The Woman I've Become


The other day, my son asked when I became an adult. Since then, I’ve become obsessed with that question. The effort to name the particular moment has been bogged down in the thousands of moments in which I thought I had become an adult only to be greeted with a healthy dose of humility.

Growing Up

I remember being about eight years old and feeling certain I’d reached adulthood. I was walking from my second grade classroom to the school library. How grown up I felt as my shoes clicked and echoed like the high heals of Mrs. Murphy at the head of the line. I remember standing at the top of the hill that overlooked the school playground with my hair blowing in the wind, imagining the great woman I would become one day. Closing my eyes, I felt strong and bold. I felt as though youth itself were the only burden I had left to bear.

I remember being fifteen, a modern-day Juliet whose father simply didn’t appreciate the beauty of a brown-eyed boy with long hair and Lennon-style glasses. I remember how passionate and adult our love felt as we splashed in the waves off the beach downtown, like children, laughing in the fading sunlight. At night, we walked the train tracks like rebels into the hidden places of the city; in my mind, we were another love story for the ages.

With naïveté, I believed that I—specifically the woman I had dreamed of becoming as a child—was most certainly meant for this enveloping, crushing, drowning, all-consuming kind of love. And it didn’t matter that my parents simply didn’t understand. 

In the months that followed, I eventually found my big old grown-up self shaking and crying in the arms of my mother when he left. She had found me sobbing, damp, and naked in an empty bathtub. She wrapped me in a towel, like a little baby, and told me to stand tall. "There is more to life than this," she told me as she raised my chin with her hand so my eyes would meet hers, just as she had done a dozen times when I had skinned my knees or gotten paper cuts as a young girl. The hot burn of first love lost is not easy to see past. Her advice seemed to taunt me and my grownup love and the nature of its loss, but I stood. I took her advice and I stepped toward my life.

Learning to Be Strong

After a while I relearned how to be content with sixteen for the moment. I met my best friends, Gail and Jacquie, and together we found new ways to be grown up. We skipped classes, and we danced by midnight bonfires. We redefined loyalty and friendship, we learned how to be confident, we tried to be sexy. We smoked Camel Wides and defied every authority figure. We stood on street corners downtown and flaunted our oh-so-very-grown-up bodies, as the boys drove by flaunting their oh-so-very-grown-up cars.

Slightly hardened, I learned quickly that love is not so elusive as my fairy tale had once led me to believe. I learned to love the computer geek, the baseball player, the best friend, the future army engineer. I loved them desperately—but in a separate place, over there. Like a grown and jaded woman, I never again allowed myself to completely crumble for some one else.

I did not crumble to the school bully. I did not crumble to the science teacher who wanted to get into my pants, who gave me a failing grade. I did not crumble when a boy I loved hit me with a closed fist, square in the face, for asking him to wear a condom. I did not crumble when he held me down and shoved my face against the bed frame.

I was too strong for that. I never crumbled for any one. Not ever.

Faking It

Never that is, until the day that I realized that there was someone else dependent on me. I was sitting in a downtown Planned Parenthood, skipping fifth period math class, when a girl with a nose ring came through the door and confirmed what I already knew. My cheeks burned as hot as they had when I had misspelled "audacity" in a fifth grade spelling bee.

As the girl with the nose ring asked me questions, I realized with terror how thrilled the father of this baby would be. To him, this was an excuse for me to quit school, move to his grandma’s house like his mama had, and start popping out babies while he went out logging and drinking beer. The sweaty fear of my rape paled in comparison to that moment in the pregnancy center, as I asked myself how I could ever look this child in the eye and explain to them how I could offer my rapist as their father.

A week later, I filled out the forms like the grown woman I must have become. I faked the address and smuggled the insurance check to a small clinic where I closed my eyes and grasped at my friend Jacquie’s hand.

Thanks to what I can only assume was Valium, the next thing I remember is that we were out back waiting for a ride home. My hands shook as Jacquie took a stack of papers from me. She watched my eyes and how they fell on the blue dumpster beside us. Like my mother, Jacquie raised my chin, forcing me to look her in the eyes and said, "Your child is not in there. May God forgive you, but you know that he has no business being a daddy." That afternoon, we went back to her house, and Jacquie made me a PB&J and some chocolate milk. We watched soaps for a few hours before I went home to pretend my world had not just ended.

Out of Reach

Two days later, I woke up in the hospital. My father sat at the foot of my bed in the same red coat he used to wear as he pulled my sled when I was a baby, with a look on his face that I cannot describe. The doctors told me that the procedure I’d had before simply resulted in an uncommon mistake of some kind. I had nearly died of infection, and in passing out with fever, my secret was spilled, right alongside the blood of my innocence.

I looked at my family, crowded around the foot of my bed, and I did not weep. I did not show my shame or share my grief with those I hadn’t trusted to save me and my child in the first place. I simply read the Teen magazines my sister brought from the hospital gift shop and agreed with their small understanding about "that boy" and "my choice."

In the years since, I have never muttered my child’s secret name to anyone. I’ve tucked it away in the recesses of my heart and hidden it in a sacred place within myself in sincere belief that one day we’ll meet again—and forgiveness will be granted and unending love will be shared. 

Years have slipped by since then. I married a small-town boy who eventually found some way through the mazes I had built to the depths of my heart. I later bore my own sons, and I named them for their father and grandfathers. I found God. I buried loved ones. And still, through all of this, I have never felt as though I were grown. The shadow of the woman I’d once imagined myself to be has always remained just out of reach.

Worth It

My eldest son starts third grade next fall. Decades are gone from my life, yet I still feel five and fifteen and twenty-five all at once in my mind. When the wind blows, I still imagine a time when possibility was boundless, when youth alone was my burden. If I let myself slip into nostalgia, I am ten years old and falling from atop the family swing set, breathlessly looking to the sky through cherry blossoms and wishing I were older. 

From the fog of these memories, my mind snaps to today, where it is 3:30 in the afternoon and I could easily and forever contemplate the moments that made me into the woman I am. It won’t be long until my husband comes home with my two hungry, brown-eyed boys, and still I cannot say when the moment was that I became an adult. 

I know that I am not that woman I once imagined, far from it in fact. But I think that maybe, underneath all my sins and struggles, I am still the girl who imagined her. When I remember the moment that my firstborn looked around at his world in the minutes after his birth, I remember seeing him for who he was. I see him now, eight and fearless, yet the same exact same person he was in his first moments—and I hope to God that as his mother I can meet but one goal in my life, and that is to help him stay him.

As I fall asleep each night, I pray that when my sons are twenty-five and fifty and one hundred and one, they are able to feel in their heart as though they are the same men that they are today. I pray that their life experiences, whatever they may be, do not shatter their souls. 

I hope that they are able to see past whatever society, or someone else’s God, or someone else’s politician tells them is right, and that they find righteousness within their own selves. It won’t be easy to make sacrifices for their future, for their beliefs, or for their children, but like the sacrifices made for the safety of my two little brown-eyed boys—who are planned, happy, healthy, and loved—it will be worth it.

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