Eighteen Birthdays

0627141541A few days ago was a big day for Sunshine. She turned 18.

It was a bittersweet day…partly because she was not with me, and partly because of what it means.

This girl, this special one, who has just barely entered my world and changed it completely, is now able to set out on her own.

She’s not ready. I’m not ready. But she thinks she’s ready, as we all did when we reached that milestone.

But here’s the difference: when most children turn 18, they still have the safety of a family and a home to come back to when they inevitably make those missteps in their late teens and early twenties.

Sunshine will have nowhere to go back to once she steps out of the orphanage she has been living in. When she leaves, there is no safety net.

Really, though, she is one of the lucky ones. Most orphans are required to leave their orphanages at the end of the school year after their 18th birthday, given little to nothing, and wished the best. Sunshine lives in a unique home: it is a transitional home for older teens, designed to help teach life skills and financial responsibility. They are required to stay there until they are 18, but they have the option to continue to live there through their mid-twenties as long as they remain in good standing at school or have employment and they abide by all the house rules. But remaining past 18 is optional. And at 18, house rules seem like a huge burden. Independence beckons temptingly.

And Sunshine is hearing the siren call. Just like I did at her age.

I remember in my junior year of high school, I was so frustrated with my parents and their rules and regulations. I got so mad at my father one night that I screamed at him, “When I’m 18, my friend Katie and I are getting our own apartment! No more of your rules!”

My dad laughed in my face. He mentioned things like electricity…food…the need for a job. It was a ridiculous statement made by a ridiculous girl.

But when Sunshine makes that decision, it will become reality. When she decides to do it, she will be wished well on her journey. Certainly, the director tries to convince the teens to stay, but ultimately it is their decision.

And there is no returning once you’ve realized everything that independence entails.

There is no college break in your old bedroom, comfort food to dream about while you play at adulthood. No. It’s sink or swim.

Sunshine has plans to leave before the school year is even finished. She has not made her decision completely yet…but there is a lot of “Just you wait! My friend and I are getting our own apartment! No more of the home’s rules!”

I hear the echoes of my own chafing, seeing now the wisdom of my parents as they walked me through my growing pains.

I wish it was as simple as laughing in her face…oh, you silly girl. I know your heart and your dreams, but now is not the time, my dear. Stay cocooned for a little while longer. Just a little. Six months, a year…it really does make all the difference in your perspective. I swear. Stay through the end of school. Through the end of the summer. You won’t regret it. I promise.

But all I can do is watch and wait. Speak gently. Whisper alternatives. Suggest different timing. Pray.

I know that there is One who hears my heart, and knows hers too. He knows I love her so. And I know that this, too, is not beyond His control.

But sometimes, being so far away, it sure feels like it.

I don’t know what to do with this one who is so much me. I don’t know the best way to speak. I don’t know what words to use.

All I know is one thing. It’s the only thing I know how to say…the one thing I will always be able to say.

I’m still here.

No matter what, I am for you. I love you. I will tell you what I think, and I will even laugh at you sometimes. I know I will cry over you often. But I will never abandon you. I will never stop loving you.

You can’t get rid of me. I am not something that is left behind in your quest for identity and independence. Whether you know it or not, I am the thing that you get to carry with you. I might not be a soft bed and comfort food in this next phase of your journey, and sometimes that makes me sad. But I am home. That is something you will never grow out of, my dear sassy one. I am the ears that listen, the voice that speaks, the arms that hold from 3000 miles away.   It is not traditional, and it is not easy. But it is true. And it is firm. And it is forever.

You will grow and you will find yourself and I pray that you will embody all of the brilliance and promise I see emerging within you.

And I will always be there. Cheering you on. Crying with you. Hurting for you. Encouraging the exploits. Soothing the failures.

We are family.

I am your mother.

I am the thing you never outgrow.

But oh, the pain in watching you take root so far away from me.

Happy birthday, dearest of dear ones.

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