For weeks, I suffered from worrisome and mysterious health ills. As usual, I encouraged my imagination to run riot, estimating I had six months to live. A year, tops. For a second opinion, I went to the doctor.
"What brings you here today?" asked Dr. Rosen.
"I'm a wreck. I can't sleep at night. My stomach's in knots. I've got constant indigestion and heart palpitations. Also, I can't seem to stop biting my lower lip."
Dr. Rosen dutifully noted this in my chart.
"Hmm," she said, mulling the information over. "You have teens, don't you?"
"Two, and another two in training."
"Any of them driving?"
"How did you know?" Dr. Rosen was an amazing diagnostician.
"These are classic symptoms of 'teenasaurus legalis motoritis'," she said. "When teens begin to drive, parents are literally booted out of the driver's seat. This creates tremendous emotional distress, and often convulses the body with fear. After all, everyone knows that teens are lousy drivers. I'm pretty sure that's what you're experiencing."
The doc was right. My symptoms had kicked in shortly after our eldest son received his driver's permit. This left me or my husband with the white-knuckle opportunity of being the passenger while our son insecurely navigated a 3,000-pound minivan down city streets.
"Is there any treatment?" I asked. "I'm sentenced to a minimum of 30 more hours of practice with him before he gets his license. I don't know if I can take it."
"Unfortunately, medical science hasn't come up with anything for this condition. Take some antacids for the indigestion, and you can take an anti-depressant, but you probably don't want to be that slap-happy while your kid is behind the wheel. However, you must see a good plastic surgeon to see about restoring that bottom lip."
I left the office with a prescription and the referral to the plastic surgeon. Hey, why not a little nip and tuck while I'm at it? Still, it astounded me that kids in the throes of acne were deemed responsible enough to drive. Half these kids can't even remember to close a refrigerator door when they leave the kitchen, yet they are entrusted with the enormous responsibility of driving a motor vehicle, most likely while yakking on a cell phone at the same time.
Perhaps in the distant past, when kids had to shoulder serious work on the family farm, 16 was not too young to learn to drive. But these days, when a kid's idea of responsibility involves uploading new photos of himself on his personal web page, I worry.
We started with small, seemingly safe little drives in the neighborhood. Nothing fancy, like backing out of the driveway or parallel parking, just basic moves going forward, stopping, turning, and signaling. I vowed to be calm.
"TURN THE WHEEL TO THE LEFT!" I shrieked, as the car threatened to peel the paint off a BMW next to us.
"Calm down, Mom! I saw it!" my son said. "Stop digging your nails in the armrest. You're tearing the leather."
I tried to slow my breathing and willed my hair to stop falling out, but stress is rough on the system. This is especially true when your kid is jabbing the gas pedal so that you are lurching forward haphazardly, like on a roller coaster before the drop.
"SLOW DOWN!" I shouted, even though we had plenty to time to stop at the red light. Did he see it was a red light?
"Mom! I know what I'm doing!" When spoken by a teenager, these are the most frightening words in the English language.
"Mom! I know what I'm doing!"
When spoken by a teenager, these are the most frightening words in the English language.
At a four-way stop sign, we inched out very slowly, prompting another driver to gesture rudely at us and honk his horn. "Ignore those obnoxious people who honk at you or try to rattle you," I calmly advised. "Just continue to drive the way you know is safe. TURN THE WHEEL TO THE RIGHT! YOU'RE GOING TO HIT THAT CAR!"
"I'm not going to hit the car! But if I get into an accident, it's because all your screaming and gasping is going to give me a heart attack!"
If there's one thing I hate, it's when my kid is right and I'm wrong. Inadvertently, I had been gasping in terror approximately every three seconds. It sounded unseemly, and I vowed to try to stay saner. Maybe that anti-depressant wasn't such a bad idea after all. On the other hand, there were some unexpected side benefits to my situation. During Pilates class, for example, the teacher always tells me to hold my ab muscles tight. This happens effortlessly with my teen at the wheel. In fact, while he is driving, if my abs were any tighter they'd be marble.
Eventually, we completed a two-mile circuit of the neighborhood, and my son did a respectable job of pulling into the driveway. No injuries were reported.
I popped a migraine pill back at the house and crawled into bed to recover. Getting through another 30 hours of this was going to be one of the hardest things I'd ever have to do in my life.
Undaunted by my paranoia, my son asked for more driving time the next day. This time, the younger kids wanted to come with us. It seemed like a better adventure than emptying out the freezer, looking for ice cream sandwiches hidden behind old packages of peas and corn. It wasn't enough that my son was endangering his life and my own; now his siblings wanted to join in the fun. Everyone piled in the car, including our dog, Ken. He hates being out of family activities.
Our adventure began with backing out of the driveway, a tricky maneuver because our street is narrow and cars are usually hogging valuable space directly across the street. I really, honestly, tried to keep my trap shut, and to minimize my horror movie sound effects. This lasted about eight seconds.
"Wait! You're in reverse! You've got to turn the wheel LEFT to make the car go right!" I wasn't sure what an ulcer felt like, but I knew I had just spiked one on the spot. My fingernails found their familiar grooves in the armrest and dug in for dear life. In the back seat, my youngest son sensed that this was not just any old car ride with no purpose: this promised to be a journey of thrills and suspense with no purpose.
"Floor it!" he urged his brother, while I shot him a warning look. In that instant, I vowed he wouldn't drive before the age of 32.
"Do you have a good collision rider on your insurance, Mom?" asked my middle son, who is cautious by nature.
My daughter remained uncharacteristically quiet in the back seat, while Ken, sensing danger, began to shed copiously.
"When can we go on the freeway?" my newbie driver asked, lurching us forward toward a major intersection.
"BEGIN TO MAKE YOUR TURN NOW!" I gasped, convinced that none of the other drivers on the boulevard were aware of our existence.
"That was fun!" my youngest boy said. "When I drive, I'll go a lot faster than this."
My son piloted us to a shopping mall three miles from home, maneuvering around a narrow circular ramp and parking squarely between the lines of his parking spot. We all admired the execution. Mission accomplished, we headed back home.
This driver's education has taught me a thing or two also. Namely, since I will have to do this three more times, I need to shore up my fraying nerves. I'm thinking sky diving, bungee-jumping, and other invigorating activities of that nature ought to do the trick. And by then I probably will have earned those abs of marble.