I’m in charge of teaching my kids to drive. It turns out to be a good fit. I enjoy how driving humbles my teens, who, like all before them, including us, feel they have the world already figured out. After failing repeatedly, my oldest daughter asks churlishly if I’ve ever, in all my years of driving, had to make a three-point turn out of an alley? Why, my middle daughter inquires, does it take so long for cars to start moving after the light turns green? This never occurred to her until she herself was behind the wheel. They are righteously appalled when a driver cuts into the lane, but I don’t remember them ever commenting on it despite years of unintended expletives that have fallen out of my mouth since their carseat years.
Now I’m driving with my youngest. Falling somewhere between our methodical first-born and our mercurial middle child, he takes our sessions seriously but not to the point of tears. By fall, he’s received the requisite training from the high school, and we go out for the first time. Being the last child has its drawbacks and, having gone through this twice before, I wasn’t in a particularly supportive frame of mind. But he was just as excited, as were his sisters, when they first slipped behind the wheel. These days mark his first steps toward the border of his parents’ ambit: days of freedom, of independence, of “away.”
I have always dreaded the first few times out. It’s the “oh-my-we’re-all-gonna-die” phase. Things look very different from the passenger seat; cars parked along the curb menace as we drive by, and it takes all my willpower not to rip the steering wheel from his new driver’s hands. Every error seems magnified, both in my mind and literally in my vision.
But I still want to be that ideal, supportive dad, praising my son’s successes while not freaking out when he doesn’t quite hit the mark. In this way, driving is not that different from toilet training, or any other rite of passage. We press on, and I silently appeal to the god of new teenage drivers. In lieu of a pew, I stamp my feet on imaginary brake pedals. Occasionally he glances at me, but I don’t think he understands the trauma ward my inner mind has become.
And like his older sisters, with time my son becomes more at ease, the learning curve not as steep. His hands slacken a bit, and one even falls casually off the steering wheel. I admonish him, but not with much gusto, merely calling it in instead of the full-throated orders I barked when he first took the wheel.
I likewise start to relax as, for the last time, I merge from teacher to passenger. And with that comes a familiar surprise — we have time together. There are no screens, no texts from mid-level friends or social media photos to examine and rank. There is the music selection, but that debate is age-old and comfortable. We have even settled on a few artists we both like (Thank you, Weird Al!). On our best trips, we have conversations about weighty things — girls, classes, the future. And then, all too quickly, I tell him to point the car in the direction of home. Dinner is soon, and he has homework to do.
And I realize, as he parks the car in front of the house, how fleeting it all is. I tell him he did a good job, but it’s perfunctory now; he knows he’s ready to drive on his own, even if the state of Illinois does not. We walk into the house, and I feel my years. Two of my children are in college, and my last one has only a little time left. I have gone from manager to confidant to observer, and it all just seems too fast.
Just one more drive … please.
Eddie Pont is an Oak Park resident.