A driver becomes driven
The rite of passage is not just for my teenage son.
Few rites of passage are as rife with apprehension for a parent as a child obtaining his driver's license.
For my son Anton, the journey began at age 16. He got through driving school in good stead, at which point he was issued his permit, which allowed him to drive with another licensed adult. Ninety-nine percent of the time I was impressed with his judgment, calm, and capability. But it was that 1 percent that scared me more than it should have, and I was all too quick to interpret his confusion about a blinking traffic light as a general lack of readiness to pilot something so replete with peril as a motor vehicle.
I don't think I am a nervous person. It's just that, when it comes to my son, I am used to being the driver rather than the driven. Even when sitting next to him on the passenger side, this habit spoke loud and clear, my foot in constant motion as I applied imaginary brakes and made turning motions with my hands, as if I possessed some power of psychokinesis that could override anything Anton was doing behind the wheel.
As if there were some commiserating force at work, Anton, at the end of his probationary period, failed his driving test. In that failure my voice was embedded, counseling, "It's OK. A little more time. That's all it means. You just need a little more time."
But that bump in the road only stropped Anton's determination, and he immediately rescheduled his test.
And once again, he failed.
"I forgot to look over my shoulder when changing lanes," he said, with a degree of gravity reserved for leaders who have let down entire nations. And again that quiet, abiding voice spoke: "It's all right. Just a little more time."
Of course, that time came. Anton went at it again, and he triumphed. I was truly happy for him, but happy, perhaps, a little too long, for he turned to me and said, "It's OK, Dad. You can take your hand off my shoulder now."
He knew, as I knew, that we had both crossed into newly discovered country, and that while I waited at the border, it was for him to go on alone. In Anton's words, "I've got this now."
With the prescience that teenagers sometimes express – when they are not being self-centered and generally impossible – Anton, rather than seizing the keys from my hand and rocketing out the door, stood by the window one snowy day, gazing out at the unfriendly scene.
"I wanted to drive to the mall," he said, "but I think I'll wait until the weather is better." The music of that utterance, the boy's ability to practice the forbearance of the man, was Anton's hand on my shoulder. At that moment I would have given him the moon on a plate.
And so, a couple of days later, after the plows had done their work and the skies had cleared, Anton asked if he could take the car into town to get a soda. As if operating independently of the rest of my body, my hand rose up and plopped the keys into his. I stood at the window as he backed out of the driveway, oriented the nose of the Volkswagen, and glided off down the street, the car sailing smoothly along as if driven by the most seasoned driver.
Five minutes later, as I continued to stand at the window, my cellphone beeped once. I flipped the device open and read the text message: "I made it, Dad, and I'm OK."
I immediately realized that this driver's license business wasn't only my son's rite of passage, it was mine as well. And I like the place to which it has brought me.