I became a grown-up when I was 9 years old and tried cigarettes for the first time. It was July of 1979, Southern California summertime. My sister and I were enjoying our break from private school. Apparently the babysitter was on vacation, too. In my Ditto shorts and rainbow top I watched myself in the full-length mirror glued to my bedroom door. I looked so chic as I tried to make rings of smoke come out of my mouth like I’d seen on Charlie’s Angels. My sister and neighbor friend were in on this grown-up experimentation with the Merits stolen from my mom’s carton in the laundry room. The three of us were quite taken with ourselves. Thankfully my idea of what was chic changed each year and cigarettes didn’t stick. Mom never knew. Or at least she pretended not to notice heavy rose-scented perfume masking the smoky odors.
I became a grown-up when I bought my second car, a used 1986 black Honda Prelude. (I knew I was not quite a grown–up with my first car. I was 18 years old and learned the hard way that regular oil changes are not optional, and subsequently ruined the engine.) My Honda had power steering, power windows, and can you believe it, a sunroof! As I drove it to my first post-college job, I anticipated changing the world, one person at a time, with my shiny new psychology degree. The shine soon lost its glare. As a “psychiatric assistant” in an unlocked psychiatric hospital and rehab facility in Orange County, I was required to transfer urine samples here and there and sit in during male doctors’ physical exams of female patients. Patients who were either drunk or angry in their detoxification phase and not too thrilled to have a spring chicken sitting there. However, it was not a completely fruitless position as my worldview opened up about the trials and sufferings others endured. My little Honda took me back and forth to my first real job in Orange County, exposing me into the lives of women, men and young people in need of intervention, and who were humbly and bravely willing to seek it out.
I became a grown-up the moment I was wheeled to the parking lot curb of Little Company of Mary Hospital after my first child, Luke, was born. It was time to leave the bubble of care and extraordinary help from wonderful nurses (and a few not quite so…), and go home. Didn’t “they” know I wasn’t old enough, at age 30, to take care of this beautiful boy? This newborn who had the cutest upturned nose and full lips, but who screamed a lot, peed on me, and had his days and nights mixed up? This precious newborn who was kicked out of the hospital nursery because he was too loud? Didn’t “they” know that I had never changed a diaper before this day and that I was scared to death of having poop on my hands? At the same time that I rose from the wheelchair to get into my car, ever so slowly (ouch!) and with all those fears, I was in absolute mush over my Luke. Luke Christopher, seven pounds of sweetness, and full of the intoxicating newborn scent only mothers love, and miss, after it is long gone.
The grown-up pendulum swung hard and far when my second child, Ryan, was born in the summer of 2003. He was very weak at birth. He didn’t cry for food. In fact, he didn’t cry at all. I will never forget the night a few weeks later when we received THE PHONECALL from our very kind pediatrician. He confirmed that Ryan has a rare genetic disorder, Prader-Willi syndrome, with a lifetime of challenges ahead. I ran to my bedroom where Ryan lay peacefully asleep on my bed and scooped him up into my arms. At that moment my world completely shifted on its axis.
I knew that Ryan had been given to us because we were able to love and care, and fight for him like warriors in a long battle. We were grown-up enough.
The following year I became a grown-up when my mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It was summertime again. With the help of my sisters, natural caregivers both, and the unwavering support of my husband, we moved Mom into our home to care for her. The angelic nurses from hospice came to journey with us and make her comfortable. My mom, or “Grammy” to her grandchildren, became Ryan’s roommate that summer. Each morning they greeted me with sweet smiles, Ryan’s chubby hands on his crib, mom’s long bony fingers holding the hospital bed. Having graciously accepted her prognosis, truly without anger and bitterness, she awaited Heaven. We said goodbye to her September 12, 2004. A professor in college once said to me, “You never fully grow up till you lose a parent.” I understand that now.
With each year, each crisis, and each celebration I feel like I’ve finally become a grown up. But then another life lesson comes along reminding me that I’m still learning, stretching, evolving, and becoming. I’m not really a grown-up. But I’ll finally become one someday. Maybe next summer.