Departments: Loco Parentis: Car Sick

I’m sitting in my own car, in my own hometown, going less than 10 miles an hour — and I’m rigid with terror. My back is as straight as Russell Crowe. My jaw is tauter than Brian Westbrook’s thighs. My right foot is pressing with superhuman force against a spot on the gray carpet analogous to where the brake pedal would be, if only I were in the driver’s seat. But I’m not. My daughter Marcy is.

I’m teaching her to drive.

We got a late start on this. Some kids can’t wait to get behind the wheel of a car. Others — perhaps influenced by mothers who gasp every time a truck passes in the opposite lane, read newspaper accounts of teen auto deaths aloud at breakfast, and, when their husbands are driving, brace both hands against the dashboard on every off-ramp — are in no rush. Left to her own devices, I suspect Marcy, who just turned 18, would have put off getting her driver’s license forever. But my husband Doug (did I mention how fast he takes off-ramps?) got a sudden bee in his bonnet when he realized she would be leaving for college without a vital form of identification, yada yada yada, and decided a crash course was in order.

That’s what he got. On their very first outing, in the time-honored high-school parking lot, in his brand-new PT Cruiser, Marcy slammed into a fire hydrant, resulting in $1,500 in damage to the Cruiser and an incalculable blow to her self-confidence. “I’m never, ever driving that car again!” she sobbed as she ran up to her room.

She got no argument from Doug. Which is why we’re in my car.

Marcy taps the gas gently, and my raggedy old station wagon lurches forward. She glances over at me. I reclench my teeth.

“Dad talks to me more,” she mentions.

I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. I learned to drive in a four-door Ford owned by my high school; I was taught by a teacher named Mr. Fischer who rapped my knuckles with a ruler and barked “Loosen up!” when I gripped the steering wheel too hard. Driver’s ed was just another unpleasant course to pass, like biology or chemistry; Mr. Fischer didn’t have anything vested in me, and I sure didn’t in him.

Teaching Marcy is nothing like that. I’m terrified she’ll learn to drive like her father. I’m just as terrified she’ll learn to drive like me (and like my mother before me): an automotive Blanche DuBois, reliant on the kindness of strangers to let me out of the left-turn-only lane at stoplights when I meant to go straight. I’m not really qualified to teach anyone to drive — which makes me wonder whether Mr. Fischer was.

None of this, though, accounts for my mute paralysis as Marcy makes a too-wide right turn, wandering well into the path of oncoming traffic, of which there is none, since we’re in yet another after-hours parking lot.

“How was that?” she demands.

I’m paralyzed because I’m struck by the realization that someday soon, she’ll be doing this without me beside her. It’s the same debilitating shock I’ve felt over the past few years as I’ve encountered kids from the Girl Scout troop I used to lead, now behind the steering wheels of cars, or working as cashiers at the Giant, or, for God’s sake, pushing their babies in strollers, having moved on, while my back was turned just for a minute, from childhood to citizenry in the wider world. How did they do that without handing in permission slips to me? I know those girls. They can barely glue google-eyes on pumpkins; they’re no more ready for driving and jobs and parenting than Marcy is.

“Was it that bad?” she asks, crestfallen.

My knuckles are white in my clenched fists; my nails dig into the meat of my palms. “No,” I lie. “It was fine. You’re doing just fine.”

I can remember the first time Marcy got into a car driven by a peer instead of an adult. It was the autumn of her freshman year of high school, and her field hockey team had planned a Saturday-morning visit to a breakfast buffet an hour away. “I can go, can’t I?” she asked anxiously.

“Who’s driving?”

“Lauren and Shanna and Kirsten and Emily.” Seniors, girls I didn’t know at all. I wanted to say no, and Marcy knew it.

Everybody else is going!” she pleaded, zeroing in on the one fear I have regarding my kids that’s stronger even than fiery automotive death: social isolation. I caved. I said okay.

Ever since then, Marcy and her friends have been moving further and further away. They left our podunk mall behind for grander playgrounds at King of Prussia and Exton. If the local movie theater’s times or offerings didn’t suit, there was the multiplex in Oaks. They went to Senior Week in Ocean City, Maryland; they drove into the city to My Worst Fear, the nightclub Shampoo. (“Seventeen to party; 21 to drink!”) My daughter’s world became exponentially bigger; she was free to explore. And I was free to fret: no, to fixate. Was she wearing her seatbelt? How loud was the radio? Was anybody drunk?

“Call me anytime if the driver is drinking. I won’t be angry, I promise,” I’d tell her anxiously. “I’ll come and get you, wherever you are.” Then, once she left, I’d have a glass of wine to calm my nerves, and then another. What if she did call? What would I do then?

“When she has her license, she can take over if the driver’s been drinking,” Doug reminds me patiently, logically, as summer fades all too quickly. I’m in no mood for logic. I’m angry with him for making me add driving lessons to the to-do list for these last few precious weeks before Marcy leaves for college. Why not put it off until next summer? Why not put it off forever?

What lies at the base of my reluctance is this: Teaching her to drive is teaching her to leave me. I’m aiding and abetting my own abandonment. Sure, she can go out with friends, but so long as she doesn’t have a license of her own, she’s still tethered to me, a falcon in jesses.

And I like it that way.

“I want to go on a real road,” Marcy declares, fed up with the parking lots and office parks and remote back ways on which I’ve let her try her wings so far. “When can I go on a real road?”

“Soon,” I assure her. “Try another three-point turn.”

She’s not stupid. For her next lesson, she announces she wants Daddy. And, “Dad let me drive on Route 100,” she declares proudly upon their return.

I’m aghast. “Route 100 is the Highway of Death!” I say to Doug. “What were you thinking?”

“It was kind of fun,” Marcy says with satisfaction. “I like going fast.”

I don’t. Everything is going too fast these days. There’s only another week before we take her off to college at Dicklenburg. “I was thinking,” Doug says one night, as we get ready for bed. “She could drive on the way out. It would be great for her to get some experience on the Turnpike.”

“She is not driving to Dicklenburg.”

“Why not?”

“I’m going to be stressed enough about her leaving without worrying she’ll get run off the road by some FedEx delivery zealot on the way there.”

He looks at me. “You have to let go, you know.”

I do know. Really.

I’m just not sure how.

In the end, Doug drives us to Dicklenburg. Marcy never did get her license; we ran out of time. She nods off in the backseat, amidst all her earthly belongings. I work the brake for Doug, right foot slamming against the gray carpet on the passenger side.

When we arrive, our car is swarmed by upperclassmen waiting to help us unpack. They trot boxes and bags up to Marcy’s room, where her new roommate, Lindsay, waits with her family. We greet each other, make nervous conversation, empty suitcases, connect computers and printers and lamps.

I keep feeling there’s some momentous speech I ought to make, some life wisdom I should impart. “Don’t sleep around,” I long to caution Marcy. “Don’t get so drunk you pass out.” She’s never given any indication she’d do either; why do I feel the need to warn her? For the same reason I once told her, “When you’re driving on a highway beside a tractor trailer, try to either fall behind him or pull ahead. If one of those tires blows, you don’t want to get hit with the tread.” That’s what life is — a series of unlikely events. A driver runs a red light; a kid darts out from between parked cars. I was in a VW van with my boyfriend in college once when he hit a cow. You can never cover all the possibilities, no matter how hard you try. You can’t teach someone to be ready for the unforeseen and unknown.

We wade through convocation ceremonies, laugh, applaud. I sneak surreptitious glances at Marcy as she sits beside her new roommate: They seem like a good match. I survey her fellow freshmen, and the faculty, and wonder: Is her future husband here today? Her mentor? A new best friend?

She’s holding up well. But then we take an off-campus detour to open her a bank account, and when we return, she can’t find the group from her dorm she’s supposed to join for supper. Her anxiety about the unfamiliar campus, the unknown people, the loss of all her accustomed bearings, boils over. She goes into a meltdown, fighting back tears. Doug and I lay out options for her; all are rejected, with high dudgeon: My situation is hopeless, doomed!

I can’t stand her in Valkyrie mode. “Oh, for God’s sake,” I mutter.

Her head snaps up. “Go on, then. Leave. I’ll deal with it.”

I kiss her cheek. “Okay. Goodbye. I love you” is all I say.

As Doug and I drive off, he glances over. Clearly, he’s been thinking about this moment, too. “I don’t want you to call or e-mail her. Wait until she calls or e-mails you,” he says sternly. “You’ve got to give her space.”

I’m indignant. “I’ll e-mail her if I want to!” Like a five-year-old: You’re not the boss of me! But I know he’s right. I sit there in the passenger seat, impotent and grieving.

All the long way home on the Turnpike, Doug and I make disjointed efforts to reassure ourselves: “Lindsay seems really nice.” “Wasn’t it great the way the upperclassmen helped out?” “The president is so dynamic; I loved her speech.” There’s a lot of silence left in Marcy’s wake, but we don’t rush to fill it; we are feeling it, testing its strangeness. This is the longest I can recall ever being in a car without turning on the radio. Eighteen years ago, we conjured someone out of nothing. Now, it seems, she’s gone. What was the point of all the hovering and worrying, if in the end it’s just “Goodbye” and a peck on the cheek?

We aren’t home 10 minutes before my cell phone rings. “Mom? It’s me. Sorry I was such a bitch.”

I arch my eyebrows at Doug in triumph and settle in to dish.

I was right to be afraid of cars.

Two weeks along, another call from my daughter. Her voice sounds distant, strained. The story tumbles out: Sitting in a car in a parking lot with some new friends. Somebody smoking pot. A campus cop. Knock on the car window. Busted! Hundred-dollar fine. Mandatory anti-drug course. Demerit points — a lot of them — toward the total that would get her kicked out of school.

I’m blindsided, dumbfounded. Didn’t we always tell each other everything, Marcy and I? I know so much more about her than my mom ever knew about me. I know she thinks smoking anything is stupid and gross, and that potheads are losers. I know she’ll have a wonderful, remarkable experience at Dicklenburg, and go on to lead a successful, fulfilling life.

Or I thought I did.

“There’s a hearing,” she says miserably. “Thursday morning.” A faint question mark in the air: Will you come?

The ache to cocoon her, protect her, rises up. I long to be her advocate, argue for her before her judges: Can’t you see this child isn’t a stoner? Working that brake pedal, intervening, coming to the rescue. Doing what mothers do.

But the brake pedal always was imaginary. And I find there’s an unaccustomed crispness in my soul. I feel sorry for Marcy, for her shame and fright, but … at a distance. I’m hours away now. I can’t come running. I can’t protect her anymore.

I guess the reason losing control frightened me so much was that I knew it was what I was working toward, had to work toward. Doing what mothers do.

“Tell the truth,” I advise my daughter. And then (Blanche DuBois): “Plead for mercy.” It’s terrifying.

It’s also liberating. I can have that second glass of wine without guilt.