Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ben, pre-flight

My grandson, Ben, turned fifteen last month. god. I know. How did that happen? Last year, it seems, he was ten, and we were riding bikes together and learning how to skip rocks. The year before that, he was five and graduating from kindergarten. I remember everything about that bright, spring day, Ben and all his friends in their brightly colored caps and gowns….

Now he’s a sophomore in high school, on the wrestling team. And exactly a month ago, the day before his birthday, I taught him how to drive my truck. Like the memory of us skipping flat rocks across the surface of the slowly rolling Santa Ana River, I will remember the experience forever.

I didn’t tell him in advance. We’d joked about it from time to time, about who would be brave enough to teach him how to drive. And it was really more on a whim than anything else, but we had a half hour before I had to return him to his mom’s, so I pulled into the parking lot of a church (“Close by,” I told him, “in case we find ourselves in need of any prayers for the dead or dying”), stopped but left the engine idling, then got out and told him to move over to my seat. He was at first confused (pretty standard for Ben), then thrilled. And he was a tremendously adept pupil. At first, we drove agonizingly slowly, just letting the truck roll and making sweeping turns around the oval lot which was empty save for one burgundy Camry. We wondered aloud how the owner would respond if Ben hit it, whether railing or forgiving. Eventually, I made him use the gas pedal to accelerate up to 20 miles per hour, then stop. We practice stopping over and over, so that he could feel how long it took to make something so huge come to a complete stop. Never once did he hit the brakes too hard. Never once did he jerk the truck forward as he took off again. A natural. Of course, we’ve yet to drive on the road. That will come.

As we switched seats again and hurried off to meet Mom (since our half hour had—oops—doubled), he watched everything I did, how I handled the truck in traffic, what I did as I came to stop lights, how I seemed so at ease driving 45. He chattered incessantly. I hadn’t seen him so alive in a long, long time. “Ha,” I said, “you think this is empowering? Wait until a year from now, when you get your license, and that first day comes when your mom tells you to go pick up your sister at someone’s house, and you’re out there, solo. Your uncle would drive for hours, just to see where the road would take him.” As any young person will who needs to escape. I did, as well. As we drove, I told Ben about how I dreamed of turning sixteen and getting my license just to get away from my wicked step-father. And the day I took ownership of my first car? Few things top it.

There will be lectures from me, the next time we drive, about speeding, grandstanding, risking the lives of others and so forth. And, to Ben’s mind, his next birthday probably seems like a lifetime away. To me it is no more than twelve turns of the moon, one Tour de France and a World Series away… the blink of an eye. I wonder if I’ll lose him then… if he will simply drive away one day—to college, or on a road trip with his friends—and when he returns from his journey he will have crossed the threshold into manhood, no longer in need of his Nana to teach and guide him.

On his twelfth birthday, I took Ben out to dinner and told him how sad I was that I had only 365 days left with him, that he would turn thirteen in a year and, as a teenager, would no longer want to hang around with me or—God forbid—hug me in public. He promised quite solemnly that, as a teen, he would continue to hug me and “of course” want to hang around with me. So far, he’s been true to his word. Time, which moves with strong wings when it comes to the changing of a child, will tell. For now, I still hold the keys.

1 comment:

  1. Wow this puts a lot into perspective. Thank you for writing this piece. I am glad to have read it.