Son turned 16 last week. Drove home this afternoon after passing the written portion of his driving test.
Which compels me to write the past 5,843 days a mother*ucker of a speeding ticket.
In the involuntary peek in the rear-view such rite of passages induce, let’s just say that the boy’s relationship with locomotion over the years has been, um, colorful.
From sled, to tricycle, to training wheels both on and off … there’s been a common denominator to each and every mile marker… a refrain (sometimes spoken, more often, not) that begins with the parental mea culpa, “In retrospect ….”
Unfortunately, if precisely, that’s how Karry and I have learned the majority of our lessons in our 16 years in parental driving school.
There was the first time Karry took him sled riding at grandma’s house in Amity… he was maybe, what, three? The experience fell into that magical category of things we cherished from our childhood and could not wait to share with our kids (one of the coolest things about the parenting gig, by far). That winter, she waited patiently until the snow finally fell deep enough in her old back yard to complete its transformation from pain-in-the-ass-summer-grass cut to perfect-sled-riding terrain.
Twelve+ years ago and she can still picture it like it was yesterday:
How adorable he looked stuffed in his snowsuit and toboggan, the signature red of his irresistible full cheeks accentuated by the chill.
Putting him on the plastic sled for the first time and reminding him to hold on as she sent him down the slope.
How he took off like a shot.
How her exhilaration evaporated to helplessness in the nanosecond he veered hard left, off-course. When she realized where he was headed how she screamed in vain at him to Turn! Turn! Turn! Remembering and cursing in the same breath the fact that the dumb plastic sled had no steering mechanism. (“In retrospect ….”)
How everything melted into slow motion for her as he hit a bump in the ground and launched himself (and her heart with it) into the air, Dukes-of-Hazard-style, until both he and sled disappeared deep into the massive brush pile her Dad had built over years from fallen branches.
How this may have been the first recorded instance of her Mom adrenalin kicking in as she took off after him, screaming his name, plunging herself into the pile, thorn-and-thistles be damned, tearing her way through to her baby. Until she found him in the dead center of the pile, still atop his sled …
… as he answered the question before she could even ask it.
“Mom … I was CANON-BALLING!” his red cheeks about to swallow his eyes, his smile was so big.
How her relief brought forth a laugh that collided hard with the tears that had already started beading and freezing down her cheeks.
How I learned my version of the very same lesson the following summer during an after dinner pilgrimage to Canonsburg Park. When we brought his Amish-made, industrial-grade blue tricycle we’d picked up in Lancaster that spring. Those massive, treaded bicycle-pump-required tires. Too badass to call a tricycle, really.
How it was an exquisite summer evening to be outside … until … he decided to do some off-roading, leaving the safe confines of the sidewalk for the grass, where he quickly encountered the slope of the park’s massive hill.
How, as he gathered momentum my heart leapt to my throat at the remembrance that … Tricycles. Have. No. Brakes.
How I broke into a helpless full sprint that was completely in vain, as he was already going faster than my (then-) late 30-s legs were capable of. How his course took him across the parks paved roads (featuring live traffic). How his feet were forced off the pedals as they spun out of control, with a couple hundred feet of descent still in front of him.
I’ve never been so scared in my life. Before or since.
How the volatile cocktail of gravity, grade, trike, boy, and terrain could’ve produced any number of possible outcomes. And my curiosity stopping short of wanting to know the precise odds of the actual one … when, about 60 feet or so into his free fall, the bike peeled off harmlessly in a gentle left curve before gradually coming to a peaceful rest … with me much less gracefully catching up a couple seconds later and ripping him off the bike and into my arms and squeezing him … just squeezing him, he every bit as blissfully oblivious as I was viscerally aware of just how closely he’d danced with danger.
And him pushing himself away from my chest, kicking at me to put him down so he could hop right back on that fucking blue death machine.
Training Wheels On
The first time he was responsible for his own wheeled locomotion on an adult highway. Had to be around four. Summer getaway to Virginia Beach. How we let ourselves be seduced by the vacation-induced loosening of parental controls, and let him rent his own bike (with training wheels) on the boardwalk. It was the first time we forsook the Dad rickshaw arrangement where I’d happily haul him in his pull-behind chariot with the vented windows. How we gave him very simple instructions to keep his eye on the road in front of him. Sandwiched him between me (with Emma in a baby seat at my back) and Karry, caravan style.
Free from his pull-behind bubble, the world suddenly became huge, and he was determined not to miss a single detail. The memory is still wince-inducing as I think about all the adult bikers and families in both directions he chased from the path, incurring a steady stream of bike bells, and cursings of both under- and over-the-breath varieties, which my sheepish apologies failed to ameliorate.
Can’t remember exactly how far we made it, other than the number of times I implored him to pay attention exponentially eclipsed the number of blocks we’d made before he went baja-ing into some finely manicured shrubbery.
Training Wheels Off
I still remember that exhilarating rite-of-parental passage when my hand first pulled away from his bike in the driveway behind our house, and, like magic, he was on his own, doing it himself. How his exhilaration matched mine. He was a natural.
And it wasn’t long before he grew tired of the short back-and-forths in our driveway and craved the adventure of the road in front of our house.
He was but moments into his graduating maiden voyage, when he clipped our neighbor’s mailbox with his head, leaving a big old dent (in the box, not his melon). This time the tears were his, as was the strawberry above his eye, as well as the apology I made him deliver to Mr. Don, our neighbor.
For the record, it was his last mail-box casualty, and he much-too-soon matriculated to riding no-hands no-breaks down the super steep hill outside of our house, equal parts fearless and oblivious, while I followed responsibly behind, overcompensatingly pumping my breaks and squeezing my own handlebars tighter with two hands sweaty at the sight of his ever smaller outline farther and farther ahead of me.
In Retrospect …
… the signs were always there along the path.
In retrospect … the fullness of each of the above episodes blinded us to the fact that each was pregnant with everything there was to know about being a parent.
The illusion of control. The helplessness to meaningfully influence a real-time outcome. The message-in-a-bottle-at-best odds that our unsolicited advice has found soft ground to take root. And the realization that where our control ends is where harrowing faith begins.
And, when you add up all those miles, an epiphany – that for the past 16 years, maybe he’s not the one who should’ve been paying more attention to the road ahead.
Maybe seeing what could happen is the preferable alternative to fearing what might.
Maybe he’s not been the stubborn student.
Maybe he’s been the one with the lessons worth teaching.
And on our 16th anniversary of becoming parents, maybe those are the keys he’s handing us.