I love to drive. I blame it on my mom.
Whenever we needed to go somewhere the ride was an event — whether it was school, the doctor or a friend's house.
We would load up in her forest-green Sebring convertible, with classic rock blasting through the speakers. Sometimes we would sing (scream, really) along with the music, pouring out whatever emotion was captured inside of us out into the world, excitement, anger, frustration.
Other times, we would just sit quietly, letting the wind and the music roll over us until we ran out of gas or ran out of steam, whichever came first.
She drove too fast; she drove too loud, but she loved it, every second. And it didn't take long at all before I did, too.
When I was learning to drive, my mom patiently taught me how merge into traffic, to turn into a skid, to parallel park and every other thing a new driver needs to know. I learned it all in her convertible, top down, hair up.
By the time I was 18, I had driven through the beginnings of a blizzard in Utah, rush hour in Washington D.C. and raced for the first time. And I was never afraid, not once. Not when I couldn't see through the snow in Salt Lake City, not when I hydroplaned in a torrential downpour, not when I took curves a little too fast.
But for the first time in my life, this past Saturday, driving scared me.
I got off work a little after 10 p.m. and I was starting the drive home to see my family, taking all the winding roads up to Oklahoma. It was pouring rain. It was dark. I was tired. All of those were conditions I had experienced before, countless times probably. But this time was different.
All I could think, every time a car came barreling around another corner, was all the families I've interviewed in the past two months while at the Advocate who lost a loved one in a fatal wreck.
It wasn't fair that they were gone, I kept thinking. How could they be gone and leave this family with so much pain, so much hurt? How does that happen? Who gets to make those decisions?
Perhaps for the first time in seven years of driving, I drove well under the speed limit and clenched the wheel so hard my hand started to cramp. I didn't have the music on; I wasn't talking on the phone; I wasn't enjoying myself at all.
But despite all my extra caution, I hit some standing water in the road and hydroplaned. And in that moment, my life was completely out of my control.
The normal, adrenaline-crazy Caty would have reveled in that second. I would have flexed my hands on the wheel and bet on luck and skill that I’d be OK.
But I couldn't do that.
Instead, I kept alternating between images of the wrecks I have seen, with the mangled metal and the blood on the pavement, and the utter shock I’ve seen on every loved ones face I have interviewed.
Thankfully, I didn’t lose control of my car. My tires reconnected with the pavement and before I even knew what I was doing, I was pulled over on the shoulder, crying.
I cried for the people who have died: the teenager, the firefighter, the instructor, the dad… I cried for the families who had a beloved ripped away so suddenly.
And I cried for my mom — my beautiful, adventure-loving mom who died four months ago after a three-year battle with cancer. I cried because I couldn’t call her to keep me awake on my drive. I cried because she wouldn’t be waiting for me at home, ready to wrap me in a hug that would last too long.
I cried because life isn’t fair. I cried about it for a long time, and not the dainty, Hollywood tears that never mess up your makeup. This was full-blown, red eyes, snot and makeup running down your face, chest heaving kind of crying.
And, not to be anti-climactic, but I did not have an epiphany. My emotional jaunt did not end with a revelation into the fairness of life or why some people get to live long, full lives and others don’t. My crying ended when I ran out of energy and the napkins I keep in my car.
Then, I cautiously pulled back onto the U.S. 183 and continued my drive north. The rain stopped in Austin, and I attacked I-35 with a vengeance, ready to get home.
I still love to drive; the 16-hour drive this weekend affirmed that. I am still saving for my dream car, a 1969 Stingray Corvette convertible. I still want to rebuild it from the inside out — baby blue body, black leather interior and original, small-block V-8 engine.
But, with the images of wrecks in my head I already can’t erase, and the first-hand knowledge of what a death can do to a family, I will be more cautious at the wheel.
The costs for short-lived thrills and distractions are too high.
And the payoff isn’t worth dying for.
My mom, Rhonda Maples, who battled cancer with grace and spunk. When she had to shave her hair for a second time, she got this mohawk first at the request of my little brother.
My mom, Rhonda Maples, and little brother, Robby, at a car show in 2010.
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