My oldest child, my son, has had 15 birthdays. With each passing year, the physical signs of his maturation have been clearly evident. Adult-sized teeth pushed out baby-sized ones. Prominent bones erupted from beneath his cheeks, creating sharp angles from once soft curves. His height surpassed mine. The timbre of his voice descended. My son's ability to self-govern increased with every year, too.
Some birthdays seemed to particularly mark his growing autonomy, like when he turned five, old enough to start school, when he turned 10 and could cycle away unchaperoned. Becoming a teenager was, of course, a big deal. Even bigger was when he finally racked up enough trips around the sun to enter high school.
In addition to all of those milestone days, there was another day that was of particular significance to me, a day on which I wanted to observe my son and note his level of maturity. That specific day was the halfway point between his 15th and 16th birthdays, June 17. June 17 is the halfway point between my birthday as well, and the June 17 that fell between my 15th and 16th birthdays was the day my father died.
My dad was diagnosed with cancer just as I entered my freshman year of high school. It was the '70s, pre-internet. Like most teenagers back then, I relied on about six channels of broadcast television for entertainment, news and information. For whatever reason, made-for-TV movies about cancer were prevalent in the '70s. "Sunshine" was a movie about a young mother who, after learning she had cancer, records a bunch of audio cassettes for her daughter. "Something For Joey" was the tale of a little boy who had cancer. And, of course, there was "Brian's Song" the story of the friendship between Chicago Bears teammates Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, with Piccolo battling cancer.
Overly cautious spoiler alert: all the characters that had cancer died. I clearly remember when the real Brian Piccolo (not James Caan) actually passed away. My twin brother had been sent to get the morning paper. He came back into the house, handed my father the Chicago Tribune, and said, "Dad, Brian Piccolo died". My father responded with a flat toned, "he finally did," a three word statement of finality. Cancer in the '70s pretty much meant death.
There were three common types of cancer treatment back then: surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. My dad experienced all three. He grew thinner to the point of emaciated. Lost his thick, wavy brown hair, and sported small burn marks on his skin. Then one day I came home from school and my mom greeted me with the news that the cancer had spread to my dad's brain. If I had held on to any hope that he was going to "beat this"... which I really hadn't...it was gone. It took about nine months from diagnosis to death, the duration of my freshmen year of high school. My father passed away on June 17. I was 15½.
At the time, I remember feeling resigned to being without a father. I didn't feel I was particularly young to lose a parent. It is the nature of most teenagers to feel defiantly "old enough" to handle pretty much anything. So of course I was old enough to be half orphaned. I was certainly old enough to deal with my father's death without making a big deal out of it. This is the part, the part where my fifteen-year-old self thought I was old enough to lose a parent without making a fuss, that had me eyeing my own son. Somehow, through observing my son, I thought I could go back in time and sort of watch myself navigate that segment of my life again. With half of my son's DNA coming from me, I figured it would almost be like watching myself at that age. I wanted to see if I really was "old enough" to handle losing a parent without making a federal case out of it.
I studied my son as he came home during his freshman year of high school. He'd fling open the door and immediately take up as much space as possible striding through the house to get to the kitchen. I wondered how he would walk if on the way to the kitchen he had to pass by a hospital bed set up in the living room. How would he react seeing to his six-foot-tall father rapidly deteriorating to 90 pounds as he paused to ask, "How are you doing today Dad?"
I watched my son this past year balk when my husband, his dad, would ask him to help take out the garbage. No, he didn't want to, but he'd do it, grumbling all the while. How would he respond if instead his father asked him to hold a cigarette for him, while he took a drag or two off of it, because he was just too weak to hold it himself?
This past year, I watched as my son retreated to his room whenever his father had friends over. My husband is a musician and occasionally fellow artists stop by to play a few tunes. It's awkward for my son, not knowing what to say to them. I remember people stopping by to visit my dad, always ending the visit exactly the same way. Right before walking out the front door they would turn to my mother and say, "If there's anything you need, anything at all, well, just let me know." It was beyond awkward, mostly because they knew my dad was going to die, and I could tell they felt sorry for my mom, sorry for me, sorry for my whole family. It bordered on humiliating.
Watching my son live through his freshman year of high school, I was forced to acknowledge what I refused to accept decades earlier: that a 15-year-old is nowhere near as mature as they think they are. I read somewhere that on the stress scale for a teenager, the rejection of a peer group is equivalent to the death of a parent. Certainly, teenagers love their parents, but there is some truth to that stress scale theory. As a teenager, I felt absolutely old enough to handle my dad's death, but I was horrified at the thought of being labeled "the girl whose dad died." That would have been unbearable.
So, when my dad passed away, I just didn't tell anyone. Teenagers may need comfort and support, but they don't want it, or better put, they don't want to need it. Condolences feel like pity to a teen, and the weak are pitied, not the strong and definitely not the cool. Being a teenager is about emerging confidence and ever-growing empowerment. An expression of pity, no matter how compassionately given, acts like a tail hook to that forward motion of self possession, yanking it back, tethering it, right as kid is feeling the urge to soar.
My first day back to school my sophomore year, a teacher came up to me and offered her condolences. She had read about my dad in the obituaries. My friends overheard her and were at first shocked, and then were somewhat pissed that I had not told them my dad had died. Of course, they claimed, they would have come to the wake had they only known. My father was waked on, of all days, Father's Day. I absolutely did not want an audience of my peers watching me as I stood next to my dad's casket on Father's Day.
When I was in seventh grade, my closest friend came up to me and said her dad had died. The first words out of my mouth were, "You're kidding, right?" and I regretted it immediately. I felt like a jerk of a friend for expressing doubt when I should have been saying something much more supportive, but I honestly didn't know what to say. So, when my dad died, I just didn't want to put any of my friends in that same position. I didn't want anyone to feel uncomfortable or tongue-tied around me. I could tell that my son would have felt the same. He wouldn't have wanted to hear "I'm so sorry for your loss" from his peers.
The burden of knowing that your friends feel self-conscientious because of you is almost insufferable. Plus, what happens the next day or the next week? Do your friends assume you wouldn't want to hang out, because you are just too sad? Are you not invited to go to Great America because it seems too fun and crazy for someone who just lost her dad? So, yes, speaking from experience, peer rejection for a teen can be right up there on the stress scale with losing a parent.
Watching my son on the June 17, that fell between his 15th and 16th years, I felt like I had finished rereading a book, and learned something new the second time around. Fifteen is definitely a young age to lose a parent; however, losing a parent is tough no matter how old the "child." There are just different ways individuals, regardless of their age, process grief and deal with loss. I was "old enough" to handle my father's death without making a big deal about it, because that's how I wanted to handle it.
Losing a parent is hard, but it's survivable. It doesn't have to be devastating. I think kids live in the present so much better than adults do. When you experience a loss as an adult, you project yourself into the future, thinking, how will I go on? Or wallow in the past, bemoaning, I'll never have that person in my life again. Kids are so much better at living in the moment. That is not to say they aren't grieving -- they are -- but they are less willing to remain there.
I think because friendships mean so much to kids, and because kids are fairly inexperienced at comforting peers through major crises, kids who lose a loved one have to "move on" at maybe a swifter pace than adults. Adults will bring you food, to hold your hand, to encourage you to "go ahead and cry". Kids aren't going to do any of that for each other, because they don't know how to, and honestly, they don't want to. Kids want to laugh, to joke around, and to have fun. The kid who lost a parent wants to feel "normal" and his peers want him "normal," too. I could see my son handling the death of my husband pretty much the way I handled my dad's death: accepting that it sucked and wasn't fair, but then moving through it.
When I was in my mid-20s, I found myself sitting at Arlington Park race track with three friends. It was Father's Day at the track. All four of us were young when we had lost our dads. There was a kinship between us, an understanding, a knowing. There the four of us were, adults, dealing with the loss the same way we had when the loss happened, hanging out, trying to act normal.
At one point, one friend said, "You know, losing my dad as a teenager was both the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. It was horrible to go through, but I wouldn't be who I am today if it hadn't happened." The rest of us nodded in agreement. We got it.
There is a quiet scene in the movie "Braveheart" that echoes my friend's statement. William Wallace is a child and his father has been killed. In a dream, his father spirit visits young William and says simply "Your heart is free. Have the courage to follow it." There is an expectation parents set for their kids and in the absence of that, the kids are free to set their own. This, of course, can be good or not so good, the best and/or worst thing that could ever happen to someone. My twin brother took up the guitar when my dad died. He practiced the same licks and riffs and chords over and over and over again. That "racket" or "cacophony" would have made my dad nuts. I don't know that my brother would have ever taught himself guitar had my dad lived. My brother became an excellent musician. Some events can be both the best and worst things that ever happen to you.
My son was home the morning of June 17, but by noon he was itching to hang out with his friends. At 15½, he is pretty much focused on having fun. This would be his last year experiencing a summer without having to work and he knew it. I held the door open for my son as he wheeled his bike out of the house. I stared at him, seeing myself as a 15½-year-old on June 17. I had the same feeling I get when I feel the urge to double-check if I locked a door. I know I locked it. I remembered locking it, but for some reason, I just need to go back and double-check it to reassure myself that it is indeed locked.
In this case, I knew I dealt with my dad's death. I remembered dealing with it. Watching my son on June 17 was my way of going back and double-checking just one last time, to reassure myself that I did indeed deal with it.