18 is a year overflowing with contradictions. Eighteen wants to be a child forever and yet he cannot wait to grow up. He loves his house and cannot wait to leave it. Eighteen is our teen living in our home and in the same momentous year, an adult residing in another state. On the eve of his 18th birthday it seems almost as if nothing has changed and then one morning in August everything is different.
18 is the year I have dreaded since the day he was born. It is the year that I will begin to know him a little less, the year when more of his life happens away from our family than within it. But 18 is also the year I am most grateful for, that as his childhood ends it has been filled with joy and he has thrived wrapped in our love and that of his brothers.
Eighteen cannot believe he is 18. When I tell him that he must register for the selective service and to vote, that I can no longer deal with his doctor, the health insurance company or his college housing office, he is taken aback. Eighteen wants to be an adult, but not if it means a lot of paperwork.
Eighteen wants to spend every spare minute with his friends. He dreads the day when one by one they will leave for college and he tells me how much he will miss them, how much their closeness has meant to him and that he hopes they will stay that way forever. While I am indebted to these wonderful boys who have taught my son so much about friendship, I ignore the tightness in my throat and do not say that I feel the same way about him.
Eighteen is a writer. He hears words and their lyrical cadence in a way that leaves me in awe. He seems to know the natural crescendo of a good story and holds the reader in his grasp. He does not believe my praise, parents are biased, what do we know? His English teacher offers him wonderful encouragement suggesting he write more. I whisper a private prayer of thanks to the gods of high school education.
Eighteen is an athlete and, as a senior, a team captain. He has always been the youngest but finds himself suddenly a role model for younger boys. I watch him learn to lead. In the heat of a game he grapples with his own emotions, keeping them mostly under control as he attempts to inspire those around him. I whisper more thanks to more gods who have given my child this chance to grow.
Eighteen needs to show me he is a grown up, even at the times when I know that he is not. When he is unhappy with me he reminds me that soon he will be gone and then I will not be able to tell him what to do. Eighteen tells me this both because he wants me to acknowledge his independence and because he wants to hurt me that little bit, because in getting ready to go, some small part of him is hurting too.
When Eighteen defies me, I can see that my arsenal for controlling him is severely depleted.
Eighteen is brimming with confidence. His confidence comes from the physical strength and stamina of youth, from being surrounded by those who have known and loved him most or all of his life and from the fact that we may all be at our most beautiful the summer of our 18th birthdays.
Eighteen loves senior year in high school and life at the top of the social food chain. He loves knowing most of the teachers and coaches in his high school and the way they have begun to treat him and the other seniors like young adults. While I delight in seeing him so at ease in his world, I also know that there is nobody less secure than a college freshman.
Eighteen thinks the drinking age is 18. I am the bearer of bad news.
Eighteen thinks he should not have a curfew. I bear more bad news.
Eighteen’s personal hygiene is impeccable. He has never needed to be reminded to shower or brush his teeth. He rarely leaves a mess in the house and usually cleans any garbage from my car when he borrows it. Yet, Eighteen still leaves every article of dirty clothing on his bedroom floor. He has been told 4,287 that there is a laundry hamper in his room. Fearing that he has forgotten, I remind him again. He wonders why I do this, and so do I. Surely there is a point where I should give up, but how will I know when that is?
Eighteen is changing in his older brothers’ eyes. Getting ready to go off to college he somehow seems to be getting closer to them in age. Siblings loom so large in our lives. Eighteen has lived a life in awe of them and all that they could do whether it was ride a bike without training wheels, drive a car or just stay up late. But now he has done things that they never did and they are a bit in awe of him.
In the summer before he leaves, Eighteen wants to push his father and me away and hold onto us at the same time. I am told that as the reality of their leaving begins to confront some kids, they “soil the nest,” at times giving parents some of their very worst behavior. I try to remember that this is temporary and that if I have learned anything about parenting it is that a markedly changed adolescent will be returned to me come the winter holidays.
Eighteen lies on the floor petting his dog. I am in the next room, but I can hear him telling her that he will miss her. He does not remember life before this dog and is old enough to fully understand that this means that in the coming years he will experience the loss of her. He feels love and he feels fear. He has heard that kids get “the call” at school about their dogs and he does not want that call.
I can tell Eighteen what to do and what not to do, until he leaves for college. But that would be foolish. We are on a trial run for adulthood, so I let him make most of the decisions and step in only when I cannot help myself. I try not to treat him like the child he no longer is, he tries not to act like the obnoxious teenager he no longer is. Most of the time we are successful, sometimes we fail.
Eighteen is no longer simply living in time, but is now truly reflecting upon it. He feels his own childhood slipping away and, while there is much to look forward to, he understands that for the first time there is now much to look back upon as well. Eighteen experiences that sharp pain we feel as adults when we know that a time in our lives that we have loved has passed and that we can never really return to it. As he lets go of his child self and readies to leave, he is fully conscious of the fact that life has painted a bright red line and he is crossing over it.
Eighteen leaves little gashes on my heart, like stinging paper cuts, as time winds down and we no longer have months or years but rather weeks and days. I miss him before he is even gone and I grieve once he has left. Eighteen drifts slowly away the summer after graduation and then one morning I load up the car and he is really gone, and I can do nothing more than help him on his way.
This is the final essay in the This Is Adolescence series which began with 11, and covered 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17. If you are looking forward to adolescence, living it or reflecting upon it, each of these beautifully written essays will make you think. Conceived by Lindsey Mead and Allison Slater Tate, the entire series will be published in full in Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of T(w)eens, coming in Spring 2015.