I was 36 years old when I bought my first car. I was about to spend the summer volunteering at Kripalu, where public transit was not an option. Newly unemployed, I asked my father to help me find a reliable used car. In less than a week, he spotted his choice: a 1989 Honda Civic.
I trusted his judgment and bought it, setting the wheels in motion for a journey that would split us apart, bring us together, and teach us to share the road.
The learning began when I told Dad that I’d shaved $600 off the asking price. “Good for you!” he said with a hint of shock, telling me that he didn’t expect his only daughter to succeed at haggling. I felt proud of myself for showing him that I could negotiate with the big boys.
It was a short-lived triumph, however, because there was one important area where Dad had years of experience and I had none: the stick shift.
Dad hadn’t mentioned that my new car had a manual transmission, and I hadn’t thought to ask. He assured me that I’d master the skill in no time, so I embraced the challenge. Having just quit my radio career to find my true calling, I wasn’t going to let a stick shift stand in my way.
I was optimistic as I boarded a bus to pick up my car at my parents’ house. I assumed I’d master the clutch on Saturday and breeze through the three-hour drive to the Berkshires on Sunday. I had one lesson under my belt, courtesy of a friend, so I felt pretty confident when Dad took me out to practice—in the cemetery, where my chances of causing damage were minimal.
What I didn’t consider was the damage that could take place inside the car.
For decades, my relationship with my father was complicated by his alcoholism and my hatred of it. There was also deep affection, and a shared appreciation for nature, music, and humor. We both have strong opinions about how the world should function, and they often clashed, triggering stormy exchanges. Many of those took place when he was drunk and I was disgusted, a scene that repeated itself throughout my teen years.
Dad stopped drinking when I was in college, but my healing didn’t begin until much later, when I entered therapy and support groups to release the pain of my childhood and become a healthier adult. My interactions with my father grew calmer as I focused on my own recovery, and Dad seemed to respond with attempts to control his hot temper and negativity.
But much of that progress evaporated when I landed in the driver’s seat that June morning and faced the clutch.
Despite my best efforts, I was bucking and stalling at every attempt to engage first gear, nearly throwing us both through the windshield. I jerked past tombstones reading “Rest in Peace” as Dad shouted, “#@&%! Don’t do that! What the hell are you doing?” I, in turn, cried, “Tell me what to do! Don’t just yell at me!”
It was the perfect stage for our relationship drama.
Dad began to insist that buying the car was a huge mistake and started berating himself for recommending it. With each declaration of doom, I grew more despondent. As my father drove us home, I felt hopeless and helpless in the passenger seat, ashamed of my inability to learn this skill, and scared that I’d spent the bulk of my savings on a car I couldn’t drive.
The feelings of despair were old and familiar.
That night I borrowed my mom’s (automatic) car and drove to a support group for people who live with the effects of another’s addiction. The topic of the meeting was courage and, as I shared about my disastrous driving lesson, I heard the laughter of recognition. Later on, several people shared their own stick shift nightmares and offered support. I went to bed feeling lighter, and grateful for my recovery community.
After a week of diligent practice, sans Dad, I finally hit the highway and made it to Kripalu, intact. Soon after, I got a surprising note from my father. He told me that he admired my patience and courage, not only about the car, but also about the changes I was making in my life. He enclosed a $20 bill “for gas.”
I still treasure that letter, because it tells me that my father recognized the person I was trying to become: a truer version of myself. It also gave me more compassion for him.
Today, I’m a self-employed teacher, writer, and coach. It’s a strange career in the eyes of my Dad, who politely asks, “How’s business?” When he’s stumped for more questions, he asks about my latest car (or my cat). Dad will never set foot in a transformational workshop or chant “Om,” but he and I can speak automotive code language. He says, “I see you turned on your parking lights,” and I hear “Good job.” I say, “I changed the oil last week,” and he hears, “I’m taking care of myself.”
I know my father feels tremendous guilt about his drinking years, and he doesn’t know how to repair the damage. He does, however, know how to guide me to the cheapest gas in town, inquire about my journey, and cheer me on as I drive.