At one in the morning I followed my mom’s gurney down the sixth floor hallway of Building G to the ICU. I carried our purses from the floor above, where her cancer treatments had begun, until the side effects we expected kicked in and the care they were providing there no longer met her needs.
Two nurses, a physician, a fellow, and a couple of other people—nurses? technicians?—accompanied us on our journey from one land to another, all somewhat close to my age. Surely not my age, I thought to myself. I’m not good about guessing ages, but these people, they were definitely in my generation. Maybe even younger.
The cool white of the muted fluorescents dimly lit our short trip. Look how cute we are, I thought, the moment already surreal and dream-like from the stress of treatments, the late hour, and the interrupted light sleep. We’re playing hospital together, checking heartbeats and breaths, saving lives with our Little Tikes blood pressure cuffs.
At thirty-three, I am still pretending to be an adult. Nights when I stand next to the kitchen sink and watch my children play or fight, I mechanically wash a pot and wonder how I got there. When will someone come in and tell me adulting time is done so I can fold the dish towel over the faucet and go back to being in my early twenties?
This isn’t going to happen, no matter how strange it is to me to be explaining sex to my nine-year-old (for real) or trying to coerce children into putting on their pajamas (what is so bad about wearing clothes to sleep in?!). My husband and I are married beyond the honeymoon years and have to deal with all the worst parts of ourselves we ignored before and actually cling to those “for better, for worse” lines. There isn’t real cash in my bank account; it’s play money from Monopoly and I only own those two properties at the start of the board and maybe one utility. Also, a dog.
I have to deal with things now—real things, like mortgages and student loans, bigger things like health concerns and insurance. Insurance requires serious playacting on the adult front. A couple of months ago my husband and I talked about a living will in case something happens to us together. Like, death.
We talk about death now. People just keep dying around us and then we have to play funeral. I didn’t practice funeral when I was a kid, did you?
In the ICU, I laugh with my mom about the “kids” who are caring for her, administering to her life-saving drugs, bringing her trays of smelly food that turns her appetite inside out. She is exhausted but tries to stay awake on my behalf through a romantic comedy where everyone is young and irresponsible. “How old do you think they are supposed to be?” I ask. In this movie, the actors are pretending to be someone younger.
I am supposed to be an adult, able to handle adult situations. Where was I supposed to learn all this? Who was supposed to teach me how to deal with cancer, how to manage the chaos of the interior life and the stress of trying to keep it all together? Ever since high school my flock has been my peers, all my age, trying to figure life out in our individual social groups. Who are the bearers of wisdom among us?
I’m an advocate for the mentor relationship like what Paul and Timothy had in the New Testament. I’m a proponent for the multigenerational congregation that blends the retired and the young marrieds whether out of necessity or intentionally. I’m ever grateful for those few attentive, wise individuals a little further down the road than me who have made the investment and time to lean in and nudge me forward, whatever direction necessary, those mentors who have written in more or less the same phrases, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity”.
That’s a hard calling, but with someone like Paul to get your back, you can fake it till you make it. These days I draw some comfort from worshipping in a congregation of people who are in their eighties, who have weathered the deaths of siblings and parents and sometimes children, but still I find myself longing for someone else, someone far enough removed from my circumstances to see through the fog but close enough to call or write on a regular basis, just to check in. I want to be nurtured through my adulting.
The church should see about offering a few more adulting classes. Until this happens, let’s try seeking out these mentoring relationships. If you aren’t already at one, find a church whose population is not just +/- five years your age. Remember what it was like to be five years younger and how much you could have used an older voice to throw a few of those doubts and fears at to see better how to navigate life, and then become that person for someone. We all need some help here in the ICU with our knee-jerk reflex testers and plastic thermometers, trying to feel our way through life’s greatest mysteries.