A Thank You for Helping Me Grow Up

A letter to my daughter on her 18th birthday

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Jane and I, circa 2003

Sweet Baby Jane,

It’s still hard to watch you cry. It’s 11:59 on the eve of your 18th birthday and we just got off a call. You told me you’re lonely, even though you’re surrounded by new friends and gorgeous grounds and novel experiences. It’s your first birthday away from home and it’s a big one. And you’re far away right now in your dorm at your prestigious college and the video chat was pixelated and blurry and you were trying hard to put on your brave face…and yet I heard your voice falter and saw pain crimp the damp edges of your eyes.

And when I shut mine, I go right back to that first night you were in my life — after 18 hours of labor and an epidural that didn’t take. I remember when I saw you for the first time — both of us babies — and every ounce of beauty and love missing from my childhood flooded into me and I wasn’t lonely anymore. And I remember that first time you cried and how I pulled you close to me and felt your warm skin next to mine. I promised I’d bring you the moon and the stars to dry your tears.

And I meant it.

I’ve often said that the depth of your need was the most stabilizing force I have ever encountered, and it was true. It is true, to this day. Your presence in the world grounds me. Your tenacity inspires me. Your brilliance humbles me. Your kindness softens my jagged edges. When you were born, you broke me and healed me in the most important, most precious moment of my life.

2/22/2002. I was 22 years old.

You’ve grown into the kind of person I wouldn’t have had the courage to even approach at your age, let alone invite into my life. Let alone raise and mentor and guide and instruct. And, yet, somehow the universe saw fit to make me your mama. The universe is funny like that sometimes. I’m pretty sure it couldn’t have worked any other way because the truth is that we grew up together — and somehow I sense its what we both needed.

We have been walking through this life together for 18 years and I’m not the most sophisticated woman, but there are things I know about you that I think it’s important to pass on. I know them like I know gravity and inertia: I don’t understand them but I can still witness their truth.

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Jane, circa 2010

Jane, my love, my heart, my dream — You are life. You are joy. You are transcendence.

And I want to assure you that you don’t have to co-sign any of those things in any given moment for them to be true. You just have to be. Those qualities are not contingent on your belief in their existence or your evaluation of your performance in any capacity. They simply exist, as you exist — both when you rise to an occasion and when you sink to your knees. They serve as both your buoy and your anchor. They remain true irrespective of your fears and your doubts about yourself and I know this because I’ve seen them. And when the world feels like a scary place and all you can feel is pain and misery, I want you to know that you can look inside yourself to find the beauty and love that will heal you. I know it’s there…because it healed me.

I can’t let this moment pass without thanking you for all the things you’ve done that you never knew you did. Thank you for saving me from myself and for shouldering the burden of my existence that I asked you to carry when I brought you into the world. It’s hard to credit someone as your reason for living without conferring on them a sense of obligation to continue to do so, but I want you to know that my gratitude is an endless ocean and contingent only upon the expectation that your cells continue to divide and make more of the person that, at times, held me together like glue.

Thank you for clutching my hand when you were little and making me feel important…like someone who could be trusted to protect someone worth protecting. Thank you for every time you looked at me with those big blue eyes like I was some sort of angel, as if my fallibility wasn’t the most obvious thing about me. Thank you for calling to me in the night when you were sick and asking me for help with your homework and for offering me the countless mundane nothings that served as reminders that at least one person needed me to stay. No one else could’ve convinced me that was true.

And now you are 18. A full-fledged adult.

Here’s what I want for your adult life, as if what I want matters. I want you to know that I intend to repay you in spades. That you are free to both fall and to fly and will always have me there to catch you or cheer you on. And I want you to know that, when you are in your lowest low and darkest darkness, you can rest easy in the knowledge that the presence of your sisters and me in the world means that you are never ever alone, even when there’s not enough light to see us. You don’t need to find us. We will come for you.

I want so many things for you. I want you to find freedom and meaning. I want you to choose growth over comfort and pain over numbness. My hopes for you are not about you “reaching your potential” or “finding success”. They are about love and challenge and breaking your heart only to watch it grow back stronger and even more capable of love — just like mine did.

I write this with existential terror as my companion — the same fear I felt on 2/22/02 when it first occurred to me that there were circumstances under which I could lose you. When I realized that the world could and likely would hurt you and that there weren’t enough moon and stars in the galaxy to heal all of your pain.

Fear and anguish coursed through my veins, imagining the day you would no longer belong to me…

…and that day has come.

But the truth is that you never did belong to me. You were entrusted in my care for a short while. It was the honor of my life to be your champion and your protector for your first eighteen years on this earth. To see you through every single day and night of your childhood. And I want you to know that as long as I have breath in my body and blood in my veins — as long as you want me to — I will be there when you need me.

So remember this, beautiful love. Your value lies not in the awards bestowed on you or the money you accumulate or in the number of friends you have. Your value lies in the impact you have on other people and, by that measure, your worth is already incalculable. And you didn’t ask for the weight I placed on you and you didn’t save me on purpose…and that in no way changes how important you are to my story or our family or your sisters or the world.

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Jane, circa 2019

You are born again today. You are born free and light with a map to the stars and the world at your feet. I know you are sad and lonely right now and that this feels like the closing of a chapter, but you’ve been working so hard to make your own map to the moon and stars so you can climb up there and get them for yourself.

And anytime you need a boost, I will be here.

With every ounce of love that exists in and around me, I say to you, “Happy 18th Birthday, Baby Spider.”

All My Love, Now and Forever,

Your Mama

Mama, writer, lover, fighter — I wear my heart on my sleeve because my pants pockets are too small. www.ajkaywriter.com

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