“I made my first solo drive,” Ethan tells me on the phone.
It’s evening and he’s at Richard’s apartment. Hours earlier, the two of them went to the DMV where Ethan took and passed his driving test. That’s a good thing, right? I’d asked my Facebook friends, and the 27 nearly instantaneous responses to the post were as varied and conflicted as my own thoughts on the matter.
That is a great thing! one friend wrote. I plead the fifth, added another. My nephew responded, When I got my license it was a passage into manhood. A friend from high school answered, Welcome to the club (the nail-biting, gray-haired club that is!)
“I took myself to Ibby’s Falafel,” Ethan goes on.
“How’d it feel?”
“So freeing!” he says with such breathless reverence it makes me smile. Of course.
Ethan entered the world as a cranky, unhappy baby. I attributed this to my clumsy handling of him and my constant, nervous-new-mom chatter. But when, at eight months, he started crawling, hitting the floor with hard slaps as he made his way across the room, his temperament changed. He laughed easily and almost always wore an impish grin. Maybe it wasn’t my ineptitude that had so displeased him, I thought, but that he’d simply hated the confines of living in an immobile infant’s body.
My boy loves speed—roller coasters, snowboards, the back of his dad’s motorcycle—but more than that, it’s independence he craves. When Ethan was 10, I allowed him to walk on his own from school to the library where I work. It was an easy concession. He had one small street to cross with the help of a crossing guard, and I could watch him do it from the window.
He arrived flushed with pride and soon lobbied for the next milestone on his path to freedom: walking to school by himself in the mornings.
“I’m responsible, Mom. I’m not about to let myself get kidnapped.”
Finally I relented, though, admittedly, I spied on him the first few times from behind trees and mailboxes. I saw an alert, purposeful boy with a jauntiness to his step, further confirming my theory. The more I trusted Ethan and let him go, the happier he was in his own skin.
These days, I’m used to him slipping out the door to hop on a bus and a train to get to high school.
But driving. That’s something else entirely.
For starters, there are all the frightening statistics and news reports. The drunk drivers, the texters, the cumbersome tractor trailers that seem to play a leading role in nearly all highway accidents.
“I know, Ma,” Ethan says whenever I bring up these concerns. “I’ll pay attention. I won’t text, ever. I’m very careful.”
“Okay . . . ” I respond, hearing the doubt in my own voice. But the truth is, my qualms have much more to do with me than with him. I don’t drive. I can’t. Despite a regimen of daily driver’s ed. classes in high school and countless private lessons later on, I never mastered the skill. This is partially due to my cerebral palsy. Not that I can’t physically drive; I have enough control of my right foot to work the pedals. But C.P. is caused by damage to the brain and that damage can affect more than just motor function. It’s left me with a kind of spatial and directional dyslexia. I get lost ridiculously often. I misjudge how close one object is to another. If I’m the least bit flustered, I confuse left and right.
“Steer right,” I remember Richard shouting years ago when I veered out of our lane as we practiced. It made me so anxious the words lost all meaning.
“How about l just say towards me or towards you?” he suggested after I narrowly missed a neighbor’s hedge.
“Good idea, Rich,” I said.
Nonetheless, when he bellowed, “Towards you!” I felt so ruffled I found myself yelling back, “Which one’s me?”
But more than anything, what keeps me from driving is the keen awareness I feel, whenever I’ve gotten behind the wheel of a car, of the damage I could do and the depth of the responsibility.
When I was five, my friend Lisa, who lived upstairs from us in our two-family house, was killed. She had run out from between parked cars, hoping to catch the ice cream truck before it pulled away, and got struck by an oncoming car. I was home watching cartoons when it happened. I heard a ruckus in the vestibule we shared with Lisa’s family. Doors slammed and feet pounded on steps. In my own half of our double house the grownups whispered fiercely. Somehow I came to understand that someone had died, but I didn’t think it could be Lisa. After all, she was a child, like me. But before long, I heard her mother crying in the vestibule, “My baby. My baby.” I went out and peeked through the doorway and all the moms from the block were there, encircling her. Children can die, I learned that night, and a car can be the weapon that does it. A man might be driving along, carefully, following all the rules, and a child could still dart in front of him so suddenly he’d have no way to stop in time.
For years, my friends and I sensed Lisa watching us from her place in the sky as we played outside, her gaze so focused I could sometimes feel it singe the part in my hair. Although I was less aware of it, that man—the driver who went home to his own family after that heartbreaking accident—stayed with me too. Are you sure you’re up to this, he’d ask from the backseat of every car I attempted to drive. In the end, my answer was always the same. Not yet. No.
But, of course, Ethan is not me. He trusts his body, his reflexes, his ability to focus. He’s not haunted by the same ghosts. Nor should he be. And I understand his love of freedom and mobility. I feel it too, though for me it takes the form of subway trains and well-trod urban streets, and the traveling I can do as a reader and writer while sitting in a chair.
“You really feel at home behind the wheel, huh?”
I pace the kitchen as we talk, carefully sidestepping a pair of shoes Ethan left on the floor this morning. I should move them, I know, but I love how they’re lined up, one behind the other, as though marking a recent path.
“Yeah, Ma. I do.”
I think of my friends’ comments on Facebook. It’s a great thing. A passage into manhood. Welcome to the gray haired nail biters’ club.
As conscientious as Ethan is, he’s still a teenager. He gets impatient. He takes risks. I want to tell him to be careful. I want to read him a poem I recently heard by Dorianne Laux, called The Job, in which a woman who lost her finger between the rollers of a printing press tells the speaker that the incident “…taught her/to take more care with her life,/with what she reaches out/to touch, to stay awake when she’s awake/and listen, to pay attention/to what’s turning in the world.”
Before long, I’m sure I’ll do both. But right now my son is asking me to celebrate his accomplishment. It’s the reason he called. And so I do.
“Congratulations, honey. That’s truly something to be proud of. Enjoy!”