“Is this what being an adult is like?” he asks me, fresh from a frustrating 18th-birthday morning spent with his dad at the DMV at the bank, battling bureaucratic bullshit and accomplishing exactly nothing. We look at each other, John and I, and John says, “Pretty much.”
He’s so excited to be 18, so ready to take on the world. He marches to the beat of his own drum. A brilliant boy, a gifted writer, a kid who doesn’t do his homework but engages in lively classroom discussions and aces his tests, he has no current plans to go to college. He wants to graduate high school, get a job, and move out as soon as humanly possible.
And yet he was born only yesterday, or so it seems to me, our 11.5 lb. firstborn son, a beautiful baby with intermingled locks of light brown, blonde, and gold. “I know this baby!” my mother said when she saw him. Our first child was her father’s image, but Jake looked like my family–really the only one of five that does. His hair would be the color of mine–if mine were not grey and he had not dyed his a dark red, just enough off the natural spectrum to be edgy but not extreme. But he has the blue eyes and the fair Irish skin that only burns.
We knew nothing of boys–there were three girls in my family and John is an only child–and Jake was a challenge. He was a good baby and a sweet child, but he started breaking things at eight months old and never stopped. Teddy arrived only a year later–poor Jake was the baby of the family for only a short time–and they became partners in crime, but Jake was the definite leader as they drove my car into the side of the garage, kidnapped the neighbors kittens, and ran away to “look at Chapman Highway.”
Jake would run around like a maniac and when I would try to calm him down he would say, “But Mommy, don’t you know I get all cwazed up?” We didn’t know at the time that the “cwaziness” indicated ADHD, which both animates Jake and makes his life more challenging than the rest of us can understand. Once we figured this out, proper medication helped him concentrate and do his homework, but at a high price: sleep difficulties, loss of appetite, and a dampening of his personality that made him feel like he was in a fog. His behavior when off the medication in the summertime led his brother to lament: “Oh, God. Jake’s happy.”
All of us grownups know that high school is as painful as it is fun, and Jake’s experience has been no different. He excelled in theatre. He became a “rowdy teenager with a lot of friends” who loved to hang out together downtown. His teachers loved him. They praised his contributions to class discussion and his writing. But homework problems and sleep difficulties dragged him down. Clinical depression and conflicts at school made 17 (which I fondly recall as one of my best ages) a rough year indeed for Jake. He transferred out of an environment that was becoming toxic for him–not my choice but one which I have come to believe has been best for him. He walked bravely into an enormous public school, made friends, passed his classes, and got into a program that accommodates his desire to get out of high school and on with real life sooner than his peers.
In a family of strong-willed people, Jake’s may be the strongest. As his parents we realize that at 18 he has absorbed all he is getting from us. One of my favorite quotations comes from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, when the main character, after reflecting upon her life, offers her friend this bit of wisdom: “It’s a known fact . . . yuh got to go there to know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got to do fuh theyselves. They got to go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
Happy Birthday, Jake. It’s your time.