Back when I wanted a career in journalism, this was my first serious piece for the Milwaukee Journal Magazine. When Reader’s Digest reprinted it, I was astonished. I even received fan mail. Now that I have a teenaged daughter, I read myself with even greater interest.
People say teenagers are no good. They make too much noise in shopping malls. They drive recklessly up and down America’s main streets. They carry chips on their shoulders as big as the Sears Tower. And at least some of the time those things are true.
But we shouldn’t forget there are hard moments in the life of a teenager, too.
I watched such a moment not long ago at a woman’s funeral. I didn’t expect the event to affect me. She was the wife of the man who owned the company where I’d worked for only a short time. Through much of the ceremony, in fact, I remained unmoved. One daughter sang her mother’s favorite song; another read from The Prophet; her son read from the Bible. A priest spoke about her devotion to the church, the community, and about God’s plan for us all. The smoothly organized service assured us that everything is controllable and understandable and fine.
Then her teenaged grandson, with golden hair and flushed cheeks, stepped forward. With his very first deep breath, every heart in that church was achingly reminded of something long ago forgotten. Softly he began:
“My grandmother was the nicest person I know. When my dog jumped up on her and left dirt on her dress, she said, ‘Oh, what beautiful markings he has.’ That was Nana’s way.
“She took a back seat to my grandpa, who was a successful businessman in this city, but she was the one behind the scenes who provided the strength and support for his career,” he said with a voice now trembling. “That was Nana’s way.”
Through a muffled sob, he continued. “Whenever she did anything worth recognition, you’d have to hear it from a different source because she was never one to brag. That was Nana’s way.”
Finally, in a voice breaking free of sorrow, he looked up and said, “Nana taught me courage. She put up an incredible fight to the end, when she died peacefully, which is how she lived her life. That was Nana’s way, and I hope I can carry on in the same manner.”
There are no hearts as delicate as those of teenagers because everything is happening to them for the first time. And despite their swaggering charm and flippant commentary, teenagers are scared about what to think, to say, to feel.
When the grandparent dies who has been the truest ally of an insecure teenager, nothing about the world ever feels quite right again. Not that death is easy for the adults involved either, but they have things to do: a service to arrange, flowers to select, relatives to call. Young children remain thankfully unaffected because the impact of a life lost has yet to strike deep notes in their brief world. But the teenager sits helplessly alone. Nothing but the loss occupies the time while neighbors arrive with cakes and casseroles.
The perfunctory obligations of death and funerals spare adults who have learned to be controlled. They’ve accepted the safety provided by surrendering to a greater power. They’ve learned how to appear to be fine.
Structure deadens the immediate pain.
The trouble with teenagers is they haven’t learned to be controlled. Living life right down the middle, with all its attendant land mines, is all they know. It hasn’t occurred to them to run a zigzag pattern.
When that boy rose to speak about the woman who surely had been his truest ally and dearest friend, his honest voice dragged each adult out into the open, no longer able to hide in the calm of ritual. He exposed the truth about this real woman who believed in a boy who probably tried the patience of many adults. He reminded us that his grandmother was more than another dot on the predictable chart of life and death.
All over again, each adult felt the powerful losses crisscrossing their own hearts and knew that saying goodby to a beloved grandparent meant saying goodby to something unconditionally happy in a life.
That something never really returns. That pain never really goes away.
The trouble with teenagers is that they keep adults from forgetting about how they once were.
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