This one often comes up when a friend and I are having deeply philosophical conversations, usually prompted by those sobering moments of anxiety and isolation — reminders that we are adults now, and are supposed to be having our lives together: when do we become aware of the fact that we are no longer children? Coming-of-age is a deeply personal experience, not only because it sometimes involves something harrowing that upends our worldview, but because it gives us a taste of the temper of the times, of the complicated, complicated years ahead.
I used to think that it happened in an instant. Something shattered you open, and you were never the same again. I learned, instead, that it catches up to you. Coming-of-age is hindsight, in truth. By the time you realize it’s happening, you’ve already been irrevocably changed. This was a lesson I was learning, although I didn’t know it at the time.
Mine was a series of small fires, as I like to call them, which seemed deceptively easy to put out, when in fact they marked the transition between my nine and twelve year-old selves (the latter, incidentally, being when the spark of mental illness would be struck to life inside my head). The world was rosy-colored through my lenses, no doubt fostered by the plethora of adults who assured me that no matter what happened, things would be alright. And for a long time, they were.
Then, the first small fire happens.
I am nine, a fresh-faced fourth grader, and a friend of the family, we’ll call her Carla.
Carla has drifted apart from everyone, which is a revolutionary concept for me; up until then, I’ve been immersed in easy, solid friendships, our arguments and misunderstandings swiftly resolved (I would appreciate only much later how rare this would become). Carla, a mellow and sweet girl has, over the summer break, become sullen and snappy. She starts hanging out with some of the older, cool-but-precocious kids who terrified her just the year before, and sometimes we can even smell cigarette smoke on her. She comes to school, but she and her new friends find a way to bend the rules and skip classes.
As a — up until then — relatively sheltered child, I am, in short, dumbfounded. My mother tells me that Carla is most likely having some trouble coping with her parents’ divorce. But she assures me that she will be fine, that everything will turn out alright. This is the first time that those words do not comfort me, but that is not yet the point. The point is what happened right after.
The school buses are pulling out of the lot, one afternoon, when the traffic is suddenly jammed. We sit in the idle buses for almost fifteen minutes, unaware of what is going on. And then we see them.
We press our faces to the windows as, on the main school lawn, some students are being handcuffed. Mostly eight graders, but some younger ones, and among them, Carla. I am rattled that day: by the reality that kids could get arrested for drugs, that there was such a thing as “juvie”, that friends could be lost in the blink of an eye, that there was a lot about the world I did not know.
That, in short, things didn’t always turn out alright.
The second small fire happens just a few weeks later. My little brother, put simply, was a handful, of the prank-calling-the-cops, punting-our-GameBoy-color-under-a-bookshelf-if-we-didn’t-play-with-him, and cutting-my-hair-while-I-slept variety. The story that follows should have come as no surprise, if it hadn’t been so awful.
One morning, a few hours after an argument with my mother about something trivial like unfinished homework, my brother disappears. We search his room, the basement, and then the entire house. He is nowhere to be found, and uncharacteristically, the backdoor is open. Just like that, mild concern becomes full-blown panic. We don’t know if he has been taken, or if he has wandered off. He is a voluble child, and has a tendency to approach and befriend strangers.
By that evening, my life has become a scene borrowed straight out of a movie: the police has been called, my parents are having a meltdown and the neighbors are helping us search the surrounding parks. My Dad is telling us that everything will be alright, and for the second time in my life, I’m not sure I believe this: these things happen to other people, I can tell we’re all thinking. But what if they don’t?
The outcome is almost anticlimactic: my brother strolls down in the kitchen, his eyes wide at the pandemonium and, unbelievably, slightly pleased that he made all this fuss. It turns out that after the tiff with our mother, he bundled himself in his blankets and fell asleep underneath his bed. In this case, things did, indeed, work themselves out: he is alive, for starters.
But this changes my mother, and by extension, it changes me. She becomes permanently scarred by the prospect of losing her children in any way, and this overprotectiveness gradually transforms itself into a rigidity I will come to resent as a teenager.
The last small fire is an insidious one, a slow start to a much longer unraveling. I have started to become lonely, so when I meet sunny, cheerful Eve, we become fast friends. She one day tells me that she’s taking a break from ballet classes because her knee is bothering her. Her parents assure us that everything will soon be alright. For a few weeks, we play with her crutches, swinging from them, hitting and teasing people, knocking things off of really high shelves.
After the winter break, Eve doesn’t come back, and I think she’s still vacationing in Sweden. When our teachers gather us to tell us that Eve has passed away from bone cancer, I think it’s a tasteless joke. Eleven year-olds die in books, not in real life. Grief comes at me in the form of anger. At the injustice of it, lightning-fast and merciless. At her parents, who promised everything was fine. At myself, for yet again not having been able to save a friend.
Interestingly, none of these aforestated small fires happened directly to me, as traditional coming-of-age stories warrant. But as the Smiths say, “this night has opened my eyes, and I will never sleep again”. I stopped being a child the day I told myself: never trust a person who tells you everything is going to be alright. Unless they have unfiltered access to the future, how in the world would they know?