By Troy Headrick
It’s hot in Texas right now, but that doesn’t stop me from riding my beach cruiser bike, on a daily basis, as a way of staying healthy.
The other day I was just finishing up a ride when a series of interesting questions popped into my head:
- I wonder if I can pinpoint a moment in my life when I stopped being a child and became an adult?
- Does becoming an adult happen in one fell swoop, like an abrupt transformation, or does it occur gradually, over time?
- What does it mean to become an “adult” and are there skills we need to possess to make that transition?
- Why am I suddenly thinking about childhood and adulthood at this precise moment?
I’ll start by answering the last question first. I think I started thinking about these topics because I was riding my bike, an activity I did when I was a kid and still do today. Thus, cycling is a kind of “bridge” which connects my childhood to my adulthood. It is one of the few things I have done consistently throughout my lifetime.
Now, let me begin to try to answer some of the other questions. To do so, I’ll need to go back in time and look at something that happened when I only eight years old.
At eight, my father’s mother, a woman I called “Grandma Headrick,” was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember her well, going all the way back to my earliest years. Her maiden name was Zinglemann, and she grew up in a small, mostly German-speaking community in Central Texas. This meant that Deutsche was her first language and she taught me, when I probably four or five years old, to count to ten in her mother tongue. I also recall that she smoked a lot and often smelled of tobacco.
When she got the cancer, I remember that something changed about her. She’d always been very playful and had had a wonderful sense of humor. Then, almost overnight, she began to joke around less frequently and went mostly silent. This change became especially noticeable after her mastectomy.
When she had her second mastectomy, she almost entirely stopped talking and turned inward. Whenever we would visit her, I would sit nearby and watch her closely. The dramatic change in her behavior made a powerful impression on me, and I began to realize that this thing called “cancer”—what did it look like and why couldn’t they get rid of it?—was something very mysterious and scary. In fact, when the adults talked among themselves about my grandmother’s illness, they mostly whispered and their words were less than reassuring.
The cancer metastasized and she died when I was eleven. I remember her funeral like it was only yesterday even though it happened a very long time ago.
I think I became an adult right toward the end of my grandmother’s life, and I think watching her slow, sad demise helped me develop two skills that we all need to have to move out of childhood.
First of all, I began, likely for the very first time, to witness and viscerally feel the suffering of another human being. Up until that moment in my life, I had seen no one close to me deteriorate and die. This experience moved my attention away from ego, and I began to see what was going on around me. In other words, I became much more observant. And what I saw forced me to confront a truth that was new and made me uncomfortable: Things don’t always end happily ever after. Of course, often when I visited my grandmother, I was with my cousins and we would play and run wild together, but I felt less carefree during the time my grandmother was dying. There was a pervasive and unmistakable feeling of powerless in the family.
I also developed, maybe for the first time, real empathy. I wasn’t dying of cancer, but I could put myself in my grandmother’s place and see what it was like to get sicker and sadder. Often, during our visits right at the very end, I would see a single, slow tear roll down her cheek, and then she’d wipe it away. Her sadness pulled me into her experience, and I was able to imagine what it would be like to suffer in the way she was suffering. By the way, empathy requires imagination. Empathy is nothing more than one person imagining what it must be like to be in someone else’s shoes. If you can’t make that imaginative leap, you may always remain unfeeling and callous.
You cannot believe how fast I wrote this blog. The words poured out of me like some torrent. That is a sign that they needed to come. And because they came so spontaneously, I plan to do very little to clean up during the editing stage.
I look forward to seeing your reactions.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.