I grew up the day she died

Earlier this week, I received a letter from a grieving friend.  She had just lost a friend.  In coming to grips with his death, she said:  “Out of all the emotions running through me, the one that won’t leave me is that I feel like I just grew up.”

“…I feel like I just grew up.”

Me too.

I wrote this piece back in September:

I remember the day I grew up.  It was the day my mom died.

As a child,  I remember looking in the mirror and seeing a a little kid looking back at me.  When I got older and wore a shirt and tie to work, I’d look in the mirror and I’d still see the same thing, a little kid playing grown-up in oversized clothes looking back at me.  You know the way an eight year old boy looks when he puts on his father’s clothes?  His hands are hidden half way up the sleeves, his pants are bunched up to the knees and his feet can’t stay in the wingtips which are 10 sizes too big?  Like that.  I wondered what was wrong with me.   Though I could easily see and guess the age of others, I couldn’t see my own.  This didn’t seem to change over time.  My clothes did, my experience didn’t…until years later.

In 2008, my mom, Vernal V Virant, died.  One of the many unusual things I noticed during the time leading up to her death was that when I looked in the mirror, I started to see me at what seemed like my age –and not that younger little kid– looking back at me.  It was a gradual process and it culminated when she died.  I looked noticeably different, noticeably older.

Along with that change, there was another.

Coinciding with my sobriety (early 2001), I noticed I could no longer make out the ages of others (remember the thirty-five year old who I thought was nineteen?  Yes, that was in sobriety).  While I used to be able to see other people’s ages, I have a hard time seeing them now and it started back then.  Often times, I won’t know if someone is eighteen or twenty-eight.  Thirty or fifty.  It’s the strangest thing.  I’m terrible at ages.  And while I look in the mirror and no longer see a child, the man that I see is without an age as well.  He could twenty-five or he could fifty.  I really wouldn’t know if not for what I’m told.  While this may be seen as a blessing, it can definitely be a curse.  Some twenty-three year olds look at me and see “dirty old man” while others see “boyfriend”.  As it turns out, these aren’t mutually exclusive and I’m probably a little bit of both.  I guess age is relative.  Isn’t it just?

I remember when thirty was “old”.  In college, an English professor assigned T. Correghessan Boyle’s (why do so many authors have such cool names?) “Greasy Lake”.  I identified with the feelings and was convinced it couldn’t have been written by anyone over the age of twenty-nine…until my professor told me otherwise.  Looking back, I didn’t know half of what I know now then and if I did I certainly didn’t learn from it.   But really, is your experience much different?

This relativity of time reminds me of one of my favorite photos –perhaps a foreshadowing of sorts, as it was given to me before my mother died and before I got sober– it’s of a girl I used to date.  She was on horseback, riding on the beach and I loved the picture.  I still do.  Not because she’s beautiful (she is), and not because she’s single (she’s not now) but because she looks timeless in it.  I honestly couldn’t tell if she were twenty or forty at the time it was taken.  I still can’t.

One final point to buoy this up…

Before I left for Spain, a girl I was dating, who has always had a tremendous fashion sense (she could manage white pants with large black checks), agreed to take me shopping (though I know something about men’s dress because I studied it, I knew nothing about casual).  We walked around the mall looking for appropriate clothes.  On our way out, she passed by the Polo section at Nordstrom.  “Here, let’s check this out” she said.  “No way!  That’s Polo!”  I balked.  “Why not?”  “Well, for one thing it’s way too expensive but more importantly, I can’t wear that because I can’t pull it off.”  “Nonsense, Peter!  You can definitely pull off Polo and you’re just the right age!”  That comment caught me off guard.  I was not expecting it but I was flattered and, as luck would have it, the unaffordable became very affordable.  A clearance rack and good tailor will do that…and who knows, a good mirror just might.

“What makes for a good mirror” you ask?  The same one that saw me grow up.

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