My eldest child turned 16, yesterday. I still remember holding her in my arms, when she was only a few seconds old, of how tiny she was and how terrified I was, carrying her, afraid that I would drop her or slip on the floor while I wore the hospital slippers over my running shoes.
This weekend, we signed her up for driver's ed, and a new fear gripped me. Of how she would soon be behind the wheel of a heavy piece of machinery, how she would be responsible for safely moving herself down the road, mindful of the other drivers on the road.
It scares me, but then I remembered how I was once her age, how I had to learn how to drive.
I did, however, learn how to drive at an earlier age. As early as eight, my father had me sit on his lap, steering our car, using the turn signals. When we had a manual transmission, he would operate the pedals while I would move the stick into the different slots, would at the very least learn how to smoothly move the stick through the various gears.
I was 13 when I was tall enough to sit in the seat by myself and could operate the pedals and see over the steering wheel. My father would let me drive around empty parking lots. It was easier, back then, when stores and shopping malls would not be open on Sundays.
We lived in Kirk's Ferry, in Gatineau, and I would drive the dirt roads of The Ridge Group. At 14, when I was allowed to visit my girlfriend, who lived on a farm just north of Wakefield, her older brother would let us drive his car on the dirt roads in the country. One time, he let me drive until we reached the bridge at Farrellton, when I drove across and then headed south, along Highway 105, back to Wakefield, where we crossed the covered bridge and then back to the farm.
Yes, at 14, I drove on a provincial highway.
By the time I reached 16, I was already a proficient driver. My father, an exceptional driver, taught me defensive and some offensive moves. I wasn't that handy with a five-speed, but because most of our cars were automatic, it wasn't a priority for a few more years.
I will never forget my first in-car class at driver's ed: my instructor was somewhat rotund, his hear greased with a product that left a dark stain on the passenger ceiling, where it made contact. He had a perpetual Tootsie Pop in his mouth, as though he was trying to give up smoking.
The other two students with us had never been behind the wheel of a car before. He took them first, letting them get the hang of the controls, learn the sensitivity of the gas pedal and the brake in the back parking lot at Sir Robert Borden High School.
When it was my turn, I said very little. I got behind the wheel and adjusted the seat, made sure that the mirrors were adjusted like my father had shown me. Buckled up. Shoulder checks. Foot on brake, gear engaged.
I pulled ahead slowly but confidently. Turned corners making shoulder checks and applying the correct signal.
It took less than a minute for my instructor to tell me to pull over. I placed the car in Park and turned to face him.
"How long have you been doing this?" he asked me.
I told him about how I would sit on my father's lap until I was tall enough to drive without his assistance. "At least three years," I concluded.
He had me take the car onto Greenbank Road for a short distance, when we then turned onto Craig Henry Drive and onto the side streets. He told me that there wasn't much he could teach me.
In subsequent lessons, he took the other students through the basics, preparing them for their driving test. When he let me drive, he would have me run errands: to the stores, to pick up audio cassettes at a friend's house.
I was his mule, but at the same time, I knew that I had nothing to worry about when my driver's test came.
Thirty-six years later, my first-born is looking to starting her driver's lesson. A few years ago, I offered to show her the basics of the car, to see if she wanted to try driving. She wasn't interested. Last week, I had her sit behind the wheel, get her familiar with positioning herself properly, knowing what the controls did, had her start the car, move it back and fourth in the driveway.
For her birthday, I was willing to take her to a vacant parking lot, let her drive the car in advance of her first lesson. She said thanks, but no.
Her sister, however, asked if I would take the time to do it with her.
How could I say no?
I think about how my eldest child will soon be driving, and it wakes me like a cold bucket of water over my head. She has grown into a wonderful young woman, just as precious to me as the day that I carried her from the delivery room to the special care unit. And even though I'm just as scared, I know that she's going to be just as fine as she was on her first day in this world.