Merced Life

Reflections on mortality as 16-year-old son takes the wheel

I was 41 years old when my youngest son, Everett, was born. At the time, I felt young enough to be a mother to an infant, but it is now 16 years later, and I am not so sure I am young enough to be a mother to a teenager with a driver’s permit.

Everett got his permit a little over a week ago, and he is actually a pretty good driver, and certainly more cautious than his older brother, who drove my husband, Matt, and me to his university in San Diego at the start of this school year. In the back seat, I put a blanket over my head, pretended to sleep, and wished hard for a CHP officer to pull us over and give Casey a speeding ticket.

Every once in a while I peeked out from underneath the blanket to glance at the gauge on the dashboard.

“You’re going 85 miles an hour!” I said somewhere around Bakersfield.

“That’s because I’m passing,” Casey said.

“If you have to go 85 to do it, you shouldn’t be passing,” I answered.

Though I survived the trip to San Diego, I am not so sure I will survive the next six months sitting next to Everett as he careens us around town in my Volkswagen Beetle, a car he used to hate.

Recently, though, after he claimed the extra set of keys to my car as his own, he informed me that he had come to like my Volkswagen, an ominous sign. I can see the not-so-distant future, when I am driving around town in our much-older Volkswagen Rabbit. Behind me, my Beetle looms into view and then speeds past, the convertible top down and rap music blaring from the speakers. Everett is in the driver’s seat, one hand on the steering wheel, the other fiddling with his iPhone.

Though he is a good driver for a novice, Everett has made a few mistakes that put my adrenaline on high alert. The day after he got his permit he almost ran us headlong into a guardrail on an “S” turn on the frontage road between Merced and Atwater. He also tends to veer a little too much to the right or the left, something his driving instructor at ABC Driving School has informed me is typical of new drivers.

“Hear those bumping sounds?” I mentioned recently as Everett drove us to his basketball practice. “That’s because you’re hitting the raised white bumps in the middle of road. Nice to have those to remind you that you’re over the line, huh?”

“Yep,” Everett answered, but we bumped along Buhach Road anyway until we finally reached our turn.

I have been good about not screaming or raising my voice, but over the past week I have sometimes succumbed to fear. The same day he nearly killed us both by almost crashing into the guard rail, I grabbed the steering wheel when I was sure we were going to run into an oncoming car on Loughborough. It was a dangerous move, but I believed at the time that we were going to die, and I thought maybe, with some quick action, I could save us.

“Sorry about grabbing the wheel,” I said later, when I had recovered the ability to speak. “That was really dumb. No one should ever grab the steering wheel from you.”

“I know,” Everett said. “Just don’t do it again.”

Before driving home from an appointment a few days ago in Merced, Everett and I made some deals about driving. I promised to keep my hands away from the steering wheel while Everett is in the driver’s seat. And Everett promised to keep two hands on the wheel at all times, in exchange for getting to listen to his own music while he drives.

Since this pact, Everett has been keen to drive at every possible opportunity. Now, I am forced to listen to rap music wherever we go. This past week it has often been a rap by Nav, who is upset about a woman named “Mariah,” who is apparently a “liah.” And just in case we might forget about Mariah’s lying ways, Nav reminds us over and over and over again.

I know I need to be patient as Everett learns to navigate the roads of Merced and Atwater, and I need to remember that the day will come when he will grow weary of hearing about Mariah’s lack of transparency, when he will not almost crash into guardrails on “S” turns, and when he will avoid the bumps in the middle of the road. And I also must keep in mind that one day, not all that long from now, I am the one who will terrify him when I am in the driver’s seat, grasping the steering wheel with arthritic hands, barely able to peer over the dash, hitting all of the bumps on the center line.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.