As son takes car, fear is in the driver's seat

Kathleen Parker
Posted: Mar 21, 2001 12:00 AM
I knew this day was coming. I've dreaded it ever since 4:17 a.m. on Sept. 3, 1984, when my newborn emitted that first lusty cry. As of Friday, my son - my heart - is a driver. Alone. In a car. On a road. With strangers suffering hangovers, work angst, day-care depression, marriage malaise, morning arguments, imminent rage. I'm a wreck. Counting calendar days, John even waited a while longer than most. He wasn't in a hurry, he always said. Then last week, he decided he was ready to command the wheel. We carefully selected a Department of Motor Vehicles office in another town where examiners were reputed to be "nicer." Not that all DMV workers aren't delightful, but they do seem to be a little stressed at times. Where we live, they're extremely stressed. State budget cuts have reduced staff size so that everyone is more overworked than usual. Equipment is so old, they don't even bother to fix it anymore. On the day we showed up, the camera was broken, so that John, having passed his test, couldn't walk away with an actual license. The nice examiners sent us to another DMV office 20 miles away. Their camera was broken, too, so we went to yet another office 25 miles further where, oh, about 400 people were waiting their turn. We took a number and waited ours. Several days later, starved and dehydrated, we stumbled into the parking lot to find our car. "I'll drive," he said. And thus began my interminable nightmare. My first experience with boy-alone-on-the-road while Mom waits for her ride occurred before the laminate had cooled on his mug shot. John dropped me at the gym while he went off to find friends. "Be back by 4:45," I said, "but don't kill yourself trying to meet the deadline, though do keep in mind that a minute later than 4:45 will prompt excessive worry and possibly a 911 call. But have fun." Etched forever in my body's memory is the blood-thudding impact of hitting a tree at 50 mph, which is what I did at age 16 trying meet my father's inflexible be-home deadline. So, mumbling a prayer, I crossed myself and climbed onto the treadmill. I lifted; I lunged; I looked at my watch no more than 63 times, I swear it. Finally, 4:45 arrived, but no John. Then 5 came and went. By 5:15, I was hyperventilating while a trainer showed me some relaxing yoga positions. She seemed very relaxed. When the phone rang, I knew the worst had happened. But it hadn't. John had found some friends; he was a little lost; he needed some directions. I needed a martini. That was several days ago. I'm much better now, thank you, though every time I hear a car key jingle, I clutch. The words, "I'll be right back," cause respiratory arrest until the sound of tires on gravel announces his safe return. Having a child behind the wheel of a 2-ton automobile is simply too much for a mother to bear in a single lifetime. Just last week, it seems, I was worrying about him running with a pencil clutched in his fist. Today, I'm worried about, well, you. If it wouldn't be too much to ask, next time you see a teen-ager in the next lane, maybe playing the radio too loudly or seeming a little annoying, please consider that he's some mother's darling boy and give him a wide berth. I'll do the same for yours.