My oldest son, Joseph, just started driver’s ed.
We usually call him Joey, but lately he’s asked that we call him Joseph, on account of him being fifteen-and-a-half and all.
For the uninitiated, driver’s ed is a formal course where teenagers learn how to drive. It’s a combination of classroom work, and time in the car with an instructor. In New Hampshire, it’s required if you want to get a license.
He was a baby one minute ago, I swear.
The idea of him driving terrifies me. I am terrified to think about him forgetting turn signals and threading his way around tractor trailers and trying to slow down on an icy hill.
If there’s one thing to be said about New Hampshire, it sure is hilly.
So I’ve decided I’m not going to think about it. Because when I think about my son behind the wheel of a car, I always think about another boy I once knew. His name was Ben. His mother called him Benny.
I met Ben a few times. I worked with his father. Once, when he was around thirteen, he came into my office to borrow some poster board. I think it was for a science project.
He had a shy smile, and he was quiet, and for some reason I remember a lot of curly brown hair. He held the sheets of poster board under one arm, and he thanked me several times.
I could be wrong about the hair. It’s more of an impression, really—ethereal wisps of a boy just out of reach.
I’ve often wondered what happens right after an accident. I think, for one moment, time stands still and everything is motionless—frozen, almost. Beads of water slide to a stop on a windshield, and leaves on the trees overhead cease to flutter, and breath inside the body slows its steady circulation.
Life’s story stops. And then, like the notes of a song, it begins again.
Quiet, measured words.
Gut-wrenching, life-changing, heart-never-for-a-second-stops-aching grief.
It was raining.
It was dark.
He had just picked up his tuxedo for the prom.
It is this detail—this final brush stroke upon the canvas of a life too short—that I remember most. I picture the tux in a bag, sliding around the back seat of the car, jolted to the floor on impact.
He hit a tree.
A 17-year old boy I once met hit a tree and died the day after he got his license with his tuxedo for the prom in the back seat.
Can you see? Can you see there are no guarantees in this life we live?
I sent a card expressing my condolences. I think it had a bird on it. I said I was sorry. I wished them peace.
But what did I know? My oldest child was in preschool at the time—years away from teenage angst and prom corsages and dark, rainy nights. I had no concept of there could ever be a last time.
The last time we had dinner together.
The last time he smiled his funny smile.
The last time I watched him walk out the door.
But I am here now. In the blink of an eye, I have arrived. Like millions of mothers before me, I stand, balancing precariously, at the precipice of danger and independence—heartache and hope.
And though they roam the earth in droves, I am beginning to realize teenagers are the rarest breed of human beings.
I mean, they really do know everything. They don’t need us anymore. They shrug us off like sweaters they’ve outgrown.
Yet, when the last pork chop has been eaten and the dishwasher hums and the house is quiet, they find us once more.
He finds me. He finds me in my office and he lounges on the window seat with his long legs dangling everywhere. He asks me things.
He asks me about my friends in high school and my college roommates and if I remember the first time I ever tried cake batter ice cream.
And then he goes off to the kitchen to rummage for more food.
But when he asks me these questions, I know his boy of mine has one foot out the door, and at the same time he is still holding tightly to his childhood—the proverbial deflated balloon after a birthday party clutched in his hand.
I love him so much I cannot breathe. I cannot bear to imagine a life where he doesn’t exist.
Will you help me? Will you help this new driver of mine?
For example, say you are in a hurry and you have to get to work, but right before you left the house your 4-year old spilled his whole bowl of Cheerios on the floor, so now you are going to be late for sure. And the person in the car ahead of you is taking forever and a day to move through the light even though it already turned green.
Please, take a deep breath.
It could be my son.
He loved Cheerios when he was a little guy. He ate them every single morning.
Please, use your hands-free device for your phone. We are working hard to teach our teenagers how important it is to drive without distractions. Help us be a good example.
And I know we live in a small town, and it doesn’t seem like a big deal to walk on the wrong side of the road when you are pushing your baby in the stroller or training for your first 10K or walking your Great Dane so he’ll stop chewing up your carpet because he’s bored, but it is. It is a big deal.
It’s a big deal because new drivers are still trying to put all the pieces together.
Wear bright colors.
Stay on the right side of the road when you are out walking or running or picking up after your dog.
Use a light at night.
My son is trying to see you.
If you see a car edging into your lane with the blinker on too late, try not to be annoyed. Resist the impulse to blare your horn, or inch closer to his bumper.
It could be my son.
He’s trying. He’s learning.
There is time for everything. We will all get where we need to go.
And if the breathing and the relaxing doesn’t work, remember.
Remember the first few times you sat in the driver’s seat of your dad’s truck or your mom’s car. Remember how tremendously exhilarating and scary it felt.
Remember the first time you rolled through a stop sign by mistake, or crashed into your neighbor’s garbage cans.
Remember your prom. Maybe you wore a shiny rented tuxedo, or a long red gown. Maybe you danced the night away, or held hands with your date.
Remember behind every new driver is a family, gathered around the dinner table, waiting for their boy to come home.
It could be my son.