Driving on the Horizon: One Story of Parenting a Teen As a Visually Impaired Mother

The reality any parent will tell you is this: as children become teens, their abilities grow along with their independence. We must be there to guide but also to accept and take pride in their accomplishments. I did not expect the bittersweet reality of my daughter’s driving to overwhelm me as it did, but perhaps this story will reassure others that what you are feeling is normal.

One hand holding a car key over another hand

Driving on the Horizon: One Story of Parenting a Teen

“You can come with us, Mom, but don’t freak out, because if you do, so will I.” These grudging words pave our way to my daughter Sophia’s third driving experience.

The sapphire dusk is unseasonably warm for February but uncannily quiet. “It’s different out here in the dark,” Sophia manages just before her father Jeff grunts in agreement and reminds her, “Turn signal, even in a court.” Gracie, our family car, begins blinking in agreement as our daughter obeys.

As we continue towards a more trafficked road, Jeff punctuates the journey at hand; “Right up here. Remember to stop. Look left a second time before you cross.” I tense as I recall reports from their last lesson—another driver was tailgating Sophia; passing her, narrowly missed by an oncoming vehicle; and minutes later, the urgent need to brake as two dogs began playing in the middle of the road. The “Student Driver” sign wouldn’t have helped, at least not with the dogs.

The UC San Diego driving simulator

I shudder along with the wheels rattling over the railroad tracks. Things are quiet, too quiet. But how many hundreds of times have we bounced over this crossing in six years living in our nearby development without my even taking heed? I am often amazed as a driver notices the slightest whirr, rattle, or shimmy out of the ordinary. This astonishment finds its match only when I note this same driver’s oblivion to the call of a red-winged black bird along our way, which to me is the billboard of marshy joy that we pass by and cannot claim.

Eternal passenger as someone blind from birth, I used to believe the popular assumption that my hearing was better, and while I still agree that it is more focused than for most people whose eyes see what I gather with my ears, this driving lesson shows me that it is only a question of perspective, of what we choose to attend to.

“Slower now, someone coming. Now go ahead, either lane, and go half way around the traffic circle then easy over,” Jeff intones. Sophia is precise in her following. Gracie slices as smoothly through this curving orbit as the motor boat I once steered on a calm lake.

“Great job,” I breathe. It is my first comment. And I am surprised when Sophia answers me, “Really? Cool!”

My quiet is purposeful considering the myriad issues this fledgling must keep in mind as she approaches America’s most important rite of passage for a teen. Traffic lights beam their orders along the spectrum of stop and go and, to my relief, Sophia obeys. “I just figured it out, Dad—I have to let up a tiny bit on the brake, so we don’t pull back on the stop.”

“Right, that’s right,” Jeff replies. Even in his three words, pride edges in. “I knew you’d figure that out.” Suddenly his tone changes to the boss, the Dad. “Now, stay in the middle. You’re going right, and you’re going to bump into that car right there!” My stomach lurches as I feel a swerve, though I have never been car sick. I know now is most definitely not the time!

Mercifully, perhaps, a childhood memory clogs my road-ward concentration. “Keep the Middle Way!” The voice is a man’s preserved on the taped version of “Greek Gods and Heroes” I had listened to until I had it memorized at age six. The myth is that of Daedalus and Icarus. The master maker of wings is talking to his son to fly neither too high nor too low in his escape from the maze in which these two have been imprisoned. Why do I remember this now, and why do my shoulders contract as though their own burden is too heavy tonight? I try to shake the myth with its tragic ending when Icarus ignores Daedalus’ wise advice by flying too high. But I can virtually feel the wax holding high his wings melting before he falls helplessly to his death in the sea.

True to her Greek name meaning Wisdom, Sophia attempts to do as her father turned teacher is commanding her, no teen objections. Again, then again, he lets her know that she is straying to the right, where Gracie’s wheels snicker over rough pavement, or that her hands are crossing the steering wheel needlessly and, to boot, that she must not stray left to clear a right turn. From this sightless back seat, my breath comes short.

A final test—Sophia must back out of a driveway when she finds that there is no exit from a cul-de-sac. “Just shift, just feel the gutter curb at your wheels and turn. It won’t be bad,” he says.

“Not unless I hit the mailbox,” Sophia mutters, but I can already feel Gracie gentling from her frontward sweep.

Again, my mind is transported back through time. “It’s the number five, number five, number five!” Sophia shouts and starts jumping up and down. “I can read it now, Mama. It’s coming!” Small right hand raised to meet my left, Sophia is reaching for me as we ascend the bus steps and board together on our way home from her preschool. Both of us laugh as a fat drop of rain splatters on my nose; I have forgotten the umbrella. Together we are rejoicing that the bus has come so quickly. We know we’ll be home soon now.

The days of mutual barring from this art we call driving are to be ours no more, I realize in the dusk. In fact, like many in our city, Sophia may never even ride another bus.

Somehow Gracie and Sophia negotiate their way home. I open my door upon the stereophonic click of four locks freeing themselves; Sophia has remembered to put the gear in park. Something makes me walk to her side of the car. I raise my right hand, then my left, and we give each other a double high-five. The keys in her right hand embed a notch in my left palm that will not disappear for several minutes. “Good job, Mama,” I tell her, imitating the beloved phrase she used to say to me when she thought I had done something wonderful.

But as I turn away, my smile fades. I cannot shake this tingling of pride in her accomplishments, and this pulsing sorrow that soon now a final divide nearly universal in 21st century America will come between us—that of the sightless and unlicensed versus the keen-eyed masters of the road. “Good job, Mama,” I repeat to myself as I enter the familiar house.

“Hey, Mom, come here,” Sophia calls after we have taken off our coats. “I forgot to give this to you for your birthday.” In my hand, I find a small tablet, spiral bound. On each page is written one promise: “Good for one back massage, breakfast in bed, reading session.” But the last coupon reads, “Good for one taxi ride.”

“Well, maybe not quite yet,” I reply as I close the tiny notebook.

“Sophia laughs. “Well duh, Mom. But soon now. Won’t it be fun?”

Elizabeth Sammons is proud to report that five years after the writing of this article, Sophia’s driving record remains unblemished, and many road trips have forged joyful memories for mother and daughter alike.

Raising Children As a Parent with Vision Loss

Introduction to Blind Parenting Series

How Congenital Vision Loss Affects Motherhood

Chaperoning a Field Trip with My Sighted Child