Empty Car Syndrome

I watched the back of his T-shirt as my 16 year-old-son marched off with another woman.  She was a gray-haired African American grandma, her hair pulled back in a bun pulled so tight it looked like it had to hurt.  Her clothes were starched as if she had spent most of her life in the military.

 

I stayed behind Plexiglass, in the back row of plastic seats bolted to the floor, unable to look at his blond head and her silver bun as they walked away.  Even though it was not yet 9 am on a Thursday morning, I was wide awake.  This date had been marked in my calendar for three months.

 

After 10 minutes of agony squirming in my hard gray chair, I saw the pair of them returning, walking towards me across a parking lot, expressionless.  Major Grandma clutched a brown clipboard. At the doorway, they parted without a nod or smile.

 

My son found me hiding in the back row.  He winked.

 

And it was done: my son was now a legal driver of automobiles/death machines.

 

He and I had spent six months together, alone in our old minivan, getting ready for this day.  I offered up 32 years of accumulated driving knowledge - why passing on the right is treacherous, the importance of brake lights, how to judge the distance from passenger side to adjacent car mirrors. There was lots of sweating by both of us and a few warning screams from me. (RED LIGHT!  REDDDD LIGHT!)

 

All over our house, I pasted newspaper clippings detailing the risk factors for teen driver fatalities: texting, drinking, nights and holidays, other teenagers in the car.

 

All the preparation had focused on him.  But in that moment at the DMV, it sunk in. This was also a rite of passage for me.

 

The change was as quick as a guillotine.  After we got home from the DMV, he drove himself to and from school. The next day, the house was eerily quiet by 7:30am. No “come on kids, we’re gonna be late!”  With no fuss, he and his younger sister had gotten in our minivan and left for classes.  That evening, he drove her to and from gymnastics. On Saturday, he drove himself to the back-to-school dance, and I was asleep before his curfew.

 

Two days later, I stopped by one of his soccer games.  He has played on the same rec team since kindergarten. It was thrilling, in the autumn sun, to watch boys who I remembered as six year olds, now crossing the field like semi-pro players, looking almost like grown men.

 

I noticed there were almost no other parents around.  I thought back to those endless games where parents, standing on the sidelines, outnumbered players two to one.  Every Saturday morning, it felt like parents’ coffee hour.  There was an intimacy and familiarity and an never-ending quality to those mornings that helped me get through the early parenting phases. We all had to be on the sidelines, whether we liked soccer or not, because our kids needed us as drivers.