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The Driver’s Test

April 23, 2021

Outlive Me

(from my book, Outlive Me, 2005)

As I tiptoe from bedroom to bedroom

Unable to sleep, I move closer

To my children’s faces,

Their ears cuddling the pillows,

Deep into their death-defying dreams,

Their breathing stops and starts,

The faint snoring of their hard-working

Chests rising and falling inward,

Their breaths rhythmically slowing.

My oldest daughter is taking her

Road test Saturday to get her license,

My son is due to graduate Wharton in

Less than three years and my youngest

Daughter is in the fifth day of her

Second period. She told me with

A voice of sadness

That she can’t go swimming

In “papa’s pool.” I want to tickle

Her armpits and wake her, let us

Listen to our iPod Shuffles

Together and forget that she

Will be Bat Mitzvah’d in two years.

Not even eleven years ago

She escaped from my wife’s womb,

Her screams bursting in the hospital

Room, the blood covering her eyelids.

I thanked everyone then, God

Mother Nature my wife the nurses

From this monumental moment,

This third and last miracle

Of my life. I pull up a chair

And gently kiss her cheek.

I wait and wait, thinking of the

Coldplay song Ilana loves,

“Don’t panic” which repeats and repeats

The words, “We live in a beautiful

World.” I can’t stop hearing it

And start singing in the faintest of breaths.

Marlee starts to stir, her eyelids

Fluttering, as if she could feel me

Hovering over her,

As if she could hear my prayer

As loud as I’m thinking it:

Outlive me.

Outlive me.

My daughter, Marlee, was desperate to get her driver’s license when she turned 16. She had been planning on it for over a year. At 15, she was acting already like a 25-year-old. Getting a license was going to be her ticket to freedom, to respect from her friends, to being in the next stage of her life.

It was September 2010 when we went to a Grosse Pointe Park Lincoln dealer to look at a 2009 black Mazda Tribute with only 10,532 miles, designed for her to drive. When we bought the car and brought it home, my wife, Judy, went to check it out and said, it smelled like cigarette smoke. She didn’t like it at all but to Marlee, it was the greatest car in the world and she was thrilled.

Marlee was a pretty good driver, like our oldest son, Kyle, and oldest daughter, Ilana before her. Marlee had a good knack of holding the wheel, stopping not too quickly, and not going too fast, while I was in the car with her. She did well in Driver’s Ed and I don’t remember how many times I went out driving with her. There were no near misses or anything that sticks out in my memory.

Everything was moving along for her to get her driver’s license right after her birthday. She was nervous and wanting so badly to make it. We drove to Mercy High School where the driver’s license instructor was stationed. I had her parallel park and back up in the cones there, always the hardest thing for me ever since I got my license in 1973.

Marlee and I got to Mercy High School early in the day on Saturday, February 13th, 3 days after her 16th birthday. We practiced parallel parking and backing up between the cones in the parking lot. Parallel parking is still the skill that I have the most trouble with, to this day. We practiced for a few minutes before the driver’s test woman came out to meet us. I remember her as a middle-aged black woman but I don’t remember much more that.

I got in the back seat and Marlee sat next to the driver’s ed tester. I was a little nervous but I had been in the car many times before with her and she was a competent driver. So we took off first down Eleven Mile Rd and then took a right on Orchard Lake Road. I knew what was coming next because I had sat for the same basic test with my son, Kyle, 9 years earlier and my daughter, Ilana, 3 years after Kyle. It had been about 6 years since I had to go through another driver’s test.

I knew where we were going. We turned right on the I696East interchange off of Orchard Lake Rd. Marlee stayed in the right lane and was able to keep up with the highway traffic. I thought that once she was able to pass this part of the test, the rest would be easy. We got off on the first exit, American Drive, went south to Eleven Mile Road and headed toward Middlebelt Road, back to Mercy High School. I figured we would just go straight through Inkster Road, where my brother Kenny lost his life over 28 years earlier, in a traffic accident with my father who was driving home from a Detroit Tigers baseball game. The passenger side of my father’s car was hit by a young woman who crossed a flashing red light, slamming into my father’s car. My father and brother were rushed into Beaumont Hospital and Kenny was declared dead a little after midnight on July 21, 1982.

Eleven Mile and Inkster was less than a half mile from where my parents lived.

A few blocks before Inkster, the driver’s license tester told Marlee to prepare to turn left. She slowly got into the left lane and I partially froze, knowing that this was the intersection that I almost always avoided since the 1982 accident. The time this took felt a lot longer than it was, as Marlee drifted into the left lane, ready to turn. But what happened next is still foggy in my mind.

There was oncoming traffic heading east on Eleven Mile Road. Marlee was preparing to turn left but when the traffic cleared, she didn’t turn. She didn’t move. The tester said “Marlee, turn.” She said again, “Marlee, turn,” slightly louder. Then she shouted, “Marlee, turn!”

I moved up in the back seat, with an instant dread, an instant thought, Not again! I then yelled from the back seat, “Marlee, turn!” A car was just about to go through the intersection, heading east, heading right into our car if Marlee turned. Suddenly, the car flinched ahead and Marlee put on the accelerator and turned, the approaching car slamming on the brakes to avoid the collision.

We were on Inkster, driving south away from 11 Mile Road. I could see the half-panic, half-relief stare of the driver’s tester and the look of panic and fear in Marlee. This was a teenage parent’s worst fear, his child unable to drive safely, unable to avoid a collision, and for me, it was like reliving the most horrible night of my life, when my little brother, Kenny, left his life after a horrendous accident, in the same intersection, over 28 years earlier.

The rest of the driver’s test came quickly as Marlee turned into a subdivision and calmly drove through a few turns down side streets and back to Eleven Mile Road, heading west to Mercy High School again.

After the driver’s tester told Marlee to pull into the parking lot and parallel park between two cones, I was almost okay, as my daughter seemed to get back to being a good driver. But when we stopped, the tester turned to Marlee and told her that “you know, I cannot give you a passing grade,” as you handled the intersection turn “poorly,” not turning when she needed to. The good news, she told Marlee, is that the test could be rescheduled in a week or two and if she did everything right, she would pass. “It was only a matter of time,” the lady said.

The trip home was awful, as Marlee cried nearly the entire time, saying that she couldn’t believe she didn’t get her license, that her life was over, as a license was all she ever wanted. I told her, all that was important was that she was safe, no one was hurt, no one was killed. We would practice again and she would probably do very well.

I wondered then…what was the meaning of the sudden stopping at Eleven and Inkster, the sudden slow-motion near-deadly near-miss test? Was Kenny saying to Marlee, be careful, pay attention, because if you don’t, you will die like I did? Was he saying to her, stop caring so much about something so trivial like a driver’s license, a license to drive the lethal weapon of a car? Or was all this just a coincidence that my brother played no part in?

Marlee told her mom that she was devastated, that she did not get her license, that she didn’t remember what happened, why she choked the way she did. A few minutes later, when Marlee went to her room to cry, I turned to my wife and said that this had been one of the scariest moments of my life, that I was scared that Marlee and I were going to be killed in the same spot that Kenny was.

The rest of the day stood in slow-motion, caught up in my mind’s eye, reliving the few moments of dread, of terror.

We drove again, Marlee and me, quiet and concentrating on the road. We went through the same route and she did well, turning exactly when she should, holding the wheel without fear, driving like she was an experienced driver. When she went back to take the test, she passed “with flying colors,” as the saying goes, flawless and fearless.

I prayed again when we went through that intersection, that Marlee would drive perfectly, that she would be safe, that she would always be safe. I prayed that Kenny had actually frightened her badly but made sure that she and I were okay. I prayed that Kenny was still around, that my little brother was with her ten years ago and is still with her today, insuring that my youngest daughter is safe, protected, that she is kept from the ultimate danger, that she will outlive me and live a long, long life, away from fear, far from pain, kept away from death as long, as long as she can.  

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