The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - NEWS - Justin Mah lives in Burn­aby, B.C.

At 35, driv­ing lessons with my fa­ther be­came pre­cious mo­ments, Justin Mah writes

The time that I spent side-by-side with my fa­ther in his Corolla were pre­cious mo­ments that had not tran­spired dur­ing the years he strug­gled with men­tal ill­ness.

Driv­ing lessons don’t usu­ally bring a fa­ther and son to­gether. Justin Mah got lucky

To­day’s First Per­son is part of a week-long se­ries on fa­ther­hood.

‘Let’s get you out on the road,” sug­gests my fa­ther, ca­su­ally, over green tea one lazy af­ter­noon. By hap­pen­stance, he had re­cently ac­quired a late-nineties, tan-coloured Toy­ota Corolla.

The of­fer, in the mo­ment, catches me off guard and awak­ens long-buried inse­cu­rity, then a cas­cade of nag­ging self-talk: of be­ing in­fe­rior, less than, not yet fully an adult. Liv­ing in Vancouver, I never learned how to drive. For car trips, I’d com­pen­sated through­out the years by act­ing as “road-trip nav­i­ga­tor” and would re­turn the kind­ness by de­liv­er­ing a well-cooked meal – the one adult skill I man­aged to hone in my teenage years be­ing the el­dest of three sib­lings in a sin­gle-par­ent home.

In a few months, I’d be turn­ing 35. It was Jan­uary, the dead of win­ter and, like the skele­tal-look­ing cherry trees lin­ing my neigh­bour­hood, I, too, felt made bare. Not only did I not know how to drive, but my ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship had un­ex­pect­edly sev­ered and a sta­ble, well­pay­ing job had been re­cently shed.

Such ups-and-downs are hardly unique and my fa­ther, for one, has cer­tainly en­coun­tered his fair share. As a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Chi­nese kid, he faced dis­crim­i­na­tion and was raised by par­ents who, in their own per­sonal tur­bu­lence and ne­glect­ful­ness, left their chil­dren emo­tion­ally ille­quipped for the road ahead. As he light-heart­edly tells it, my fa­ther taught him­self to drive on the sly when he was 19 and drove him­self to his driv­ing test with an in­jured left hand, arm cast clearly vis­i­ble. Years later, di­vorce fol­lowed by in­ca­pac­i­tat­ing men­tal ill­ness wreaked havoc in his and all of our lives. I was the old­est; I learned to be re­silient. The motto my fa­ther in­stilled be­fore his ill­ness – “Slow and steady wins the race” – were words I hung onto in his ab­sence.

I was hes­i­tant to get be­hind the wheel, but it was time. “Let’s hit the road!” I agreed.

When my fa­ther ar­rives a few weeks later, I throw my re­flec­tive red “L” (for Learners) sign onto the back of the car be­fore step­ping into the driver’s seat for the first time.

Well, not quite ex­actly the first time. Some­times, as a child, when we neared our East Vancouver home, he would ges­ture that it was safe to shuf­fle onto his lap and take the steer­ing wheel. We’d pre­tend our peb­bled drive­way was the Bat­cave, the beat-up, rusted Honda Civic our Bat­mo­bile. Press­ing down on the ac­cel­er­a­tor, we’d ca­reer our way into our se­cret hide­away and screech to a halt, the dis­cernible crunch of gravel below. I re­call the en­gine’s power, the warmth of my fa­ther’s work­ing hands over mine, the al­lure of speed and mo­tion – it was a balm of adult­hood and imag­i­na­tive play wo­ven into one.

“You’ll prob­a­bly want to move the seat back,” my fa­ther says be­fore I start my first les­son. As I cau­tiously pull out onto the side street, I half-hold back a laugh, re­al­iz­ing I’ve for­got­ten to put on my seat­belt. My fa­ther chuck­les in re­turn. As I fa­mil­iar­ize my­self with the chore­og­ra­phy of turn­ing, and the tim­ing re­quired while ap­ply­ing the ac­cel­er­a­tor and brakes, I pic­ture my­self ap­pear­ing any­thing but grace­ful. My brain is spin­ning in over­drive, do­ing its ut­most to process all the stim­uli – to, quite sim­ply, not crash and burn. Glanc­ing ap­pre­hen­sively over at my fa­ther, I’m deeply sur­prised to see only a sea of calm across his face de­spite the in­ter­mit­tent lurches; my worked-up em­bar­rass­ment dis­si­pates.

“How am I do­ing,” I con­tin­u­ally ask any­way. “Am I too far on the left?”

“You do­ing just fine,” he replies in a soft, re­as­sur­ing voice be­fore reach­ing over and flick­ing on the wind­shield wipers as rain be­gins to fall.

When we get back to the house, I thank him, nerves still jit­tery but feel­ing elated. He ex­tends his arm out for a hug and, be­fore he de­parts, we co-or­di­nate my next les­son.

So be­gan my lessons, grad­u­at­ing from park­ing lots and side streets, nary a ve­hi­cle in sight, to main streets, to high­ways and, fi­nally, free­ways. I put off par­al­lel park­ing till I couldn’t any longer. In the weeks and months that fol­lowed, my driv­ing be­came more seamless and my fa­ther eased up on in­struc­tion, leav­ing the de­ci­sion-mak­ing in my hands, a sub­tle trans­fer of trust that made me feel closer to my fa­ther than I’d felt in years.

Our meet­ings even­tu­ally be­come less about driv­ing and more about the er­rands my fa­ther needs to run that day: a trip to Burn­aby’s re­cy­cling de­pot, a jaunt to Michaels for paint­ing sup­plies, a lunch date with my younger brother. As my driv­ing skills be­come fused into mus­cle-mem­ory, I no­tice so many im­pa­tient driv­ers hur­ry­ing to their des­ti­na­tion. Why such haste? What do we lose when we pick up speed?

It has al­ways as­ton­ished me how time can be vast and anvil-heavy one mo­ment, feather-light and pass­ing in a blink in an­other. Time had sneak­ily found a way to slip by this time – here I was, in my 30s, learn­ing to drive. And the time that I spent sideby-side with my fa­ther in his Corolla were pre­cious mo­ments that had not tran­spired dur­ing the years he strug­gled with men­tal ill­ness: I am grate­ful he per­se­vered and came back to me.

Head­ing down the road in the driver’s seat, my fa­ther com­fort­ably in the pas­sen­ger seat, I glance at the cherry trees lin­ing the street and note that the buds are peel­ing at the seams, any day now, on the verge of sprout­ing. Turn­ing to­ward my fa­ther, I feel my grat­i­tude swell: There’s an open road in front of us.


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