1996: The Year I Grew Up
“Some are born mature, some achieve maturity, and some have maturity thrust upon them.” No, this is not the exact quote from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but I don’t think he’d mind my taking a little artistic liberty with it for the sake of telling my story. Besides, who’s to say that maturity isn’t great?
1996 was the year that maturity and I met. I was six years old.
I distinctly remember thinking to myself, post-birthday, how laughable it was that earlier that same year I had been the little age of five. Even today when people talk about children I have to remind myself that, to most people, six years old is very young. My initial reaction is always to consider anyone over the age of five as an individual with the reasoning and worldview of an adult.
Let me back up a bit. Up until 1996 I was about as normal as any kid can be, growing up in small-town Washington, the youngest of four daughters. Our family was normal in that it was dysfunctional. We had our share of trouble and woe, but it was normal to me and I loved my loud, emotional, combustible family intensely and with the childlike faith that nothing would ever change. My days were filled with the magic of the quotidian—pretending to be Indians with my closest sister Erika, getting stuck in the branches of the walnut tree in our backyard, playing with strange rocks and cats. I listened with reverent awe to the stories my sisters told about School, that veiled otherworld they disappeared to and returned from every day. So intrigued was I by the mystery of that realm that I even christened my stuffed animals with names from School’s exclusive dialect, including Classroom, Recess, and Math. The names were beautiful to me, just like everything in my life.
Things have the tendency to change, though, and the summer before I started first grade we were forced to move out of our house and into another. Despite the excitement of moving, I was heartbroken to leave my home on Sunny Drive. Nothing could compare to that comforting fireplace, that fabulous blue-green shag carpet, the dizzy rail-less balcony off the second-story living room, those adrenaline-inducing dark corners of the basement, the broken fence in the backyard next to the pine tree oozing sap, the bushes in the side alley that blossomed with snowballs in springtime. Some tried to convince me that our new house was better, but I had moved out of my Narnia and into the lackluster world on the adult side of the wardrobe.
My family also changed, and the idea that we would always be together was proven wrong. My oldest sister Amy graduated from high school and, along with my dad, moved to Anchorage to work for a year. A year is a long time when you’ve only lived five. I gained a gradual awareness of our family’s financial struggles as my mom seemed to come home later and later from the hospital where she worked as a nurse and as I heard snippets of strained conversations between my parents about money and rent. I began to notice the snags and loose threads in our family’s tapestry that I had always considered so beautiful and secure.
I learned about cancer by looking at photographs of brightly-colored masses with funny names like “spleen” and “ovaries.” My mom explained to me that these were pictures of things inside my grandma’s body—she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I didn’t really know what that meant, I was just grossed out by the fact that a camera could go places that people weren’t made to see, disturbing the sacred ground on the other side of one’s skin, turning the mystery of life into a grotesque graphic print-out. My grandfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in quick succession, and suddenly the two strong Alaskan pillars of my extended family were crippled. This was not what life was supposed to be like. Due to overheard conversations about inheritances and wills, Erika and I formed the habit of petitioning our parents for the ownership of specific items when the inevitable time came. It was very common at mealtimes for conversations to begin with, “Mom, when you die can I have…” The two of us were very competitive in our requests, and sometimes things got heated if both of us wanted the same thing. In retrospect I am impressed that our parents didn’t take our appeals too personally.
The day finally came when I was able to enter the scholarly world myself, and I was initiated into school life with a bee sting on the first day of first grade. Trying to hold my tears back didn’t work, so I wailed as the motherly teacher’s assistant carried me through the halls in her arms, patting my back. That bee sting might have been an omen, but I’m not much one for superstition.
Not long after school started, I began wetting the bed almost every night, and I was so dang thirsty all the time. In case you haven’t recently wet the bed or gone camping in the rain, I will remind you that waking up in a soggy bed is remarkably unpleasant. My parents weren’t too pleased themselves, and wondered if I was just acting out because of all the changes going on in my life. The day before my mom left on a trip to Alaska for my grandparents’ final wedding anniversary she took me to the clinic to have some labwork done. It happened to be picture day at school, so she returned me to school in time for my first-grade portrait to be taken. She shortly returned, however, with an ominous bag of my clothes in the car and a doll that I didn’t even like and told me we had to go back to the hospital. I asked her plaintively if I would have to have a shot. Over the next five days in the Intensive Care Unit I had a lot of shots while I learned what Juvenile Diabetes was and tried to adjust to the fact that it was permanent. Having to take shots every day for the rest of your life probably sounds a lot more fun to a cowboy in a cantina than to a six-year-old girl in a hospital bed. I did enjoy the privilege of eating from the hospital’s menu for those five days, but I was a little miffed when they kept forgetting to bring me the ice cream I wanted. When I was finally released from the hospital and got back home I realized my life was already irreparably changed and the best I could do was to grin and bear it.
A few weeks later my package of school pictures arrived. I recently ran across them in a pile of old photographs. The little girl grinning lethargically from the page with half her teeth missing and dark circles under her eyes is the face of growing up. She is still a little kid, yes, but it’s obvious that the gleam that childhood paints on the world has worn thin, and she has already experienced tribulations that often come with, or lead to, maturity. It’s bittersweet for me because I wish that the child-like faith in the complete magic of life was unbroken, but the difficulties I went through tempered my character and made me appreciate life’s beauty because of a starker contrast. My first-grade picture from 1996 is a single moment forever memorializing my coming-of-age into the real world, leaving the safe haven of childhood behind for the unknown mysteries of maturity. But if Shakespeare was here, he might allow me one last liberty in order to quell the fears of growing up. As the preface to my opening quote would go, “Be not afraid of maturity.”