Unlike generations of ancestors before me, I think my growing up hasn’t been as defined as a moment in time as theirs might have been; family needs defined the end of childhood which, in certain times and economies, made adults out of nine year olds. The hard work and sacrifices, forgotten or unattainable dreams of grandmothers of times past, has enabled their future progeny the luxury of delayed coming-of-age even though life markers were reached (i.e. sweet-sixteen, driver’s licenses, first car, first kiss and prom, losing one’s virginity, engagement and marriage, birth of children); maturity was avoided or ignored as too limiting.
My daughter raced toward adulthood with such zeal that when she arrived, chronologically, she felt jaded. Her fake barhopping ID card was replaced by a state photo ID required by law yet was rarely verified by restaurant servers since she had been twenty-one for so long. By contrast, I lack much of the paperwork she has acquired through fault of my own – I’ve let my forms of identification slide knowing that it will be harder to reinstate my government-self required for passports. Perhaps, by my procrastination, I put off proof of aging as inconsequential.
Surely the media, especially magazine ads, articles, and science support me in this fallacy of agelessness; of living forever without visible signs of aging. My whole youth has been spent in duality: being warned of eminent annihilation during the 1960s and 70s, yet seductively living a Neverland ideal of celebrating the inner child, of ignoring mortality in favor of youthful immortality. Daily segments affirm longevity on The Today Show; relatively youthful photos of centenarians flash on the screen with pithy tidbits on how to live long lives. Although ironically it is rarely the anti-wrinkle cream that camouflage their triple-digit years, but their simple pursuits of honoring faith, family and fortitude, and not acknowledging their lifetime markers that preserve them.
Nana K, my mother’s mother, prayed daily to die throughout her 80s and became angry with her God that kept her trapped on Earth, an Earth that became more foreign to her sensibilities with each day. My father faced his 80th birthday this past October with all the joyfulness that a boy who lands his first motorized airplane felt. Years lived, material possessions and career advantages aside, his center was his wife, children and friends. He is lucky to have minimal health issues that have not diminished his blue-eyed wonder at how fortunate he is to begin every day, to fiddle around in his workshop, encourage his cucumbers to grow and to land his radio-controlled airplane without crashing. He never seems to ask why he is here or what is his purpose; much to my pragmatic mother’s consternation my father has never grown up, and I don’t think that his father did either. My great aunts and uncles never reached a solemn degree of maturity to match their longevity. This has warped my definition of child-to-adult passage, and has reinforced my quasi-dance with Peter Pan.
Despite the fact that I define myself by what I see reflected in my bathroom mirror, 1/7th of my total self lets me create the rest of me to match my own fantasy. My skin type and gray hair that mimics highlighting has let me go gently into my good night. I have reflected, although forced I must admit, on what my own life markers are and how I have reacted with them. My markers are flexible and overlap; they push the envelop to extremes. Am I vain? No, more like delusional mixed with working in a youthful environment: I am a high school teacher. Improper dress (generously bending our dress code), ipods, perpetual texting, anger, teenage angst, and messy relationships constantly surround me. Middle and high school teachers view age as a deterrent to bonding with their young students. To arrest the signs of aging Botox-type makeup techniques are used and expand our significance among youthful colleagues.
On first reflection, the birth of my daughter defined my entrance into adulthood; I thought that motherhood would settle me, but I was naively wrong. Then I thought perhaps the birth of my son years later would certainly, with attending teacher meetings, visiting pediatricians, and working 40 hour weeks, define attaining my adulthood marker. Why I kept doubting and redefining ‘adulthood’ came from not matching media images of a TV-wife matron, nor of my own mother’s ideals of wifely duties. More magazine identified that 40 was the ultimate age for a woman. With careers and children well established, and health and homes on an even keel women could focus on themselves. Enhancing the myth that 40 was the new 20, the Pill and peptides, figure support garments and fashion jeans with hidden-stretch-side-panels, pushed my mid-life marker to 60 and beyond. Getting old just wasn’t happening for me, and after ‘careful thought’ the government pushed retirement back to 67 making it official that I would never have to grow up.
Attending the funeral of my 40-year old brother-in-law brought me up short and forced me to definitely define being grown-up. Although I had grown up surrounded by my great aunts and uncles and grandparents dieing throughout my youth, they all died natural deaths at the end of wonderfully colorful long well lived lives. Their deaths were acceptable and honorable, more occasions for life-affirming wakes than brutal grief for a young man’s life cut short by inherited heart disease, or silent breast cancer that claimed my sister-in-law’s life in her 38th year. These two funerals, with the additional passing of my beloved grandmother, sent me through adulthood’s door and baptized me in the rituals of last rites, rounds of Hail Mary’s, and readings from the Book of Wisdom. It allowed me to let go of myself, as well as my dear friends; it sealed forever my understanding of mortality, and reflect on what I wanted to achieve before I too joined my Nana.
By watching those left behind (my sister and brother-in-laws, companion, parents, and friends) take up the heavy obligations of closing up their loved one’s lives, I learned of my impending responsibilities for caring for my parents, and how with great compassion and dignity I can close their chapters when the time comes. I believe at this point in time, when a child buries a parent, the course to adulthood is complete and one finally grows up.
Written August 2009
Reworked July 10, 2010 © KBP