Heading south on I-77 the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I had what I call the Fancy Gap Dilemma.
I’d been driving for many hours. A heavy mist erased the lanes. Paired with the early dark of winter, the mountains would have been invisible but for the ups and downs of the road and often sharp curves. The truckers seemed careful, but car after car or more precisely SUV after SUV roared past in an oily, reckless spray.
I could feel myself starting to wink out. Not sleeping, mind you, but those split-second lapses in concentration that signal exhaustion. I had a spare driver, my 16-year-old son. He’s careful and considerate, and had already logged many miles over the flat plains of Indiana.
But was he ready for some serious motoring? Some scary, potentially catastrophic, windy wet mountain road in the dark master class? That’s when interstate traffic ground to a halt. WAZE delivered the bad news. The jam would add hours to our already long trip.
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Then the Fancy Gap exit sign materialized out of the fog.
Have you taken what’s sometimes the best short cut to the Triangle? Its a swirling two-lane rollercoaster ride into the forest above Mount Airy, with sudden drops, hairpin turns and trees that seem to claw out of some fairy tale nightmare. Eventually, you reach I-40, an oasis of light.
Here’s my dilemma. Was I ready to turn the wheel over to my child at the top of that wild ride?
My teen is smart, capable, (mostly) responsible, perhaps a little loungey and distracted but basically sound. Especially when he’s not in my field of vision, he tends to impress other adults with his politeness and maturity. I know he’s a decent driver.
But was he ready for Fancy Gap? I mean, this route is terrifically hard. Without question, the route was beyond his current ability.
But how else do we learn? Some of my most lasting lessons sank in when my reach exceeded my grasp, and yet I grasped anyway. As a parent, my dilemma is more than a drive or a metaphor.
The dribs and drabs I hear about high school often leave me feeling gut-punched. Bomb threats, knives and contentious Confederate flags; plentiful weed and fire sales of prescription drugs advertised through Twitter direct message and Snap Chat; and midnight, drunken rides home after parties where the parents were present yet unaware of what was going on in the back yard or the back bedroom.
It’s a lot to navigate. A lot of twists and turns and too many stretches of treacherous, slick road.
As a new parent, I felt the dread of doing something that might maim or even kill my infant. Then I bought all of the products frantic Moms and Dads buy to protect their toddlers from sharp corners, outlets, drawers and stairs.
Years passed. I don’t know if I got better at parenting or at suppressing my all too rational fears. One child is successfully launched with nary a scar or even a cavity. The other, this boy, only sports the nick in the forehead his sister (she claims unintentionally) gave him with the edge of a Razor scooter.
Parents don’t have to worry anymore about polio, small pox or whooping cough. But there’s no vaccine for current terrors. Today, we add school shootings to the list, a fanatic’s bomb or a wrong-way drunk driver on I-85 (of those, that last one’s still the most likely).
So when do you hand over the wheel? When do you know that they’re ready to make a journey no one can ever be totally prepared for? They learn on the way, I know that. But it’s hard to know just when to let go. I want my son to make it to adulthood, for so many parents these days a gift robbed through the madness of others.
That night, I hung on to the wheel well past when I should have. We gassed up in some grotty station just south of Greensboro (for some reason, such establishments seem numerous in our neighbor to the west). My son drove most of the way back to Durham, a little spooked but basically fine. When we finally dragged in through the back door at home, the welcome of the dog and cats was especially sweet. All was well. We’d dodged a fiery, soaked crash one more time.
I know I need to let go. I know we’ll be fine. Maybe, being a parent means you never really can release your kids. Its a gift, really, that Fancy Gap Dilemma. To know you still have that choice.
Next year, he’s definitely driving that road.
Robin Kirk, a writer and human rights advocate, teaches at Duke University. You can reach her at email@example.com
Kirk to publish book of poetry
Finishing Line Press announces the publication of Robin Kirk’s first poetry collection, “Peculiar Motion.”
Called “fierce” by noted poet Eliza Griswold, these 28 poems describe the arc of a life through first love to the encroaching realities of age.
Kirk is a regular contributor to the “My View” feature of the Durham News. She’s also a Duke University professor and former senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. She named the collection after the astronomical term describing the motion of galaxies.
“I came across the term when I was reading about the big bang theory and how the universe is expanding,” Kirk says. “But a few galaxies are actually moving inwards, against what the theory predicts. I thought this was a lovely metaphor for life. Things don’t always go according to plan and that’s what this collection is about.”
Those who wish to preorder books can contact the press directly firstname.lastname@example.org. The official release date is March 11, 2016.
Kirk will be reading from the collection in April 2016 at The Regulator Book Store in Durham, North Carolina.