This essay appeared a few months ago, but I had to remove it during the time it was entered in a national contest. I've had several requests to rerun it, so here it is.
When I Knew I Was A Grownup
It should have happened sooner. Possibly when my husband and I outgrew the Young Married class at church. Or perhaps the day the cute grocery sacker called me a respectful “Ma’am” instead of flirting with me. At least I should have realized it the day the nurse handed me my firstborn child.
But at age forty, with a husband and four young children, I was woefully unprepared for adulthood when the doctor looked from me to my mother’s ashen face against the sheet: “I’m sorry, it’s cancer. It has spread so much, there’s nothing we can do.”
Cancer…cancer…cancer…the dreaded word that had never found our family until a mere two years ago when a surgeon strode from my father’s biopsy and told us the unthinkable. He’d lived eight months. Here we were again.
“Sometimes lightning does strike twice in the same place,” the doctor said, before escaping back into his world where cancer was just a word that belonged to somebody else.
“I can’t do this alone,” Mom sobbed. “Daddy’s not here and I’m gonna have to do this alone.”
I stood and took her face between my hands, forcing her to look at me. The tears dropped from my cheeks to hers as she watched me with childish fear. “Don’t say that! You’re not alone. I will be there for you. Everything. All of it. You…are...not…alone!”
The idea of diving into that dark pool again made my insides shriek. We both knew what lay ahead. But as I looked at her, suddenly small and frail against the sheet, gazing at me like a drowning swimmer longs for a lifeline, the mantle of adulthood passed to me.
Sometimes life forces people into seasons they’re not ready to face: a teenager becomes a parent, a husband becomes a widower, a sibling is suddenly faced with being an only child. But innate in us all is that connection with our parents--a bond so strong it transcends the health of the relationship. When the one who once spanked you, grounded you, and taught you about the birds and the bees is now looking at you with trusting eyes—the way you once looked at her—you no longer have the option of being a child.
No matter your chronological age, regardless of your title or position in life, a part of you retains an intrinsic need to be parented. You need someone to show off for, somewhere to bring your trophies, your accomplishments, your cute kids. Parents are the only people in the world who think you’re wonderful simply because you exist.
“You can’t go,” I wanted to tell her. “I’m still here. I’m not through needing you. I don’t know how to be an orphan.”
But it didn’t matter. She had no choice, and neither did I. It was my turn to find the enthusiasm and patience to remain cheerful in the face of the worst possible news. After all, how many times had she done that for me? A bad report card, a broken heart, a shattered dream. She’d been a pillar for me when my adolescent world threatened to crush me. When trauma and sickness and disappointment swirled through my life, she’d been my anchor—a calm, unshakable stalwart that could withstand anything hurled against it. Whether I’d liked it or not at the time, I’d drawn strength from it. I could be that for her now.
“I guess I can trust you, can’t I,” my mother whispered through dry, cracked lips when the cancer was no longer satisfied with stealing her body. It was taking her mind. “You’re old enough to be wise. I don’t have to do it anymore. I can rest now.” And she closed her eyes and her nightmares stopped.
Mine had just begun: doling out the proper medicines on time, cleaning up the messes she would have never made in her right mind, filing the insurance papers, keeping her affairs in order, bullying our way into doctors’ offices when no one wanted to take responsibility for her deteriorating condition.
Months. She had a few short months from the moment we were told. She readied her affairs, approached the coming storm with courage and her head held high, but cancer can defeat even the most courageous. In the end, few can be grownups by themselves.
“When you die,” she said one day from her elevated bed, “they just dig a hole and put you in it. How do they know?” She looked at me with childlike faith. “How will they know I’m really dead?”
We hadn’t talked about it much. It was easier to stay busy with the myriad of chores that cancer brings. The word caretaker was more manageable when it was physical care I could provide, duties I could perform. Anything to keep from watching her slip further and further away.
But the chaos inside her head demanded that someone take charge.
“God will tell me,” I answered and smoothed her graying hair.
Her eyes were still shadowed with worry. “You’ll be there?”
“Absolutely. I promise you. No one will put you into the ground until God tells me it’s okay.”
She smiled and closed her eyes.
I wanted to cry, to throw myself against her withered chest and scream that she couldn’t do this to me. What did I know about anything? I was just a kid. She was the one with all the answers. She was the one I’d always gone to when life didn’t make sense. But grownups don’t cry.
At forty, I wasn’t ready to be a grownup, but life handed it to me anyway, as it does to us all. It was a gift that I could give her as she had given to me so many times before.
To Mom, From Me. Thanks for teaching me how to be a grownup.