I put on my left turn signal as I pulled up to the light outside the gate of my children’s school. In the midst of after school screams and carpool meltdowns, the act of flipping that blinker triggered a memory almost twenty years old.
I was clenching the steering wheel of my Dad’s 98 Oldsmobile so hard my knuckles were white.
“Turn on your blinker,” he said as I merged into the left turn lane.
My heart was beating in time with the blinker and I had to remember to breathe. I slammed on the breaks a little too hard, slinging my father forward in his seat. He braced himself on the dashboard and I released the steering wheel, letting blood rush back into my fingers as I let out a sigh, “I hate this.”
“Hate what? Driving?” He asked.
“No, I like driving— I hate turning left across four lanes of traffic. It’s so scary. I’m always afraid I’m going to hit somebody.”
It wasn’t my first time behind the wheel. My parents would take me to an abandoned airport and sit in the passenger sit with no cell phone to play on, no internet to surf and let me drive until I got bored. On Sundays I always ran to get in my dad’s car after church because I knew two things: 1) We would take the long way home, and 2) He would let me sit in his lap and drive.
He’d pull over on the side of the road, back his seat up as far as it would go and I’d climb onto his lap. I’d drive his tank of a car while he worked the gas and the breaks. My legs weren’t long enough to reach the pedals until I was almost 13 years old. He wasn’t in a hurry to get home, we’d cruise down side streets and our long potholed driveway at a comfortable five miles per hour.
But I finally had my learner’s permit and it was time to hit the open road.
“Light’s green,” my dad prompted me.
I hit the gas a little too hard and we screeched through the intersection, I flinched as other cars turned on my right hand side, certain that they would hit us. My shoulders relaxed and my grip on the steering wheel loosened as I straightened the wheel with relief. I was so glad that was over. We approached the next light.
“Put on your blinker,” he instructed.
“Huh? Why? Where are we going?”
“Put on your left blinker and get in the turn lane.”
I was incredulous but did as I was told. After another left-hand turn I glanced at my father. He pushed his wire-rimmed glasses up on the bridge of his nose, “Do it again.”
“Left blinker.” He said.
“Why are you doing this to me!? I told you I was scared of this!”
“Exactly. Do it again.”
With tears welling in my eyes I put my left blinker on and made the turn. At the next light I didn’t even wait for his instructions, I put on my left blinker, merged into the lane and turned.
What was wrong with him? He was supposed to protect me and help me, not terrorize me by exploiting my greatest fear. We traveled around my hometown for hours that afternoon, one left-handed turn at a time.
With each turn my anxiety decreased and by the time we got home I was more irritated at my father than I was afraid of driving.
As a parent myself, I can now recognize the gift my daddy gave me that day. He made me face my biggest fear while he was sitting beside me talking me through each turn. He took the opportunity to stand with me while I conquered a fear instead of letting me face it alone.
The sounds of my children in the back seat interrupt the rhythm of the blinker and my daydream. As I turn left across four lanes of traffic, I think of him sitting in the passenger seat determined that I could do anything without being afraid.
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