Under the mask

I remember the exact moment when I knew I was an adult. I was looking down at a scrap of paper someone had dropped on the floor. I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. As kids we just walked over things – trash, shoes, backpacks – and my mother would harangue us with incredulous indignation. “How can you just trip over that without picking it up? Who do you think will pick it up? Me? Why do you just expect me to follow you around and pick things up?” And we would stare back blankly, “What backpack?” We didn’t even see it. And then one day I did. I saw something on the floor, bent down and picked it up without anyone telling me to do it. That’s when I knew.  

Last week my oldest son turned twenty-one years old. I was a wreck: distracted, anxious, melancholy. A colleague sympathized, “I know, you must feel so old, right?” No, I don’t. A friend said, “It is scary to be that much closer to an empty nest.” No, that wasn’t it either. Someone else chuckled, “Worried about that birthday pub crawl?” OK, maybe a little.

I asked people when they knew they were an adult or what it meant to be an adult. The responses were thematic. Taking responsibility for my own actions. Having problems I realized I could not share with my parents. Feeling alone. Caring about someone else’s well being more than my own. Being unselfish. Having my own kid. Responsibility. Work. Contribution.   

In modern America, the common rites of passage are either religious or legal. At twelve or thirteen we may celebrate some vestige ritual that usually translates into a party or a few duties at church. At sixteen, eighteen and twenty-one we allow increasing participation in both government and vices. We get to drive, vote and go to war as well as buy cigarettes and alcohol in incremental years. We link expectations to schooling or a first job. The threshold is murky.    

My son had the face of a four year old when he was a baby. His features were oversized, his cheekbones elfin and his eyes had preternatural depth. It freaked people out. They would look in the carriage expecting some cherubic, blank, drooling doll and get this miniature human that seemed ready to have a conversation. They peeked in, “Oooooo look, such a . . .” and pause realizing that “cute” was not going to work here . . . “baby.” Then they faded away unnerved. I didn’t mind. I knew he wasn’t adorable in the classic sense and I could see in his expressions the adult he would become. We treated him with respect from the start.

Now that he is twenty-one, I wonder what has changed about him. He looks the same. He has asked questions, listened and engaged others with confidence since grade school. He is now in love and considering life after college, navigating these choices with the characteristic maturity and self awareness he has always exhibited. He has seemed more adult than most adults for years.

A friend told me a story once that I think about and tell often. He described how Hopi children became adults in their traditional culture. Children watched ceremonies led by the gods. Great masked beings danced around the fire and children sat in awe at their power and size. When a child came of age, they were taken into a hut alone. The gods entered and circled the child, chanting as usual.  At the end of the ritual, the gods would remove their masks and show their true identities as the adults of the community: parents, relatives and neighbors, familiar and fallible. With this knowledge, the new adult was given their own mask to wear at subsequent ceremonies.

At 12:01 a.m., one minute into his birthday, surrounded by supportive friends and strangers, my son was given a shot “on the house” at a local bar. The bartender beamed, the crowd cheered and my son felt like this might be the perfect twenty-one year old moment. Then he spilled the drink.

I think my own crisis was existential. Being an adult is not about permission or skill set or opportunity. It is about sight. It is seeing the world as it really is – a complicated, confusing barrage of horrible and wonderful at the same time. It is sorting through who you are and who you want to be in any given moment and for rest of your life. It is waking up when you don’t want to and making breakfast for people that don’t care because it is the right thing to do. It is feeling bleakness and pain and still laughing hysterically during an episode of Modern Family. It is picking up the trash on the floor because no one else is going to do it. It is knowing that my little boy, who has always looked and acted so grown up, has no idea what he is in for.









2 responses to “Under the mask”

  1. LP says:

    Not sure I can pinpoint the time when I became an adult, but the first step was probably the first time I really crossed my parents. We disagreed about a question relating to my college tuition, and I took a very strong stand, surprising us both. When the world didn’t end and in fact the matter was resolved the way I’d wanted, I realized for the first time that you don’t always have to go along with the status quo of what authority figures decree for you. That opened the floodgates, and pretty soon I was questioning all kinds of things that I never had questioned before, and truly thinking for myself for the first time ever.

  2. F. P. Smearcase says:

    LP reminded me of mine. I’m having trouble remembering exactly when it was, but I was home from college and had gone somewhere with my father, but in separate cars. When we were coming home, I decided to go to a record store for a few, and when I got back to the house, my mother informed me that my father, frantic, was out looking for me (or, as I would phrase it to therapists later “combing the highway for my charred remains.”)

    He got home and I said “look, you’re not going to know where I am at every moment anymore, because I can’t stand being worried about all the time.” It turned into a pretty nasty fight. He got so mad at one point he said “well then I guess that’s the end of our relationship as father and son,” the big drama queen. I was an adult then, more or less. I’d always wanted to be an adult. There was a lot of adjustment afterward, of course, but that conversation was my declaration of personhood, pretty much.

    Spilling the drink is a nice moment. Things that start out perfectly are to be regarded with suspicion.