My Heart, Driving Around Outside My Body

My Heart, Driving Around Outside My Body

It’s 8:03 am.  In a half hour I’ll be taking seventeen-year-old Owen to take his driver’s test.  He’s ready.  He’s done his behind the wheel hours, learned how to parallel park, driven at night, driven in the rain and snow.  He’s ready.

Am I ready?

First, a clarification: This will be Owen’ s second attempt. He took his test at the DMV last week and promptly failed at parallel parking. We won’t ever know for sure if this failure was due to lack of practice – he’d only learned to parallel park our gargantuan truck two days before – or the rule of thumb, though hearsay only, that DMV examiners find a way to fail pretty much every teenaged boy on his first attempt.

This morning’s test will take place at the Defensive Driving Academy, where you can pay to take your test again much sooner than rescheduling with the DMV, a months’ long wait sometimes. On balance, for Owen’s mobility and my sanity, the price seems worth it.  We’ve also scheduled a parallel parking lesson on the driving school course, using their “formula.” 

The driving school is about thirty minutes away. I decided to allow lots of extra travel time.  Good move.  We miss the entrance to the business park where the driving school is located not once but twice. Then, when the small signs for the school evaporate, we turn around every corner searching for where we’re supposed to be.  I park the truck in two separate locations and ask two random people before we find it. We walk in the door at exactly 9:30, Owen’s appointment time, a little ruffled, but also having expended some nervous energy – his and mine. I decide not to mention how difficult the office was to find.

We check in and move the truck to where Owen will be taking his parallel parking lesson. The woman giving the lesson is very friendly, very helpful, and very practiced. In no time Owen is parking the behemoth with ease. She tells him to practice as a few more times, then park with his hazards on so the examiner will know he’s ready.

Owen practices once more, says he’s ready, parks, puts his flashers on, and takes a deep breath.  I go into the office to wait.

That’s when the real fun starts.

The examiner comes out, gets in the car with a serious half smile and clipboard in hand. Owen pulls up to the parallel parking area and parks the truck with aplomb, using only three of his six allotted moves.  Yay, I cheer silently from inside the office.

Then smoke starts to billow from under the hood of the truck.  Hhmm, I think.  That’s probably not good.

The manager happens to come out of his office at just that moment.  When he follows my gaze and sees the smoke, he says, “Oh, is that car overheating?  Is that your car?” He sounds mildly alarmed so – problem confirmed.

“Yes,” I say.  “And my son is in the middle of taking his test.”

We both step outside, and the manager calls from the sidewalk, “Hey Brian, is that car overheating?”

“Yeah,” Brian yells back. “The gauge is all the way up.”

“Better pull out of there, then.”

Owen pulls the truck out of the space, parks next to the curb, turns off the engine, gets out, and pops the hood.  More smoke!!

Logically or not, I’m more concerned about his test being interrupted than about what’s happening to the truck. The manager and examiner are both so calm and understanding.  As Owen examines the truck they assure me he can restart his test anytime that day or any day, once we have another vehicle.

Owen comes trotting over.  “I’m calling Grandpop,” he says definitively.  My in-laws live right down the road, so there actually is the possibility of another vehicle.  Turns out Grandpop isn’t home, but my mother-in-law is.  And Grandmom saves the day!!  Within ten minutes, she’s at the driving school giving Owen a quick tutorial in her Lexus so he can hopefully pass his test in a car he’s never driven.

While we waited for her to arrive, I reassured him that we could come back another day in my car if he wanted to wait, that he didn’t have to feel pressured.

“Oh, no,” was Owen’s response.  “I’m taking my test and getting my license. Today.  I’ll be fine.”

And he was. He passed every part of the test with no issues, even the parallel parking again. With all the stress, all the unexpected twists and turns of that morning, he remained calm and got his license.  Yes, he was ready!

But the question remains… am I?

I don’t remember my own parents being as pit-in-the-stomach worried as I have felt about this whole process, which began a year ago when Owen got his permit. I’m sure they were – they were just better at hiding it.  Or, like most teenagers, I wasn’t paying all that much attention to how they were feeling.  I wasn’t seeing the knitted brows and pursed lips holding back too many “be carefuls.”  That’s probably more accurate.

I do remember distinctly the first time I drove to visit my college boyfriend (now my husband) from our house in New Jersey to his family’s house outside Philadelphia, two hours away.  I was nineteen, and I’d had my license for almost three years, but it was the first time I was driving solo for that long a trip, the first time I was driving on the infamous Route 95, the first time I was driving through a major city.  Even so, I was more apprehensive about meeting Jim’s family for the first time then about how I was getting there.  

Maybe that’s exactly why my mom was worried about the getting there part.  She knew I had this big, kind of nerve-wracking occasion ahead of me, and she wanted to make sure I kept my eyes on the road and my mind on driving.

My mom had traveled that part of the 95 corridor herself often enough to advise with authority.

“As you go through Philly, just don’t get distracted by all the billboards,” she said.

“What?” Not “what” like I didn’t hear her, but “what” like “why would the billboards distract me?”

“Well… there are a lot of billboards all up and down that stretch of 95 on both sides of the city.   I know things like that can be distracting.  Just focus on the road.”

Was she really worried about the billboards? Maybe a little bit. Was she still just nervous every time I got behind the wheel? Probably. I wasn’t going to do anything crazy or careless.  I wasn’t that kind of kid.  But I was young and mostly untested, and it doesn’t take much for that kind of inexperience to result in an accident. And what else was my mom really saying when she warned me about the billboards?  If I could translate now as the parent of an almost driver and almost adult, it would be this:

Remain focused. Taking time to smell the roses or read billboards is fine, but not when you’re at the wheel and the car is moving.  If you need a breather, a “being present” moment, pull over.

Be conscientious of and considerate to those around you.  If you veer into the next lane while reading a billboard, you may cause harm not only to yourself, but panic and accident to other drivers.

It is about the journey and not just the destination. Sure, I was excited and nervous to meet Jim’s family, but I had to get there safely first. Attention to the process along the way to any goal or destination is vital.

Early on, we encourage our kids to try new things, even if they might not be good at them. We teach them that making mistakes a necessary part of the learning process. Driving may be the first condoned and encouraged experience for a young adult in which making a mistake can lead to devastating consequences, and that’s just plain scary.

And my worry about being the mom of a driver is two-fold.  Of course, I’m worried about Owen’s safety, but the secondary worry is for anyone else his driving may affect. As careful as he is, he’ll make some mistakes for sure, and no matter how old and independent he is, I don’t know where and when my feeling of ultimate responsibility ceases.  Do my parents feel responsible every time I get behind the wheel or take charge of anything else serious in my life?  Doubt it.  I’m forty-four, so I hope they’ve let go of that feeling by now.  But when?  I think I have a long way to go.

You know that saying about having a child and your heart walking around outside your body for the rest of your life? What about when your heart gets in the driver’s seat, closes the door, adjusts the mirror, and pulls away?


About our Blogger:

Elizabeth Dougherty is a freelance writer in Chester County, Pennsylvania.  Her blog, Plan Q, chronicles real, everyday experiences and viewpoints — funny, stressful, tearful, mundane — and how they all tie together to define our lives. She aims to make her readers laugh, cry, feel, think, and wonder.  That’s what writing and reading do for her, and if she can pass on any of that, then all the twists and turns that whip her right past Plans A through P and land her at Plan Q are more than worth it! Visit Plan Q at www.elizabethdoughertyfreelanc or connect with her on Facebook.





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