She’s 16, and somehow it snuck up on me

I should have been ready for it, but I wasn’t. My daughter’s sixteenth birthday couldn’t have come as a shock to me, and yet it did. I have had all these years to prepare for this day, but I am not sure there is any way that you can really prepare for it, that day when your child places one foot squarely into the swampy chaos of adulthood, with the other foot all too soon to follow. Because, brothers and sisters, once they get their driver’s license, it’s the beginning of the end.

She doesn’t have her license just yet, just to be clear. She got her learner’s permit last year and still needs a few hours more driving experience before she can qualify to take the test. Nothing that I know of on this earth can compare to the abject terror and the severe dissociation that results from sitting in the passenger seat for the first time when your 15-year-old child, the one who is wearing mismatched socks and singing songs from random Disney movies, turns the key in the ignition and begins backing out, not yet sure which way to turn the wheel to make the car go in the correct direction.

Pretty soon, she’ll be merging onto I-40 and we’ll be sandwiched between transfer trucks going 75 miles per hour, and I will be in a private and very intense conversation with the Lord, praying that she is not as clumsy driving a car as she is trying to walk down a flight of stairs with a basket of laundry.

I am simultaneously holding my breath while trying to exude confidence, so that she doesn’t get even more nervous. I know I’ve been here before — well, not HERE before, with these enormous trucks whizzing by us with a couple of feet to spare on either side — but in this familiar place of giving up control.

When we left her at the daycare for the first time. When we left her with a sitter, chancing a night out. When we sent her off to school. Every time we gave her over to someone else’s care, we gave up a little bit of control, and every time it was frightening.

But this is much different. Now, she is taking control of herself and, to an extent, taking control of me. I can give her tips and teach her how to drive defensively, but I cannot do it for her. There is no steering wheel or brake on my side of the car. Out here on the wide open road, it is up to her to pay attention and make the right choices to get where she wants to go. She is learning about freedom and about responsibility. And I am learning that this may be the most daunting challenge yet, the recognition that we have done the best we can to prepare her — and ourselves — for this moment. It is time for her to take the wheel, of this car and of her own life.

Inspired by this insight, we decided to buy her a car for her birthday. I spent a few weeks shopping around for a reliable, reasonably priced used car that would not be too terribly expensive, but would also not spend half of its remaining years in the shop or, worse, leave her stranded out on I-40 somewhere. We also wanted a car that was bigger than a can of soda, but also got pretty decent gas mileage.

First, I had to dodge a couple of scams on Craigslist. Did you know that there is a divorced woman who JUST moved to Topeka, Kansas, who is selling her ex-husband’s pristine Honda Accord for dirt cheap just to get back at him for cheating on her and their two kids? All I needed to do was to set up a payment to Amazon — she would send me the form to complete electronically (I would provide my bank information or credit card number, of course), and then the car would be shipped from Topeka to me and my daughter would have a great car with low mileage and her nasty husband would get his just desserts! When I told her that my father-in-law lived in Topeka and would be glad to meet her and buy the car on the spot, she vanished into the ether.

We found her a car just in the nick of time, and in the eight days she has had it, she has driven either me or her mother (or both of us) somewhere every day. I am breathing a little easier now when we are out on I-40, learning the lyrics to several Disney songs, and mile by mile, finding a little more peace in the idea of her being in charge of things, mismatched socks and all. I guess I am going to have to get used to that.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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