One of the biggest milestones I looked forward to with Austin was seeing him get his license. As his 16th birthday approaches, my heart can't help but be heavy with the sadness of knowing this can't be.
Austin was all boy from the very beginning and loved anything with wheels. As a toddler, I listened to him drive his little trucks around, all through the house, inside and out. He even had a rug in his bedroom that was a city scene full of roadways that twisted and turned. Hours would pass as he entertained himself in those tiny worlds, pretending he was in the driver's seat of various vehicles.
One of my favorite birthday memories for him was the year we bought him a mini Jeep. He was so excited, jumping up and down and then quickly grabbing his little girlfriend to go for a ride. That little jeep went many miles across our backyard and contained both real and imaginary friends in the passenger seat, depending on the day.
I'm sure Tim has more memories than me, of having Austin on his lap, as he let him "drive" on dirt roads in the strip pits. I have the memories of a happy little boy who would come bouncing in the house to tell me about it afterwards. As time went on, Tim let Austin sit solo in the driver's seat on those country dirt paths. Austin would come home bragging about how well he had done and Tim was always beaming in the background, nodding his head in agreement.
The past couple of years, we would let Austin move vehicles from our driveway to the yard. He would help his Mamaw's by backing their cars out of the driveway, if the space was too tight and made them uncomfortable. In the winter months, it was nothing to find him starting my truck in the morning to let it heat up and scraping my windows to clear them before I left.
I'm so grateful for the afternoon we spent, just he and I, driving in a parking lot not many weeks before he passed. He asked (and begged) me to let him drive every time we went anywhere. I tried to explain to him that a dirt road in the strip pits wasn't the same as a highway. It wasn't safe, yet alone legal. The pits weren't all that close either so it wasn't as easy as just driving him down there "on the way" to somewhere else.
However, one day, I broke and took him to the fire training center. There is a large gravel parking lot that is fenced in and only two giant buildings to avoid. I felt we were as safe as we could be so that I didn't have a stroke in the process! I remember his excitement and confidence when he realized what I was going to let him to do. I hadn't said anything prior to driving there and when we stopped, I parked and walked around to his side, waiting. His face lit up when he discovered I was letting him drive. You would've thought I just handed him a stack of money!
Austin impressed me from the start, seeming so grown-up in that moment. He knew exactly what to do and drove like a pro the entire time. I even had him drive in reverse and anything I threw his way, he was ready for. I was worried I'd be screaming the whole time but it was just the opposite. We both laughed that day about all the fun he would have when he turned 16 and could drive on a real road. Such a sweet memory for me now.
At only 14, Austin was already on the countdown to getting his license. He had his eye on his Dad's truck and hoped we'd pass it down to him. He would talk about how having his license would let him help us even more - he could go to the store, run errands, get a job. Just like him to think about how it would help others, never thinking about himself. ......So many dreams and plans.
But we'll never get to see those dreams become a reality now. And it hurts. It hurts every time I see one of his friends post on Facebook they got their permit. Every "sweet 16" celebration is a sad reminder of what didn't get to be.
My only happiness comes from the hope that he is celebrating this milestone in Heaven. My wish for him is that Austin is driving the golden highway with his Papaw and great-grandpas by his side. I can only imagine the fun he is having.