Friday, February 1, 2013

The 21st Birthday

Sometime around their birthdays, I write each of my children a letter that details the highlights of their year and the who-we-were, where-we-lived, and what-we-dids of our family.  By the time I write my last letter, at age 18, each child has a book of handwritten memories and a brief statement about my hopes and wishes for their future.

I always thought 18 the appropriate age for my final birthday letter:  My high school senior can vote, serve in the military, enter into a binding contract, and marry without parental consent – all markers from society that one is an adult. But last week, my oldest turned 21 and I decided to write one more. 

Dear Nate,

Another birthday, another rite of passage. 

I captured the moment with a photo, just like I did the day you earned your Instruction Permit at age 14 and your Driver’s License at age 16. Each of those shots was taken in our “school car”– the red Cavalier that looked so big until you sat in the driver’s seat-- your grin as wide as the driving wheel itself.  You remember the event as a sign of independence; I remember it as one of your first accelerations away from home. 

Your grin in this new photo, taken in the bar of a local restaurant, is just as big. The lighting doesn’t fully capture the stubble you’ve let grow for two days--an attempt to look mature--but your posture is unmistaken. Confident.  Determined. Ready to take on the world.  You protested when I asked the waitress to snap the photo, but I did so to capture your attitude, not your age. 

When you were in high school, we talked about the disconnect between laws that allow 18-year-olds to fight for our country and laws that prohibit them from drinking alcoholic beverages and we argued about whether federal funding for highways should be tied to a state law that regulates personal behavior. You advocated for personal responsibility; I emphasized the lack of personal responsibility exhibited by much of the population. We didn’t get into too much of the research that’s at the foundation of the argument and you may or may not remember the newspaper stories about alcohol and teen drivers I collected for you to read. But I’m sure you remember the mock car crash the high school incorporated into pre-Prom activities and how Dad and I peppered you with who-what-when-where questions in response to your weekend plans. Some are those conversations were louder and more emotional than others.  

Last year, before you left for your J-Term trip to England and Ireland, you made a point to tell me that you were “legal” and that you were as excited about seeing the pubs and testing out the local brews as you were about exploring the countryside that inspired C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. For awhile, I tried to steer the conversation away from Guinness, the Turf Tavern’s Winter Ale, and the famous Eagle and Child pub and toward Mere Christianity and The Hobbit but then realized the impact the setting had on you:  You sat where Lewis and Tolkien sat and walked around the room where they critiqued each other’s writing.  The beers were part of the experience, not the reason behind the experience.  

You’ve been wise not to share every detail of that trip--or of the past 2 ½ years of college life--with me. I’m happy to see that you haven’t let alcohol define who you are, but hope you see this rite of passage as more than just easy entry into a bar. Now, more than ever, each new day is about character – about modeling yourself after the adults you admire and becoming the kind of man you’d want your sister to marry. 

I celebrate the journey you’re on, knowing it involves careful navigation through detours and around curves, yet recognizing that one must accelerate when merging into traffic. Thank you for looking both ways before entering the intersection.  

Happy #21.