4. a person who is fully grown or developed or of age.
5. a full-grown animal or plant.
6. a person who has attained the age of maturity as specified by law.
Wow. We are really spinning our wheels here, yes? It seems to me that the overwhelming message is that we don’t really know what a grown-up is. That there is no true definition. We don’t know what one is, but we continually point at people and call them grown-ups. But how do we know that they are, indeed, grown-ups? I ask, because people regularly point at me and call me a grown-up. And I wonder if they’re right.
By pretty much any physical indicator, I seem to qualify. I am married. I have a few children. I have a mortgage and car payments. My body doesn’t move the way is used to. I wake up in the middle of the night to pee. I have more salt than pepper on the old noggin. I suspect if I was part of a debate club and my side of the debate was that I qualify as an adult, the empirical evidence would weigh heavily on my side.
On the other hand, if the opposing side were to do their research, I imagine they would find a whole host of actions, words and choices supporting the theory that I am not a grown-up at all. If, additionally, they were somehow to gain access to my thoughts, instincts and desires, they might well guarantee themselves a landslide.
My kids seem to think I’m a grown-up. The fourteen seven year-old’s in my Brownie troop seem fairly sure of it. There’s a whole mess of people who pay me a pretty penny to assist them in their own processes of being grown-up.
But, still, if “grown-up” means “having maturity”, and “maturity” means “the state of having achieved maturation,” and “adult” means “having grown up,” how does anyone gauge what signifiers to clue in on in the hopes of reaching a decision?
As a consequence of all this confusion and indecision, I tend to keep a close eye on exterior input which might be of use in the answering of this cosmic question.
Which is why the arrival of my cousin Alex at O’hare airport was of particular significance.
Alex is the only son of my Uncle Bob (mom’s brother) and Aunt Andrea (the best thing Uncle Bob ever stumbled across). Uncle Bob had left suburban New Jersey for Miami when I was four or five (by his own admission, to escape the rigid patriarchy of my grandfather), so cousin Alex was raised about 1500 miles south of where I spent my formative years.
I recall, quite vividly, spending the summer of my freshman year of high school staying with Bob and Andrea a few months after Alex had been born. He was an astoundingly cute baby and I have always had something of an obesession with teeny ones; so I spent every night that summer watching television with Aunt Andrea waiting, with bated breath, for little Alex to be woken up for feeding time. It was a wonderful feeling sitting in the corner of their plush, blue corduroy couch, holding Alex’s fragile, limp body, staring hypnotized as he sucked at the nipple, drawing sustenance into his new body. I was only three when my sister was born. I only have four first cousins and two of them are older than me. When Alex’s big sister came into the world, I don’t recall meeting her, or at least spending an extended amount of time with her, until she reached toddlerhood. That summer was really the first, and only, time I ever got to interact with, and take care of, a baby member of the clan. Consequently, my summer with newborn Alex felt, then and now, quite significant.
With that said, over the next two decades of his life, I would guess that Alex and I spent significant face time together no more than thirty times. And no more than twice since I moved to Illinois in 2003. So Alex and I really had no relationship to speak of. We loved each other, no doubt. It’s just that the love had existed almost exclusively in absentia. So all Alex knew of me was that I was his cool older cousin and all I knew of him is that he was Uncle Bob and Aunt Andrea’s cute little boy.
Then, about a year and a half ago, there came a shift. As it happens, this blog was part of, if not the main conduit for, this shift. Unbeknownst to me, Alex had become a reader; and an enthusiastic one at that. As he tells it, he began to learn about me, my journey, my challenges, my life, as he perused piece after piece. Shortly thereafter, he phoned me one day. It was marvelous to hear the message he left. I called him back immediately. As we engaged in some genial small talk, I found myself feeling both disarmed and at ease simultaneously. The chatting was easy. It made me feel warm and connected to have the chat flow like so much butter after such an elongated period of distance. And yet, it was borderline bizarre attempting to adjust to the voice of what was clearly no longer a little boy. Clearly, I was aware that he had entered his third decade of life, and certainly did not expect that we would end up talking about Sesame Street and Lincoln Logs, and yet it was still a surprise to hear the deep tones he was emitting and the liberal use of his impressive vocabulary. I had heard, through the family grapevine, here and there, a variety of snippets about Alex excelling and striving in a whole host of arenas. I knew he had made excellent grades in high school and college. I knew that he was proficient on the guitar and could surf like a native Hawaiian. I knew he was tall and lithe and handsome- a ladies man just like his dad.
It became clear within ten minutes that he was all of that and more. It was exciting. I was psyched to be speaking to my cousin- I was even more psyched that I totally liked him. It was easy to grasp that he was cool as hell, and yet completely humble at the same time. The quips and sarcasm flowed organically and the laughter wove itself through the dialogue like a couple of DNA strands. Then, as if it wasn’t already delightful enough, Alex asked if he might seek my council on a subject causing him some concern.
My heart leapt. He was calling for advice. Obviously, something in the writing had given him the impression that his older cousin was competent. He had called wanting my help. It felt like an affirmation. I was being called upon by someone in my bloodline with the hopes that I might offer trustworthiness, empathy and wisdom. I was determined not to let him down.
I don’t think I did. Honestly, I don’t even recall the specifics of the issue he posed, but I most certainly recall that he thanked me vociferously, claiming that he felt calmer and more directed as a result of our talk. Over the next year, Alex would reach out at least twice more for help and we struck up an ongoing Facebook dialogue checking in around family, work, and school.
Alex had made the decision to go to dental school and found himself working like a dog attempting to navigate the time management, the competition and the endless array of new information which comes with a degree of this magnitude. Considering that, I was more than a bit surprised when he called wondering if he could take me up on my multiple offers to come visit. Apparently, he had a short break and wanted to use the time to come see me and my family. He asked if he could bring his girlfriend and I told him we could not wait.
I stood in the airport awaiting their arrival. Alex had buzzed me on the cell to tell me they were taxiing in on the tarmac. I was walking toward carousel five, but saw them, and realized it was them, by the time I crossed carousel two.
They were beautiful. They were magnificent. It was like Brad and Angelina had come to town. They were holding hands and waving, decked out in casual boho-chic, smiling like they had just come off a Dentine commercial.
I like pretty people. I just do. I don’t like pretty assholes. But all things being even, I prefer to be around attractive people. I suppose there is something petty in that. I don’t know. I don’t judge or avoid the ugly. And, of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’m also not of the mind that I am some great prize. There is certainly no danger of my being cast in the remake of Magnum P.I. But I am more drawn to those I see as attractive. Call it what you will.
And if the two of them had been hunchback dwarfs with severe deformities and lateral lisps, I would not have turned them away. We might well have had a grand old-time anyway. But they were quite pleasant to look at and that was just fine and dandy.
The connection was immediate with both of them. We were effortlessly sharing and giggling before we hit 294 North. Alex was as delightful in person as he was on the phone and it would be an understatement to say that he had secured himself a worthy companion. Brittany was an absolute peach. A superb lady on all accounts. Think a young Brooke Burke with the mind of Ann Coulter and the sass of Sandra Bernhard. They are a couple who need to reproduce, if for no other reason, that the world needs more people like them.
As it happens, though, there are clearly other, more important reasons, that producing little ones would be in their best interest. This became abundantly clear within moments of our walking into the house, as both my daughters fell madly and completely in love with both of them. The immediate draw was undeniable. Both girls were head over heels. For them, it was as if rock stars had come to town. Like Justin Bieber and Miranda Cosgrove had shown up and revealed that they were relatives. The deep satisfaction if filled me with was almost overwhelming. It felt, to an extent, out of proportion. Not troubling, mind you, just curious. I had seen my kids take a shine to many people before, family and otherwise. So why did their reaction to Alex and Brittney feel so uniquely powerful?
I realized that what I was experiencing was a kind of deja vu. Somehow, I had done this before. And, suddenly, I knew exactly when that was.
Sydney and Ryan’s reaction to Alex and Brittney was nearly identical to the effect I had had on Alex and his sister, Ashley, two decades before.
It was the summer of 1994. I was 22, a year younger than Alex and Brittney are now. I had been dating a woman named Michelle, who was ten years my senior. I had spoken with Uncle Bob and set up a trip for Michelle and I, which would feature three or four days hanging out with the family and then an excursion to Key West. Alex had to have been about eight, the same age as Sydney today.
For the next three days, the kids were all over us. Every waking second, they were at our side. Begging to color, read books, watch TV, swim. When we went out to play doubles with Bobby and Andrea, they wanted to watch. When they woke in the morning, they would wait outside the guest room door for us to rise and play once more. They’d cry and complain anytime it was suggested that mommy and daddy craved some alone time with the guests. For them, our presence was the most exciting thing their little minds could conceive of, and they didn’t want to waste a second.
I was smack dab in the middle of a re-creation of that summer. Nearly a mirror image. Only now, I was not the visitor, but the host. I was the one who owned the pretty house. I was the one with the wife and children. I was the…
I was the grown-up.
And there it was. Data. Indisputable evidence. Somehow, the true gift that Alex and Brittney brought to town was the stark reality that I had grown up. And it wasn’t just the mid-nineties redo. It was in the way they seemed to experience us. The easy, honest conversations we’d shared on the ride from the airport continued on through their entire stay. We spoke at length, deep into the night, about family and love and addiction and intimacy and hopes and fears and God. I listened as they spoke of co-dependency and rigidity in both their family systems. I listened as they spoke about their mutual desire for a healthy union and the capacity to effectively raise children. I listened as they spoke of staying mindful and aware of how to find people they loved and respected who might model for them the tools one needs to manifest such desires. And then I realized that they were talking about us.
They said that they understood the connection that Lorri and I shared to be rare. They said that they could see that we talked to our children rather than at them and that we seemed to really love being parents. They said that they felt safe and happy spending time with The Marks in The Mark Household. On some level, they wanted what we have.
And through these words, I think I figured out what a grown up is. Or, at least, how to figure out if you are one. I realized that our guests were basically telling us that they not only understood us as grown ups, but that they sensed that the way in which we had chosen to grow up might well provide for them some useful markers in designing their own road map.
What’s more, I could see that my life had shifted from being about having what I want to being about wanting what I have. This is to say, I was able to be curious and fascinated by the spot where they stand without wanting it for myself. Like I said, they are amazing. Everything is in front of them. And they have the world by the balls. I imagine them in ten years as a gorgeous dentist married to a gorgeous doctor with fabulous children, a boatload of money, and a decadent lifestyle replete with fine dining, exotic vacations and a network of artistic and social visionaries. And I love that image. And I’d love to a part of it.
But I don’t want it for myself. I don’t want to be 22 again. I don’t want to go back to the freedoms and simplicities accompanying that particular segmentation of one’s existence.
I want to be 38. I want to be married to my wife. I want to be a daddy to my children. I want to live in Wheaton and pay my mortgage and make my car payments and see my clients and write my blog.
And I want to have people like Alex and Brittney show up now and again to remind me that all these things, apparently, are the actions of a grown up.