Some say that age makes you an adult. Technically, I suppose that’s true. You grow chronologically with each year and, for most of us, time brings wisdom. Each set of blown-out birthday candles is supposed to bring you one step closer to maturity.
For some, that’s not always the case. You might find a kid who has been through a lifetime of real-world pain before the age of ten or a forty-year-old who still gets devastated by a dropped ice cream cone. There is a delicate balance between age, heartache, and how we handle it. Sometimes it just boils down to circumstances.
I’ve always prided myself on being able to push forward. I don’t like to dwell on cuts that have been opened and closed throughout my life. It’s not that I hide them away or stuff them deep down, I just try not to wallow in them. It’s just how I deal with trauma and, healthy or not, it is what it is. I am who I am. I’m good with that.
I place a high value on this reaction, especially as I’ve become a parent. With two kids, the last thing I want to do is ruin their days because I’m too broken to pull myself together. I’m not saying everyone should be that way or that we all have similar circumstances. I’m just saying that I place a high value on not letting my sadness become theirs.
An outlook like this gets tested, though. You can pride yourself on a million virtues, but it’s all false modesty until the universe delivers you a test of them. I’ve had more than a few. There have been Christmases, birthdays, and other special events that all forced me to smile like I mean it. It was six years ago this month, though, when I was tested the most.
My family was at the Bronx Zoo and Lucas, my son, was having a good afternoon. Although just over three, it had become apparent that his autism was more than simply an imagined worry. His non-verbal approach to the world was still something we were struggling to understand, so trips like this were fewer and farther between than we would have liked. Olivia, my then-almost six-year-old daughter, was just thrilled to be among the animals – present company included.
We watched and smelled all of nature’s wildest and grossest beasts. She seemed so happy and, in between his napping, Lucas was too. We all were. The trip, by and large, had been fantastic.
While walking from one attraction to the next, I took out my phone and started scrolling through Facebook. That’s when I came across a post about Danielle, a girl who was my best friend in elementary school. We lost touch after she moved away in fifth grade and, just a few years earlier had become “Facebook Friends”. We messaged once or twice, interacted a few times in shared pictures, and offered birthday greetings. She always referred to me as “old friend”.
And that’s when, while walking my family from the lions to the bird cages, I read that she had died.
My brain kind of had a mini-explosion. I didn’t know what to do. I stopped walking for a moment, but none of my family had noticed. After a few shaken seconds, I caught up to them, although I couldn’t comprehend what do or say. As someone who has lost many close friends in my life, I knew that the effects of this would last a while. I understood the heartache that would be incoming within the next few days, weeks, months, and years. I knew that, even in 2020, I would still probably think about her sometimes and the memories we created as kids. I was right.
But this was present day and there were my children, smiling and happy to be at the zoo. Olivia was skipping along with her curls in the air. Lucas was leaning over the side of his stroller to watch the wheels roll along the pavement as my wife pushed him in the shining sun. We were all having a family day. Everyone was happy while I, on the inside, was rocked to my core. So, I did what a father should do. I did what I knew I should.
I put my phone in my pocket and walked my family to the bird cages.
No drama. No hitting walls. Nothing. I pushed on and, when we got to those cages, my daughter saw a peacock and it was one of the best moments of her year. We snapped a picture of her grinning ear to ear, complete with missing teeth. I had never seen her so happy and she couldn’t stop talking about it to anyone who came near us after that.
We hung that picture up on the wall of her bedroom and, every time I saw it, I thought about Danielle passing away. I remembered how I placed the happiness of my family over my own need to release my inner turmoil. I remembered my pain, but how even in it, I felt proud of myself. Despite not knowing her as much as an adult as I did when she was younger, I think Danielle would have been proud of me too. In fact, I know she would have been.
To me, that’s what it means to be an adult. It’s about hurting on the inside when you have to. It’s about making your kids happy even when you don’t remember the meaning of the word. It’s about putting the smile on their faces that you wish you could put on your own.
I still try to do that to this day. It’s not so easy, but when in doubt, I remember that peacock. To me, that’s what adulthood is all about.