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.