More Than Just A Birthday
My son—my youngest, my last baby—turned 15 this weekend. Fifteen! One five. Somehow I think I kidded myself that 13 was really just barely a teenager, and when he turned 14 I began to realize that yes, okay, really he’s a teen now for real, but only kind of, right? Fifteen, I realize, is as close to 20 as it is to 10. And somehow that feels huge.
Denial is harder when I have to look up into his face. Not too far, mind you, not yet, but we’re definitely there. And all too often when I look up into it, the first thing out of my mouth is, “When did you last shave? You’re all stubbly.” I hear a deep voice booming through the house and realize, with something that feels like surprise, every time, that it’s my son, not my husband. Sometimes when I walk past him reading a book or glued to the computer and I stop to drop a quick hug across his shoulders, I’m shocked by their width.
My kids have a friend who is undeniably “quirky,” by any measure. He marches to the beat of his own drum, and seems unfettered by popular opinion or expectations. I adore this about him, and am delighted that he’s part of their circle of trusted geekdom; but beyond that, this particular kid is the most Zen teenager I’ve ever met. Heck, he may the most Zen person I’ve ever met. He’s calm. He’s comfortable. He appears to content with who he is and where he is and the drama and angst that hangs around most teens is nowhere to be found within his personal bubble of awesomeness. I don’t know if it’s this kid’s influence or simply time and maturity (or something else entirely), but my son is having brief periods of that kind of calm comfort in his own skin. It’s not all the time, or even most of the time, yet, but it’s sometimes—and for him, that’s a big deal. Nothing makes me feel more grateful than seeing either one of my kids just being happy with who they are.
Back when my son was finally diagnosed with autism when he was 9, a well-meaning but insensitive doctor kind of waved his hand when I was talking about how hard things had been lately and said, “Oh, this is nothing. Wait until he’s, say, mid-high-school. That’s when these kids really tend to fall apart.” (Ummmmm. Thanks?) My son’s been back in public high school for a year, now, and this past semester was his first full-time, rigorous schedule, plus marching band and other school activities. The course of acclimation did not run smooth, to put it mildly. As much as we expected issues, it was still hard to see. Sometimes it all felt like too much for him, and then in addition to whatever the problem was (too much work, too much hassling from other kids, too much noise and sensory overload spending an entire day in a crowded school), it was often followed by a despairing cry of, “Why is everything so much harder for me?”
Self-awareness can be a terrible thing. As little of it as many teens have (and as much as I often wish they had more…), it can be a tough cross to bear.
Still, I see glimpses of a future where my son is comfortable and happy with himself more often than not. Happy vestiges of tiny him remain—he is still quick to laugh, given to heartfelt gratitude for even the smallest kindnesses, and eager to please—and as he works through the complicated business of approaching adulthood, I worry less than I used to.
This birthday was perhaps the most jarring one so far, in that I barely saw him, and that was okay (good, even). My late bloomer has hit Typical Teenhood (whatever that really means) and so after his traditional homemade cinnamon rolls birthday breakfast, he spent half his day gaming online with one group of friends, then the other half of the day with some other pals who came to spend the night. The boys downed enormous plates of food at dinner with record speed, then tossed “thank you”s over their shoulders while retreating back upstairs to do… whatever it is that teenagers do. When I went up to suggest that they turn out the lights, though, he gave me a big hug and a kiss goodnight right in front of his friends without a shred of self-consciousness. (I offered to kiss them, too. They declined, with impressive restraint of their obvious horror.)
The cinnamon rolls lasted for several days. As he polished off the last one this morning before school, he said, “Thanks for making cinnamon rolls for my birthday, Mom. Those are my favorite!”
“I know, honey,” I replied, somewhat amused. “I’ll always make them for your birthday.”
“Hooray!” he said, hands waving above his head, one part genuine enthusiasm and two parts attempting to make me laugh. (It worked.)
My baby is 15. He’s busy doing the hard work of unfolding into his skin and making peace with who he is, and I am amazed every day by the man he is becoming. He is smart and kind and hilarious and weird. He’s exactly who he’s supposed to be, exactly where he belongs. 15 feels like a little miracle.