I’m going for a drive.”
“No you’re not. You haven’t driven in ten years. You won’t. ” He doesn’t look up from his keyboard. So I go.
My anger fuels me. I take one step after another down our stairway outside. The air is cool, clean. The streets are empty. I get in the car and before I can over-think it, I’m driving down Marin Avenue between The Alameda and San Pablo, the brave, huge oaks forming a tunnel over the road. The window is open. I go for maybe two miles and it’s delicious. I’m slightly dissociated, part of me observing with pride, “I did it,” the other part taking gulps of air and slowly counting, easing myself off the edge of anger. I go home and go to bed. We don’t talk, but we will.
I also know that my driving jaunt was progress, but progress fueled by adrenaline. I won’t get behind the wheel again anytime soon. The next morning Jack gets up and drives Simon to his bus stop and Gus to preschool. Later he takes off work to take Gus to a check-up. Yet, something has shifted. My phobia isn’t in the background the way I like it.