At 16 I was harnessed safely into the parachute of parental support and family insurance. I was dismissive and thoughtless, and I needed dental work. My whole life, my teeth have been a mess. I got braces young and kept them for years. Cavities came constantly and I couldn’t be bothered to brush twice a day, let alone floss. So when my dentist told me that my wisdom teeth needed to be removed—surgically no less—I was quick to do absolutely nothing.
At 18, the age at which you may legally call yourself an adult, but long before anyone will ever treat you as such, he told me again and I took his words under honest consideration, nodded my head with more accountable enthusiasm, agreed endlessly with his warnings, walked out promising to schedule an appointment ASAP, and washed my hands of it the instant I hit the freeway.
Eventually those four giants came in, one at a painful time. And soon after that they impacted. Over the course of a year they succeeded in rearranging the careful and costly placement of my bottom teeth. And what did I do? In my myopic way I popped Advil like an over-the-counter junkie for weeks at a time, and did nothing. I avoided telling my parents; admitting that there was a problem would have meant admitting that I had a responsibility to take some form of tangible action. This was utterly impossible: 20-year-old me was susceptible to crippling embarrassment, an affliction that prevented him from even calling to schedule an appointment, let alone conceding that he’d made a agonizing mistake.
A year ago (almost a decade after those initial warnings) the issue finally came to a head. The pain grew so bad I could no longer ignore it; my bottom two wisdom teeth had grown diagonally into the teeth in front of them, creating twin cavern-size cavities on either side of my mouth, decayed so horribly the nerves had become exposed. Which resulted in some bank-breaking dental work and a severe questioning of my card-carrying adult status.
Throughout childhood we are led to believe that there is some ultimate feeling of grownup-ness—likely lurking somewhere behind our next milestone. In high school that milestone is a driver’s license—that magnificent freedom—and college. In college, it’s a studio apartment and graduation. In post-graduation-poverty, it’s a job with a salary large enough to wrestle down biting loan payments. Because what is more adult than the capitalistic idolatry of making lots of money?
Not only has the feeling of adulthood remained elusive to me at every juncture, but also, as the years pass, I’ve come to feel that I’m stuck on the threshold, snagged on the chain link fence of the between, not at home in either camp:
Things that make me feel like a kid:
- Girls are still girls
- I am unafraid of the Taco Bell breakfast menu
- I steal my mother’s Netflix account and my father pays my phone bill
- I frequently miss the middle section of my back when applying sunscreen
- I still cook Pizza Rolls in the microwave
- I still eat Pizza Rolls
- A well-balanced meal is any one lacking ice cream
Things that should make me feel like an adult:
- I teach college creative writing
- I’m married
- My cats’ lives depends on me (as of this writing both are in good health)
- I regularly clean my toilet
- I answer the phone almost every time my mother calls
- Again, to reiterate, I’m married
- My wife and I have discussed the merits of adoption
- Staying out past 11:00 p.m. any night of the week terrifies me
As I sat in the operating room of the dental school and watched the IV drip slowly into my arm, I began to wonder what exactly being an adult should feel like. I always assumed it would be a feeling of understanding, of knowing, maybe with a splash of superiority. And I assumed that, suddenly, I would have the answers to the elusive questions of my childhood; that I’d be someone whose advice held value.
Then, I was out.
When I woke, bleeding on myself and hilariously swollen, my dentists showed me the tooth they had had to saw in half to remove from my mouth.
“That son-of-a-bitch didn’t want to come out,” someone muttered affectionately.
My Vicodin induced epiphany? That stubborn little tooth was me. In refusing to have any sort of agency in my life, I was not clinging to childhood or fending off adulthood; instead I was creating costly problems for every possible future-me. And the act of finally submitting to the financial and physical burden of oral surgery was not an act of denying my youth and embracing my adulthood, but rather it was simply one sensible choice in a series of sensible choices that will hopefully lead me to some sort of life stability.
What then is adulthood but an acceptance of responsibility? And since responsibility—I have been told—is the burden of knowledge, am I allowed to assume that adulthood is simply some great knowledge? Some profound awakening?
When, then, will I feel this awakening? Does it come to everyone? And do we even recognize it when it comes?
Today, as I make clumsy attempts to weave together the haphazard strands of my life, I’ve come to wonder if it is fatherhood that will bring on grownup-ness once and for all. Maybe it is in parenthood that some great knowledge awaits?
When I look at my own father, I see a confidence. A knowing. While he is busily working through his retirement on the south side of 70, my father, as a man that I’ve only recently come to know as a person and not just a father, is one of the most carefree individuals I’ve ever met. He carries himself as though he has not carried a burden in years, and as we’ve grown closer of late—as people—he has come to offer me less and less advice.
Not for a moment, though, do I believe that he is a man short on advice. These days, he sticks simply to assurance; in his cryptic and effervescent way he grins and shrugs and says, “You’ll figure it out.”
So I am left to wonder if he’s found something in me, something that I haven’t yet found in myself, that has nonetheless begun to ease some great and ancient parental burden in him.
Maybe this is what I’m waiting for? Maybe it’s this unspoken approval that holds the key to my grownup-ness? Or maybe it won’t happen until I can reach that easily burnable patch of pale skin in the middle of my back.