My best friend is nine years old. Our camaraderie is founded in our commonalities: we have mutual appetites for chicken fingers and adventure, share an affinity for aiding others, and are of course linked by the codes found in our double helixes. But we are not mirror images. The bonhomie of our relationship is bolstered by the sharp contrasts of our socioemotional predilections and the other quirks of our respective personalities. Like all tight-knit compatriots, ours is a language not purely verbal, one marked by coy smiles, raised eyebrows, and full-on, side-splitting laughter. Deeply connected by quarantine and the empathy that it further engendered in us, our understanding transcends the three decades that separate our time on Earth.
Unoriginal and banal, the codes of society create age-based expectations. Her relative maturity is unexpected for a fourth grader, my goofiness a startling counterpoint to my status as a studious attorney. She clocks jokes and nuances that escape people quintuple her age; I have a disturbingly proficient grasp of newly-released pop music. Susceptible to critique, as we all should be, I recognize that there is room for her to be less serious, and for me to set a better example of a normal adult. But neither of those outcomes would be true to our core makeups or would reflect the circumstances that have shaped us.
It is eminently lamentable that she has faced situations that have required her to advance beyond her numerical age. But those challenges have also imbued her with a confidence and a grace and a power that would have been impossible to replicate under the conditions of an expected childhood. Consequently, she is equipped with tools that will allow her to better navigate the adolescence that seems to be coming faster and earlier than this father could have ever imagined. The instinct to protect her is mixed with the amazing realization that she can hold her own. Now she needs my help mostly since I am, for the moment, taller and stronger and possessed of a freakish repository of random facts.
I would have preferred to avoid the traumas that inform my worldview. Yet each arrived with commensurate epiphanies that instilled in me an infantile wonder at the magic of existence. Concern over retirement funds, standing, and the other inane trappings of adulthood was replaced with an unrelenting appreciation for the unexpected joys, the big missions, the moments of happiness, the revelatory devastations that define a life. My operating principle switched from advancement for its own sake to maximizing fun, even in contexts that are not typically thought of as being enjoyable.
She has been instrumental in this trajectory: it is through a child’s eyes that we see the opportunities for delight which we previously took for granted. By not isolating her completely from the struggles and other realities of parenting and working and adulting, she now can better appreciate the work that she should do now to set herself up for the true freedom that is my highest wish for her.
We are both capable of acting our own ages. She rips around with her friends, dancing and playing and singing and otherwise being a kid shining bright in the reflection of her own energy. I pay bills and go to networking events and save for college and argue in court and am thrilled to be the shoulder on which she can lean.
We also like to defy the commandments thrust upon us by virtue of the years in which we were born. She is agile and conversant at dinner parties, is interested in the bigger picture, is keen to enforce the rules of etiquette. I like to cruise in bike, ski, and scooter gangs, to be mischievous, to circumvent the expectations of my professions. As a consequence, she is as comfortable around adults as I am with people half or a quarter my age.
As she embarks on the next phase of her life and I hold onto this era of mine, the only thing that we know for sure is that age is irrelevant, only love matters.