“Mom, what does ad-libbing mean?”
“It means making it up as you go along. When you don’t know what comes next, so you just make it up.”
Satisfied, my 7-year-old returned to reading from one of his many Calvin and Hobbes books out loud to his sister. “‘I don’t think I’d have been in such a hurry to grow up if I knew the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed.'”
My attention shifted to the comic “Wait, what did that say?”
Since its 10-year run, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes has continued over the years to uphold its notoriety for wit and wisdom paired with a depth of understanding about childhood and life. As my children have discovered the strip for themselves, I have been re-experiencing it with whole new eyes as an adult.
This particular strip involves Calvin’s parents lying awake in their bed at night after coming home from a vacation to find their house had been broken into. Neither can sleep, so they ponder the difficulties of adulthood.
I’m sure the idea of ad-libbing my life would have just gone over my head as a child. I, too, believed I would somehow just know what to do and how to do it when I reached that magical age of Grown-Up.
Of course, I don’t.
Parenting has disabused me entirely of the notion that I will ever know what I am doing, why I am doing it, or what I should be doing at any given moment. My moments of brilliance I mostly only recognize in hindsight. My failures as well. And any event might rapidly become a clearly-defined exercise in guessing under pressure.
Like when my first child stepped on a (dead) grasshopper at the age of 2 and then spent every bedtime for the next month worrying about the grasshopper and asking me what happens after we die. My agnosticism was sorely tried to provide the answer he was needing.
Or when making the life-altering decision to end my career and stay home with my children for an indefinite period of time.
Or the unanswerable questions from kids that appear out of nowhere. Philosophers and scientists have pondered the answers to the mysteries of life and death for generations, and my child is looking at me with the absolute certainty that I will know the answer! Ha!
Or the really big stuff like when our daughter became ill with a rare neurological condition this past spring and we didn’t know if she was sick or faking it. How could we not know? We are her parents! We’re supposed to know! Right?
Or just this last week when we had to decide whether to spend thousands of dollars on tests diagnosing a severe and unknown illness in our beloved 11-year-old dog or give her a peaceful death.
We are constantly making decisions based on limited information and an uncertain future, and then we are left to deal with the consequences of our choices. We’re all, all of us, making it up as we go along. How on earth do we manage that? When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that we get through anything at all. Can I transmogrify back into a kid now? That sounds a whole lot easier.