Slug Bug and Other Ways We Say "I Love You"

As much as I clench my fists and squeeze my eyes closed and wish that I could stop time, it keeps moving, and my daughter is scheduled to get her driver's license at the end of the month. She's been working on Driver's Education for about nine months now, which, these days, is just a robot talking to her through her phone with some periodic quizzes to make sure she's listening. TJ took the role of parent-teacher for driving, and I couldn't be more grateful. I get all stressed and spazzy about it; he is calm, cool, and collected, even when it seems disaster is on the horizon with our teenager at the wheel. (I'm mostly kidding; she is a really great driver.)

I'm so proud of her for sticking with something that could be really easy to procrastinate. I've noticed that teenagers nowadays (man, I'm really starting to sound like a grandma) wait longer and longer to get their driver's license. I had mine in hand on my sixteenth birthday, not a minute after. I couldn't wait. It seems like both yesterday and another lifetime that I got behind the wheel of my van and squealed at the thought of being able to drive by myself all the way down the street to Dunkin Donuts to buy myself a coffee, and now my very own daughter is going to bask in that same feeling of independence and joy. I truly can't believe it. If I start to let my mind wander, I start thinking about how soon she'll graduate and then go to college, and then I force myself to stop before I turn into a blubbering mess.

Keonna came to us at 13, and I was terrified and excited when she showed up on our driveway. She had super cool, trendy glasses and made her social worker go pick her up a 2 Liter of Big Red before she left. I wanted to be just like her. Now, she's sixteen, hilarious, and hard-working. She is tenacious, caring, and loving. I still want to be like her. Somehow, I didn't think the day of getting her driver's license would come. In my head, we were just learning how to love each other day-to-day. How did we even get here?

You know how people have special talents? Like, in high school, my best friends were excellent at math or science or writing or sports. I always tried my best, but my special talent has always been connecting with people. I feel pretty confident in my ability to talk to pretty much anyone, mostly because I don't like feeling uncomfortable or others feeling uncomfortable. But, let me tell you, having a teenager who viewed me as a very weird white stranger asking her five million questions about how she liked to do her hair and what she liked to eat, and what her favorite movie was? It stumped me. I almost never feel awkward, but I felt like my awkwardness was glaring, evident in every interaction. I really had to work at connection with her, something that had always come easy to me was now a new skill I needed to practice.

I don't know what prompted me to do this, but I avoided feeling uncomfortable in car rides by listening to audiobooks together. It gave us something to talk and laugh about, and it eliminated the pressure that conversation can sometimes bring. We could relax in knowing that we would just listen to someone else talk. We would look at each other in despair if there was a racy scene or crack up when something funny happened. Together, we've read The Hate U Give, On the Come Up, Monday's Not Coming, A Good Girl's Guide to Murder, Stargirl, and we are currently listening to Love, Stargirl. It's a bonus if the book also has a movie because it turns into a movie night or day, and we get to talk about how different or similar it is to the book and which one we liked better.

The other car-ride savior has been the game Slug Bug. This game has taken many forms in our family. At one point we pointed out every truck that we saw. We live in Texas, so this version lasted about 0.2 seconds when I realized I might lose my mind from hearing my kids scream "truck" and punch my arm the entire car ride. We have finally settled on two different versions of the game: Slug Bug/Tesla and Slug Bug/Jeep/Tesla, depending on who is in the car. Sometimes I even play with the baby if no one else is in the car because I'm so used to scoping out those cars so that I can brag about having more than my kids.

Once, we got in the car, both of us bothered about something. It was silent for a while (sometimes when I'm mad, I get petty and won't play the radio. Oops) until I heard KK mumble, "slug bug." I glanced over at her, completely surprised that she was willing to play the game, and said "ugh, you win every time," in an attempt to boost her ego a little and win some brownie points. It worked. Thanks, Slug Bug, for always finding a way around conflict and bringing us back together.

There has only been ONE time that Slug Bug did not cure bad moods or anger or dysregulation. You may accuse me of hyperbole, but Slug Bug has quite literally saved our relationship at times. It's calmed us, brought us together and helped us pay attention to each other and to the world. As a kid, Slug Bug was just a game I periodically played with my friends so I could punch them. As a parent, it's how I tell my kids I love them. How could some seemingly meaningless game become so monumental in my parenting relationships? Now that I think about it, it makes a lot of sense. It's the small, everyday moments that add up to love. We think it's in the "I Do's" when we get married or in the giving birth or in the "I promises" of adoption day, but it's really in the helping of homework and in the choosing to show up when it's hard and in playing Slug Bug in the car.

The other day I saw an Instagram reel that said, "Be careful. Don't wish it away. Just blink and your kid will be this big!" The mom is hugging her baby and then suddenly she's hugging a seven-year-old. But what if your baby came to you when they were 13? What if you were just a baby when you became her mom? This "don't blink"warning that experienced parents give to young parents feels unfair when you only get to have five years with them before they are supposedly "grown-up" and ready to face the world on their own. I cherish our Slug Bug days, but I wish there were more.

So now, as my daughter drives with TJ to the DMV and gets her driver's license, I think about all that car rides have meant to us: the books, the conversations, the dances, the music, the angry words, the laughter, the crossed arms, and Slug Bug. And, I admit, I am grieving the loss of these moments together, moments etched into my memory that made me a mom and KK my daughter.

Because it was never just Slug Bug; it was how we loved one another when we didn't know how to love.

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