Friday, November 06, 2015

The view from the back seat

(This is my Undercurrents column for The News Herald this week.)

PANAMA CITY BEACH — It has been a week of highs and lows, as life tends to be — and pretty clearly illustrated, at least in part, by the perspectives attained according to where I sat in a moving vehicle.

Buckle up.

Saturday, my wife and I drove to Tallahassee to be with our daughter for her birthday, then traveled with her and her boyfriend to Thomasville, Ga., for a daytrip. The old downtown has been revitalized with boutiques, restaurants, a theater, a bookstore, a record shop — even a cupcakery and a fudge shop. We strolled the brick and concrete walks, sampled the local flavors, admired the old architecture. We laughed a lot.

I rode in the front passenger’s seat with my teeth clenched as my daughter’s boyfriend drove like he was auditioning for “Fast & Furious 8.” At one point, a piece of brown cardboard blown into the highway from the right caused him to swerve — I had seen it coming, but he thought it was an animal.

Sunday, we attended the wedding of my son’s best friend in Jacksonville; it took place at a waterside venue, by an old Florida woodframe house under oak trees strung with white lights. Bride and groom were funny and beautiful, and the event felt like a family reunion — everyone was genuinely happy to see everyone else. Afterward came dining, dancing (yes, even me), speeches, and tears of joy all around. My son caught the garter.

I drove most of the way there, but was relegated to the back seat for the trip home, sleeping the sleep of the just, the exhausted, the old. I’m not built for snoozing in a Corolla, but I managed. Pulling back into Tallahassee near midnight was like rolling into a dream — the streets were vaguely familiar, just turned the wrong ways and strangely lit, and even my daughter had trouble recognizing them.

“I’ve never come into town from this direction at night,” she explained.

We next jaunted to Pensacola, where I visited my father in the hospital and then traveled with him to Atmore, Ala., where he was moving for physical therapy. On that trip, I took the back seat again as my wife drove and Dad perched in the front passenger seat. I joked about being the backseat driver, then tried to give my wife directions. Dad chuckled and looked out the window.

That’s when it finally struck me and the mental airbags deployed.

I thought of my own children, of their years in the back seat, looking forward and reading my temper or humor by the bulge of a grinning cheek, set of a clenched jaw, or crinkle of the skin at the corner of my eye. Watching my hairline recede from the center outward.

I couldn’t tell you how many thousands of roadtrips I’ve taken with my father over the decades, covering hundreds of thousands of miles. Short hops to the grocery store, to church, to school, to Grandma’s  house and a million other places. Longer slogs to Orlando, or Cleveland, or Stone Mountain or wherever.

And I couldn’t begin to guess how often I saw him from a similar angle as I was growing up — sitting in the back seat and watching him scan the road as he drove or rode shotgun with someone else. Yet, I had never seen him from quite this perspective ever before. Exhausted, weak, at the mercy of a body and brain suffering from brutal and random tribulation.

Memories and that moment in time collided, the weight of those intervening decades like a yoke on my back, and I wondered what it must be like for him, relegated for a time to being a backseat passenger in his own life.

My advice is to take the wheel while you can, but from time to time, be willing to occupy a back seat and view the world from that perspective. Remind yourself how it feels to follow, to have to trust another’s ability to navigate the miles of rough road ahead.

And don’t forget to buckle up.


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