Someone asked me several weeks ago, “when is it that you think you became a grown up?” Seems like an easy question, but I really had to think about it.
Growing up, my parents often reminded my sister and me what “being a grown-up” meant. What I gathered from most of these talks is that being a grown-up often meant making tough choices. Being a grown-up meant taking responsibility – admitting when you had done something wrong and letting people know you were sorry (and with action, my mother would say, not just words. “Sorry” doesn’t mean anything if your behavior doesn’t change. Wise woman, my mother). Being a grown-up meant standing up for what you believe in, no matter what, and knowing when to take up the good fight. It also meant knowing when to walk away.
Sometimes, being a grown-up meant putting other people’s needs in front of your own, but it also meant knowing when you, yourself, are the priority. It meant appreciating those in your life despite the flaws you perceive. It meant saying “I love you” often, even if love was hard. Most important, they told me, being a grown-up meant taking a truly honest look at yourself – all the positives, all the flaws. Basically, being a grown-up seemed like an awful lot of work.
So, instead of stating what made me a grown-up, I think it’s better to start with all the things that didn’t actually make me a grown-up, even though at the time I felt like a very worthy member of the “grown-up” class. Looking back, these events might have shown I was “a big girl” (like my mom and dad used to tell me whenever they wanted me to be brave, obedient, polite, and especially when they used to leave me with a babysitter, which I hated), or even that I was “growing up.” But, make me a grown-up, they did not. I would come to realize this years later.
I didn’t become a grown-up when I left for college in Texas, living away from my parents who lived in California. It wasn’t the first time I had sex (which, by the way, I am embarrassed to admit occurred before I left for college and like most “first times” was an incredibly disappointing experience). Not when I graduated college, not when I paid taxes for the first time and argued to my dad that the government should keep their greedy hands off my earnings, not when I entered law school, not even when I passed the California Bar Exam or took on my first client after I became licensed. It wasn’t even when I got married, left California, my family and my friends to move in with and start playing house with my husband in Colorado.
No, I became a grown-up in the early morning of May 20, 2002, when I answered my cell phone, during a stay at my parents’ house, and a detective on the other end of the phone asked if I was alone or if someone could stand near me while we talked. When I told him I wasn’t alone and that my mom was with me, the detective proceeded, rather bluntly, to tell me that my husband, Greg, had been found dead in our garage, outside his vehicle and surrounded by personal effects. The next slur of words were a blur in my brain: carbon monoxide poisoning – self inflicted – apparent suicide – letters left behind – I am terribly sorry – when do you think you will be able to catch a flight to Colorado and make the necessary arrangements? At this point, my own screaming and crying was making it impossible to hear any of it. At that very moment, I didn’t want to be a grown-up. But I was. I had to be. This life changing event made me a grown-up who would be forced to do very grown-up things.
Seven months earlier, I had been a bride, walking down the aisle in my Grace Kelly inspired gown surrounded by family and friends, stating the vows “till death do us part” to the man I loved more than anything else in the world. Dreams of happily ever after (despite the many warning signs that this would be difficult to achieve) filled my mind: a new life in Colorado, career changes, babies – so many things I wanted to think were possible.
In a sudden moment, by answering the phone, I had become a twenty-eight year old widow, trying my hardest to channel my own inner Jacqueline Kennedy, whose grace and dignity in times of grief and turmoil I always so admired. Tough times and tough choices were ahead of me. Grown-up arrived, hard and fast.
My eight year relationship with Greg hadn’t been easy in the end. There were times when it hadn’t even been easy in the beginning or the middle. Throughout our relationship, Greg struggled first with alcohol and then with prescription drug addiction, after several car accidents and resulting back and neck surgeries left him dealing with chronic pain. He achieved periods of sobriety, only to relapse countless times. Three months before our wedding, he completed a thirty day residential treatment program. This time, we both held faith that sobriety would stick. Getting married at that time was perhaps not the smartest move, but it was something we both really wanted. Love conquers all and that sort of thing. Years prior, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which explained so many things about him and his behavior, but also brought him a lot of shame. The best way he knew to live with the diagnosis was to pretend like it didn’t exist. He simply ignored it, denied it, and he asked that I ignore it too. Not an easy feat, any of it. So, in the end, things unraveled in a magnificent way under the pressure of all these various factors. I had actually been staying with my parents in California for several weeks before my husband’s suicide. We both needed some time and space to evaluate how we could, if at all, rectify some of the difficulties in our marriage. With his death, I was forced to look all these parts of our life straight in the eye, all the while answering the myriad questions being lobbed at me by friends, family and even strangers: How could this have happened? Why wasn’t I there for him? How would we all go on? Just to name a few.
In the days, months, and years that followed my Greg’s suicide, I became a grown-up with each decision I made. These included having to claim his body, planning three different memorial services so that all his friends and family could be accommodated, determining final disposition of his remains (which, for a time, caused friction between me and his mother), packing up our home in Colorado and moving belongings back to California, (and then determining the “right time” to finally let go of his clothes and other things), living daily without my partner, and going back to a job I didn’t enjoy because Greg had left me with a mountain of debt . Through all of this, I found my voice – a voice that had been hibernating for quite some time.
I became a grown-up when I started to say what I meant and meant what I said. When I forgave others for their inability to be there for me, I became a grown-up. When I grieved on my own terms and realized there wasn’t an end to grief, but instead an integration of grief into daily life, I became a grown-up.
While Greg’s suicide was a defining moment in my life, I wasn’t going to allow it to define my life. It would not destroy me. Sure, I felt sorry for myself many times, but generally, I tried to get up every morning, greet the world, and make my situation the best that it could be. Every time someone looked at me and said “Suicide is so selfish. But really, what did you expect, marrying a person with all those problems?” and I replied, “I expected we would make the best out of every day. I married him because I loved him, and I believed I could make a difference in his life, and all the good times and all the bad times made me who I am today. And that is a gift that he left me,” I became a grown-up.
Finally, when I forgave myself, I became a grown-up. When I realized that just like I wasn’t responsible for my husband’s troubled childhood, his addictions, his mental illness or the legal problems linked to all of it, and I wasn’t responsible for his final act of suicide, my heart and my soul were freed again. Once that occurred, I was able to fully be there for myself, and, in turn, for the ones that I love, and ones going through difficulties and experiencing similar losses and trying to survive. I kept my heart open, even when it hurt. Because in life, what matters most is the joy and love that we share. What matters is the kindness that we show.
That remains Greg’s lasting gift. And that is what this grown-up knows.
(This piece was written in 2011 but given life on July 10, 2014 when it was first run on http://www.projectunderblog. I’m sharing it here to provide just a little more background about me – so that hopefully as we continue this journey the newer pieces will have a context that makes a little sense.)