A week from today I will celebrate my 45th birthday. I usually like my birthday, but it has obviously taken a back seat to other events in our family calendar over the years. More often than not, I have to do math in my head when someone asks me how old I am, but, I won’t likely have to do that next Wednesday at least. Any of you who’ve known me, read my books, blogs, or simply paid attention to the middle-aged gentlemen in your lives will know that we have a penchant for anniversaries. Maybe it’s just me but generally I think we mark events all year, especially now that Facebook makes it so easy to know what stupid thing we were doing “on this day” every single day.
My father died when he was fifty years old. He was the strongest and healthiest man I knew until about May 1990, after which cancer mangled us all, culminating in his death in October. I was seventeen. I’ve written about the mess I became and the nonsense that my difficulty in managing that whole part of my life has wrought. But this isn’t about that. This is about what it means to be a grown-up. Sort of.
Technically, I suppose I’m a grown-up. Certainly, I’m an adult, but I don’t know that I feel like one all the time. I spent so many years as a stay at home dad, living in the world of my children: their play, their imagination, their amazing creativity, much of which, I’m glad to say still continues to this day. I was all ways kind of a goof. My wife has said on several occasions that I’ve helped her learn how to be more fun. I won’t argue the point. I also spent so many years working in schools that I know my mind and schedule were locked into school-time, which is really similar to ‘young people time’ and promoted a sense of being youthful at times, at least for me.
I’m now a few years away from the age my father was when he died of cancer. I never had the chance to have an adult relationship with him and that saddens me when I think about it. I think he’d have been a spectacular grandfather and I believe he’d have really loved my wife.
So, as I think of it all, I’m at an age that my father was, for that one year. What’s funny to me though is that I still feel very much like myself. I still feel like the kid who did stuff as a kid: played sports, was in clubs, performed in shows and stuff like that. I still feel like the kid who grew up with a whole lot of dreams and plans. I was all of those kids until I became that kid who lost his dad on a breezy day in October. I still feel like the kid that had to figure out life with my mother for years after dad died. I still feel like the young man that had to navigate both of their deaths. I still feel like that same young man at times, despite what returns to me when I look in the mirror. It’s sometimes very strange to see it all in the moments we stare at ourselves.
I know that my father once turned 45, just like I’m getting ready to do. I don’t remember his 45th birthday, but it would have the winter of 1984 and I was in sixth grade. There was likely a steak dinner and a homemade Chocolate cake that my mother made for special occasions. There may be similar things on my birthday next week but the challenge I’m facing is that I find it nearly impossible to think about myself in the same context as my dad. He was a grown-up. Mom was a grown-up. Sister Jane, Father Dave, Mrs. Chorley, Mrs. MacFarland, Mr. Hartz, Jim the Mailman, Sal from Sal’s Pizza: these were grown-ups. Mr. Bedford, our bus driver for SPS, Mrs. McGinn, Grady at Trinity Church-those were grown-ups. I can’t be one of those now, can I? I suppose I am, but I don’t exactly feel like I’m a shining example of adulthood, like I remember them being. But what if they all felt like me? Maybe they still felt like the young person they’d been, inhabiting the body of an adult they hadn’t anticipated becoming? I don’t know that I’ll ever know the answer to that one, but I hope that makes sense.
“Don’t ever grow up completely.”
A good friend of mine wrote that to me in the yearbook the year she graduated high school. I’ve always liked the idea behind it. I used to take it to mean that I shouldn’t ever completely lose touch with the young person I was at the time. That strikes me as a totally reasonable explanation. Thinking about it right now, however, I wonder if there’s more to it than just that.
Maybe part of not “growing up completely” is allowing myself to look at the adults I knew as a child with similar wonder and respect, as opposed to looking at them with eyes that are much closer to the age than they were when I knew them. Maybe it’s that I shouldn’t lose my inherent sense of wonder and silliness, which was a big part of my persona then. I’d like to think it still is now. Regardless, as I grow older, I hope I grow wiser and more patient and more kind, but I hope I also hold onto some of the aspects of my youth that have survived all these years and challenges and flourished, especially in my life as a parent. I still have no plans to ever “grow up completely” but I’m intrigued now by the idea of how others might approach the question, so I’ll ask directly: What does being a “grown-up” mean to you? And are you one? Feel free to answer in the comments section and as always, thanks for your support.