What defines adulthood? Is it the ability to drink or vote? Is it staying out however late you want without repercussion? Or is it something less definable? I never liked coming of age stories when I was a child. They always had some tragic moment that catapulted the antagonist across the void and into adulthood. By that definition, I’d rather stay a child forever. We were a strange family: we had no curfew and we could have drinks with our parents at family dinners. Those two hallmarks of adulthood were within my grasp from the moment that I could drive a car. It seems contradictory to me, but perhaps here I am a victim of the juxtaposition of my life, that the very catalyst that I hated was the one that would define my own entry into adulthood.
I was eighteen years old and two weeks from heading to college. The world was grand. We’d barely made it home from a three week road trip around the Western United States. I had my bedding all picked out, would be rooming with my sister, and I couldn’t wait to leap into this world of adulthood. No rules, no parameters, just my own best judgement. Surely, moving to college would be my defining moment.
I was eighteen years old and just two weeks from heading to college. It was my parent’s 28th wedding anniversary and for the first time that I could easily recall, they were heading off on their own. Just my Mom and Dad and their travel trailer heading down to the beach. My sister, brother, and I were reveling in the lingering moments of freedom before the school year descended. We were happy, at ease, and all getting along. Then, a dark moment, my sister and I were picking up pizza on a Friday night and while she was in the store, a cloud crossed my mind. What would life be like if BigMama died. I cleared my head and thanked God for my grandmother’s good health and we drove home with our pizza.
I was eighteen years old and two weeks from heading to college. We had barely pulled in the drive when my Uncle called. Hey baby girl, he always called me baby girl, have you heard from your BigMama today? We hadn’t, but didn’t find that unusual. But she wasn’t answering her cell phone. My logical mind said, she probably is doing her laundry and left her cell phone in her apartment. But my Aunt hadn’t been able to get her to answer the phone yesterday either. The knot that formed in my stomach has never truly gone away. My sister and I were the closest, and we had a key to her apartment, so back to town we headed while our Uncle limped with his broken ankle to this standard truck to drive the hour down. We begged him not to waste his time or hurt himself.
I was just eighteen years old and two weeks from heading to college. Her car was there when we pulled into the parking lot and her door was locked. We used the key, but the chain was on the door. In the madness of denial that chased us in that moment, my sister ran to the laundry room to see if she was there. I called my Uncle and he told us to call the police. By then the apartment managers were there and the neighbors were opening up their homes around us to see the commotion. No one could recall seeing her that day or the day before. The moment the police popped the chain, with my permission as my sister was two distraught to do anything, I tried to follow them in to her apartment, sure that she had just fallen and hurt herself. I was deflected into the neighbors arms as they went in. My sister collapsed in tears.
I was just eighteen years old and only two weeks from heading to college. I asked the neighbor if I could borrow a phone. I slowly dialed my Dad’s cell phone number and prayer with all the strength I had that my Mom wouldn’t answer. I couldn’t call my Mom to tell her that her Mom was gone. She didn’t. He did. Daddy, Big Mama died. Y’all have to come home. More phone calls, to the Aunt, to the Uncle, someone ran around our town to track down our pastor and he and his wife came at once.
I was just eighteen years old and only two weeks from heading to college. I didn’t cry. I couldn’t then. I had to tell the funeral home that she wanted to be cremated. I had to wait for my parents to arrive to take over. I had to hold it together and talk to my Dad’s Dad so he could come pick up my brother. I had to be the strong one. I held my Mom that night as she cried and finally the tears came. We were all curled up on the couch, Mom, Dad, my sister, me, and both my Aunts. And we cried together.
I was just eighteen years old and about to head to college. That night was the end of my childhood. I had to say goodbye to my beloved grandmother and take on responsibilities far and away above my experience. My pastor’s wife said to me that night, You’re not a child anymore. This made you grow up all at once. I’m so sorry.
I was eighteen years old and two weeks from heading to college. My catalyst moment was the coming of age trope that I hated the most. Tragedy. I didn’t cry when I knew she was dead. I didn’t cry when I had to call my Mom to tell her. But I cried this morning, because I still miss her and I still miss the me before that night. Sometimes, becoming an adult isn’t worth it.