I had intended to enter a recent essay contest sponsored by Real Simple magazine, but time got away from me and the deadline for entries has passed. The topic for the contest was “When did you first realize you were an adult?”. I’ve got no chance of winning $3,000 now, but I still want to put forth my own thoughts regarding that question.
I used to think that I’d feel like an adult when I left Philadelphia, drove off to New York City with a car full of belongings, and made my new home at Barnard College. I was 18 and, at that time, being an adult really meant one thing to me: being able to do whatever the hell I wanted without needing to solicit my parents’ permission. I pretty much figured that college would provide a plethora of such opportunities. But, like I said, I was 18 and pretty stupid.
In college, I ran into all sorts of obstacles and challenges that had me whipping out my cell phone – sometimes in hysterics, other times in tears – to call home and beg my parents to tell me what I should do. “Should I be pre-med?, What major sounds best? How much vodka constitutes a trip to the ER for stomach pumping?” and so on and so forth.
When being an adult at 18 wasn’t quite working out, I figured that age 21 was the magical number and I’d just bide my time as an adolescent until then. Shortly after turning 21 and consuming a few alcoholic beverages legally, I found myself thousands of miles from Philadelphia and New York City in South Africa. “Now,” I thought “I am truly an adult.” Afterall, what kind of child lives alone in a foreign country where she doesn’t know another soul? Things went swimmingly – I went to classes, learned how to drive a stick-shift on the opposite side of the road, dated a man from Cape Town, and traveled the Garden Route all by myself, all without managing to get myself killed – until I ended up horribly ill for the last 3 months of my stay. Instead of whipping out my cell phone this time, I was trudging down the stairs to my residence hall’s public phone in the wee hours of the South African morning to, yet again, consult my parents on whether or not they thought I had some life-threatening plague. When all was said and done and I was safely returned to the United States, an Infectious Disease specialist diagnosed the tiny parasite that had been causing me – and my parents – months of long distance agony.
By this time, I felt that it was obvious that I was still miles away from being a real, live adult and conceded to wait for college graduation. College graduation was all about entering “the real world”, or so I was told over and over and over again by the long ago graduated, so-called adults I encountered. The short of it is that neither graduating from Barnard, nor entering the “real world” made me feel any more like a capable adult. I felt like a pubescent boy, occupying a body that didn’t really fit. I was all gangly and awkward limbs that I hadn’t yet grown into.
If I still thought that being an adult had anything to do with age, I would say that I was thrown headlong and rather unceremoniously into adulthood at age 24. The exact age I am at this moment – give or take a few minutes, seconds, or whathaveyou – and the age I was when my father died. I realized that I was an adult the exact moment I stepped foot into my father’s hospital room and knew that he was no longer breathing. The initial feeling was like being stranded in a vast ocean only to realize that your life boat has just deflated. I could bail water as furiously as possible, but that still wouldn’t change the fact that I was on my own in a way I had never been before. There was no longer any man in the world who would always put me before himself. It was a slow realization, actually. When I found myself getting through the viewings and the funeral and the burial without breaking into millions of tiny pieces, I began to feel that I had finally grown into my capable, adult self. I was making my own decisions, forging my own life path in school and at work, and being a supportive sister, daughter, and aunt to my family. Despite unimaginable heartbreak, I was still standing on my own two feet and all with my cell phone tucked quietly away in my purse.