I tried in 2002, when I was 25, to get my license. My dad taught me to drive, and I spent more than thirty hours in practice that summer, but I failed the test twice--parallel parking mistakes, both times--and wasn't comfortable enough even then, so I didn't bother taking it a third time. In the summer of 2003, now 26, I tried again. I renewed my learner's permit and went out to drive with my dad a few more times. One evening, I didn't navigate a turn properly and almost hit an elderly male driver. I could have killed this poor man, not to mention my dad and myself. That was only about ten minutes into that evening's drive, but I turned the car toward home and never went driving with my dad again. I let my permit expire, and until last fall, that was the end of that. My parents tried to tell me to "get back on the horse," and my aunt Laurie continued, for the next few months, at least, to ask about my progress, but it would be eleven more years until I would try again. After awhile, no one asked or mentioned it anymore. It was just an awkwardly understood subject: Val Doesn't Drive, It Freaks Her Out. It was the one aspect of the entire trauma of Som's death that I wasn't able to work through and get past.
Until yesterday. ♥
In 2013, I decided that I was going to get my driver's license before the twentieth anniversary of Sommer's death, which will be March 1st of this year. I studied for my learners' permit--the written test--again, researched local driving schools and sent one a long email that September to tell my story and see if any of its instructors were up for the challenge of helping me.
"Please know," I warned toward the end of that first email, "that I don't get behind the wheel at all without thinking of [Sommer] and imagining her last moments, so this is still a tough road ahead of me." The founder of the driving school promptly wrote back to say that she would be honored to work with me and that another student of hers with a similar story had just gotten her license, and to please call so we could talk and arrange my first lesson. But I was still too scared, and I put it off another entire year. Another entire YEAR, you guys. Bah! And then I realized this past summer, now September 2014, and now 37 years old, that the twentieth anniversary of Sommer's death was only six months away and that if I didn't start now, I'd never get my license by then. And twenty years, it was now clear, was more than long enough to have this particular monkey on back. In a fit of bravery, I found myself calling Cindy--Just do it, before you chicken out--and before I knew it, we were talking and laughing and had made appointments for my first two lessons. I quickly renewed my permit yet again, rewarded these small acts of courage with a bouquet of pink roses--the pink roses would become a tradition throughout this process--and hoped and prayed that I could somehow make it happen this time.
My first driving lesson with the wonderful Cindy from the driving school was September 23rd of 2014. I hadn't told anyone--not my parents, neither of my brothers, none of my friends, not even Mike--that I was attempting to get my license, so no one knew--until yesterday! ♥--that any of this was happening. No pressure for me that way--or no additional pressure, I should say, and much less stress. I met Cindy in a neighborhood store's parking lot (after Mike had "safely" left for work), and she immediately had me sit in the driver's seat. That alone was sickeningly scary to me. To anyone walking past us as we sat inside this car in the store parking lot, it was just a student having a lesson with a driving school instructor. I knew, though, that I was terrified that I was going to die in a car accident during this first lesson and had actually written a goodbye letter to Mike and left it on our dining table for him. I was that scared. After reviewing the controls and features of her car, Cindy had me drive around the neighborhood to see how much I'd retained from 2002 and 2003. "You're doing beautifully," she encouraged me and added that it was clear that I'd retained a lot of what I'd learned with my dad twelve years prior. "Usually during a first session, the student's veering all over the road and stopping and starting really abruptly and the whole car's bucking and jerking. You're doing none of that." As in 2002 and 2003, though, my driving may have looked okay to the people in the car with me, but I myself felt nauseous with fear. "I feel like I'm going to cry," I confessed, and Cindy asked if I wanted to pull over. "You won't be the first student who's needed to stop and cry," she reassured me. I didn't stop and cry right then, though. I waited until I got home. :) And I forced myself out again for a second lesson that same week. I rewarded myself for those first two lessons with another bouquet of pink roses, and I scheduled another session for October.
On Halloween, my third time out with Cindy, I drove on the parkway for the first time. I drove on the parkway! And drove in rain (and on wet leaves) for the first time. And through a restaurant drive-through for the first time. (Cindy wanted a diet Coke.) :) And drove through my first roundabout. All the cars in Cindy's driving school are equipped with accelerator and brakes on the instructor's/passenger's side too, and I think knowing that if I couldn't control the car, the instructor could, is one of the biggest factors in my success at learning to drive this time. With some of that specific fear finally removed, I was finally able to absorb what I was learning instead of going through the motions while really focused instead on the Oh-my-God-it-will-be-just-like-what-happened-to-Sommer-I'm-going-to-kill-someone-this-is-life-and-death-it-will-happen-again-because-of-me-this-time the way I had been in 2002 and 2003. "I've got you," Cindy would remind me. "I'm right here." When I returned home from that session Halloween afternoon, I wrote in my journal: "It started raining as I was getting ready to meet Cindy, which added to my anxiety--I was almost nauseous before this lesson--but now I'm glad it was raining because it makes me feel that much braver and that much more accomplished. Today changed things. I can picture myself really driving after today. It's going to happen this time, it really is." I ended that journal entry by doodling a driver's license cake,
and it would be a vision I would hold on to, some positive visualization of the celebratory cake I was determined to make the day I finally got my license. And after this lesson, I treated myself to a small china bowl with pink roses I found at Goodwill, a twist on the pink roses tradition for this turning point in the process.
In November, I had two more lessons, one being a review of parallel parking and the other my first official highway lesson during which I drove to the airport and back. Cindy told me then that if I were to take my driver's exam that day, she thought I had a pretty good chance of passing it. She would still want more time to do a mock driver's exam with me, but this was the first time she had mentioned my being even somewhat ready for the test. Later that month, I dreamed that my older brother and I were in a car and I was driving us somewhere, and we were laughing and talking while I drove. This is the first "driving dream" I'd ever had that wasn't a nightmare, and when I woke from it, I realized I wasn't afraid to drive anymore: That stage of my life had ended. ♥
My sixth lesson was December 19th and was, indeed, preparation for the exam. (Gah! I'm really doing this!) And on December 21st, I decided to (be optimistic! and) go ahead and schedule it. Unlike in 2002, the Department of Motor Vehicles now has a road test-scheduling feature on their website--no more walking in and taking a number as I had before--so I was soon scheduled to take the exam the morning of January 6th. I spent Christmas and New Year's sick with dread, although Cindy said I was ready now. And finally, after four months of "sneaking around" and keeping all this a secret, I told Mike what I'd been up to. I still didn't want to tell him, but Cindy had said that she was going to pick me up at 6 am--6 am!--the morning of my exam so that we could repeatedly run through the road test route and practice in the DMV's official parallel parking space--it is off-limits during business hours for anyone not taking the exam--before my test, and I couldn't come up with a "story" for why I would be leaving at 6 am, so I finally had to tell him the truth. On January 3rd, I had my final lesson with Cindy--more test preparation--and I mentioned while we drove around the DMV lot that a storm was supposed to hit in the next few days. "Ugh!" she groaned, then added, "Do you want to see if they'll just let you take your test today instead? They might be able to squeeze you in." I didn't like what I was wearing, though, and I knew that if I passed the test that day, that would be my outfit on my driver's license for the next few years, so I told her I'd wait for January 6th. And then I laughed as I realized that if that was my reason for not wanting to take the exam, I really was finally ready for it. :) The city was hit with snow and ice the night before my exam, though, and in the wee hours of the morning, I texted Cindy to let her know I wanted to reschedule it. I hadn't driven on snow or ice before, and the idea of doing so for the first time the day of my driver's exam didn't thrill me. Later that day, I rescheduled my exam for 8:30 am January 27th, and I've spent the past few weeks alternating between nausea and panic and tears as the clock has counted down to Test Time.
I got absolutely no sleep--not a single second--Monday night. The city, like much of the northeast, was hit with a mess of snow, and Cindy had told me to let her know by 4:45 am at the latest whether I wanted to cancel or take the test. All night, I wondered what I would decide. At 4:02 yesterday morning, I sent her a text message: "Unless you think the roads are too bad, I will try the test today." I figured that even if I didn't pass the exam, at least I could consider it a driving-in-snow lesson. (I had still never driven in snow.) And Sommer's birthday was last week, and part of me wanted to do it this month for her, as a gift of sorts. And I was just tired of having this dread hanging over my head since December 21st. And a defiant damn-it-I'm-going-to-DO-this part of me had begun to burn: I wanted it. Wearing a locket with a favorite photo of me and Sommer inside, and carrying Dad's handmade fishing lure in my bag as a good luck charm, since he had been my first driving teacher, I woke Mike at 5:45 yesterday morning to tell him that Cindy was here and I was leaving. "Hopefully, we'll be having a celebration cake tonight," I told him as we hugged goodbye.
Although Cindy did not agree with me, the practice before the exam was horrible. I messed up something every single time I tried to parallel park--and the parallel parking is what had thwarted my first two attempts to pass the test in 2002. I repeatedly drove the route well, but I only managed to try to parallel park correctly over and over and over again right until 8:24 am when Cindy said I really needed to go inside to check in and start the test. The man who would be my examiner asked me to sign my name at the check-in desk, and my hand was actually shaking. Then my arms started shaking. The examiner tried to joke with me--"That's a nice Irish name," he said sarcastically as he looked at my signature--but I was so nervous and nauseous, I could barely smile at him and was just trying not to cry. I turned to Cindy and whispered, "Cindy, I'm SHAKING. Even my ARMS. What am I going to DO?" She said I would be fine and tried to distract me by showing me some vacation photos on her phone, but I have rarely been as big of a mess as I was in the moments before the exam began. I couldn't bring myself to make eye contact with Cindy again as the examiner and I headed outside, but Cindy told him as we walked past, "Val's good. She is. She's ready." Cindy, Cindy, Cindy. :) ♥ The examiner walked out to the car with me and said that I could start the car and get situated for a second because he needed to walk down to the lot's parallel parking space to make sure the cones were set up properly and the space wasn't too messy from the snowstorm, since I was the first exam of the day. While he checked out the space, I got myself sorted out in the car and prayed--and to Sommer specifically--for courage and calm. I have to do this this time, please help me, I just have to do this, I need to pass this and get on with my life, I need this stage to be over, I need to pass this, please, PLEASE. . . .The examiner returned, and after he was done explaining a few things about the exam, I told him, "I'm almost forty years old, I hate being this nervous!" He looked stunned and said that he hadn't realized that I was that nervous. "You hide it really well," he added. Ha! (Cindy said later that he told her the same thing about me after the exam, while they were waiting for me to come back inside: He wouldn't have known that I was nervous at all if I hadn't mentioned it. To me, it was beyond obvious, but apparently not.) And then, just like that, just like a switch had been flipped, all my nervousness went away, and I thought, I've got this. It was like I could see the entire test and day before me--Val passing the exam, Val posing for elated pictures with Cindy after the exam, Val at the grocery store buying ingredients for her celebration cake after the exam--like it had already happened. I've never felt such a strange and sudden calm.
I demonstrated all the vehicle controls correctly, the examiner got into the car and asked me to use the horn and windshield wipers for the final part of the vehicle controls section of the exam, and then I backed up--dodging a snowplow driver who was a little too close to our car for comfort--and drove us down to the parallel parking space. Before putting the car into reverse, I took a second to think through the steps, and then I did it. I just did it, as smoothly as an expert driver in a driver education video. I just did it. I asked the examiner if he wanted me to apply the parking brake "just to be official," and he said no, and then he added, "I actually just want to sit here and savor this a minute because I know I'm not going to see anyone else do as good of a job parallel parking the rest of the day." ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ♥ I calmly thanked him--although I felt like cheering and giddily clapping my hands--and off we went for the road test part of the exam. Part of the route was a snowy and somewhat slippery hill, now in even worse shape than when I had practiced on it with Cindy just minutes earlier, but I controlled the car well, and the examiner complimented me on that too. "As long as YOU know that I've come to a full stop here. . ." I said at two different stop signs, "But I'm going to have to inch forward a bit. I can't see anything." As if the examiner didn't understand how to drive and wouldn't have comprehended such amazingly advanced skills. ;) But I wanted to make sure that he knew that I knew. . . since he had warned me before the exam that he is a "stickler for stop signs." "Of course," he replied both times. "You do whatever you need to do to drive safely, especially in these conditions." While waiting for traffic to clear at another point so I could make a left turn, another driver flashed his lights to signal that he was letting me go, and when the the examiner saw that, he quietly said, "Oh, NICE." :) He was mild-mannered and quiet and the perfect fit for me for the exam. 'Back onto the main road, and thank God, no icy patches on it--just snow and slush. Before I knew it, I was pulling back into the DMV lot and parking the car. The exam was over. And after twenty years of being terrified of all things driving-related, I was told that I had passed my test and could go inside to get my picture taken for my license.
On no sleep, in the city, and on my first day ever driving on snow, I got my driver's license. ♥
|Click to enlarge. :)|
My examiner kindly took a couple pictures of me with Cindy before he began the next person's test,
and a card I'd drawn to look like a license plate.
On the way home, Cindy said that maybe it was Sommer who had "magically" calmed me down as the exam began, and I have to agree. She also admitted that while she had believed I would be fine and would pass the exam, she had also been really nervous for me (with my trembling hands and arms) right before it: "I've been doing this so long, I don't really get nervous anymore when my students take their tests, but I was almost SICK over you!" she told me, and we laughed over her "You make me sick, Val!" for awhile. After more picture-taking and some goodbye-hugging, Cindy dropped me off, and I soon found myself in the grocery store, just as I'd envisioned, buying ingredients for my celebratory cake--this one is a Hershey's recipe actually named Celebration Chocolate Cake. I couldn't stop sneaking peaks at my driver's license--"my driver's license," I just wrote! I have a driver's license! ♥--as I walked around the store.
Back at the apartment, I immediately called my dad. ♥ I mentioned his good luck fishing lure, of course. And I sent messages to my brothers and their wives. My secret was now out! I answered text messages and phone calls and emails as I baked my cake, crying again as I reread that first message I'd sent to Mike right after the exam.
Oh, life is so sweet some days. So perfect and down-to-the-last-detail SWEET. ♥ After all three cake layers were out of the oven, I took an hour-long nap--my first sleep in twenty-nine hours---and woke to a congratulatory phone call from my mom after she'd gotten home from work. She couldn't believe I'd kept it a secret, and for so long, and that even Mike hadn't known until I scheduled the exam. She sounded just as shocked by my accomplishment when we said goodbye as she had when we'd said hello. :) She doesn't even drive in the snow, so she was really quite stunned by all the story's details. :)
And finally, after supper last night--Mike ordered an extra-cheese pizza with mushrooms, my favorite--I got to enjoy the cake I'd begun drawing sketches of months before. Positive visualization at its finest. ♥ To complete the roses tradition, I used the pink roses tablecloth I'd been saving for this occasion. And was in bed by 9 pm, for the best sleep I've gotten since before I'd scheduled the exam last month. :) Ahhhhh! I did it! Six days after Sommer's birthday and with just five weeks remaining before the twenty-year mark of her death, I did it! Mike and I don't have a car--we can walk or take the bus to everything we need in the city--so for now, the driver's license is more a symbolic gesture and an accomplishment than it is everyday joy rides, but I told Cindy I would continue to schedule sessions with her just to get more/regular driving practice, and sometime this spring or summer, I want to rent a car and drive home to my family for the first time. One step at a time. Today, I'm still basking in the accomplishment, marveling at yesterday's sudden serenity, and looking forward to another piece of my cake. ♥ I did it!