When they turn 13, we label them teenagers. But they're new to the gig, so it's easy to fool ourselves into believing they're basically still little kids.
But when they turn 14, they become solidly teenager. They didn't just leave behind the sweet young age of 12; instead, they're only a year away from sitting in the driver's seat of a car.
On Sunday my baby turns 14 years old. It doesn't seem possible.
For the most part, what I wrote about Will last year still rings true. He takes a full load of challenging core classes, plays the cello in orchestra, and studies Spanish as his elective. He remains committed to his athletic pursuits, on the soccer field but also on the basketball court and as a cross country and track runner. This year and outside of his academic endeavors and athletic extracurriculars, Will also learned to play piano by ear, dramatically improved his disc golf skills, and completed the training to become a certified soccer referee.
Personality-wise, Will remains a confident leader, a hard-working perfectionist, and a true competitor. He is independent and responsible, and strives to make his teachers, coaches, and parents proud. He is kind, friendly, and funny. He has a soft spot for children and kittens. He loves big, and isn't afraid to show his emotions. On the flip side, Will is still unnecessarily hard on himself, takes games and arguments too far, and despite valiant efforts by his parents, could stand to work on completing household chores, listening to instructions, and personal hygiene.
But so much has changed since Will turned 13 one short year ago. The world, our country, our state, and even our little community have changed dramatically, and along with nearly everything around him, Will too has changed dramatically. In lighthearted and expected ways, of course: we joke (except it's true) that Will went into quarantine a boy and came out a man, having grown multiple inches and with a changed voice, an Adam's apple, and his first girlfriend. But in deeper, unanticipated ways as well.
From the moment they leave our bodies after growing close to our hearts for nine months, our children are preparing - and we are helping prepare them - to leave us. But when they reach 13 or 14 years old, "the great divide" truly begins. They spend from sunrise until long after sunset at school, sports practices, music rehearsals, and extracurricular meetings and activities. What remains of their waking hours is spent with friends. We see them less and less, and while we wish this weren't the case, we understand that the situation in which we find ourselves - missing our little kids but proud of the independence and responsibility we see developing in these big kids - is completely normal and indicates we're performing at at least a C+ as parents.
But then came 2020...
When the pandemic took over our lives, all of that freedom these young teenagers - Will included - had begun to experience disappeared, seemingly overnight. And it was hard. With all four of us under one roof all day, every day, we had to reevaluate and work through work and school schedules, household responsibilities, and general expectations for interactions and conduct for everyone, but especially for Will, who had grown accustomed to "normal" teenage life.
As the spring and summer dragged on, we chose to be open and honest (though not overly graphic) with Will about COVID-19 as a health emergency; how our country's leadership handled the pandemic; the importance of strong national, state, and local community health programs; the importance of strong national, state, and local education systems; the Black Lives Matter Movement; and more, because we wanted him to understand why life looked the way it did at any given moment.
So as I mentioned above, 2020 changed Will. He acquired a hefty amount of information, grew up in his beliefs, learned how to ask more valuable and productive questions, honed his ability to search for answers, and became more compassionate toward populations that are underrepresented, disadvantaged, and discriminated against. Don't get me wrong - he's still a 14-year-old boy who thinks that fart jokes are hilarious. But he's changed...grown up...a lot this year.
The most shiny, shimmering, splendid silver lining of 2020 is that at a time when I would have been seeing less and less of my boy, suddenly he was back. We went for walks, runs, and bike rides together. (Well, he ran while I rode my bike. Turns out that this arrangement works quite well for how fast he runs and how slow I bike.) We filmed more than 1,000 attempts at Dude Perfect-esque soccer videos in the backyard. (Yep, more than 1,000.) I taught him how to do laundry and how to cook. (Sort of. I tried.) We watched most of the Mission Impossible movies and all seven seasons of The Mentalist. We played gin rummy and went out for ice cream and shaved his hair into a mohawk multiple times. We argued and yelled and cried a little, but we talked and laughed a lot.
So on this, Will's 14th birthday, I feel like I received the best present of all - the gift of time with my teenager.
Happy 14th birthday, Will. I love you to the moon and back plus infinity times a million with a cherry on top.