11/27/2013 10:27 am ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

The Place That Grows Us

My senior year in high school, I moved out of my house. I moved in with a friend whose mother had taken to bed, when her husband of two decades left her for his buxom secretary. She had been in bed for six years when I moved in. My friend had run wild since her parent's separation. Sex and drugs and dreams of life on the stage filled her days. And four years earlier, when my sister left for college, my father had built a life raft from a worn brown couch. Her departure tore him apart. Did he think he no longer had a job as a father, did he wish he had left for college, was he mourning his lost youth? We never knew. We only knew, her mother, my father, they'd both checked out.

When we were kids, we'd spent hours looking at the glow in the dark galaxy on her ceiling, talking about our dreams of husbands and kids and happiness. That was years before her mother's bedroom jail and my father's life raft of a couch. She was always optimistic and joyful. She loved holidays and participated in pep rallies long after I'd decided all unbridled joy was suspect. I'd gone to purple hair and a scowl while she was in teen beauty pageants; entering stage left beneath a tin foil covered arch, smiling a big Angelina Jolie smile. I was there. Her mother was in her bedroom. Her father and his buxom wife were on vacation. But I was there. We were each other's broken toys from childhood.

When we went to frat parties at Dartmouth, while visiting her older brother, we'd drink plastic cups of pink vodka and swat at Ivy League paws, landing on our bodies while we smiled and laughed and flirted with danger. How we made the drive home after pink vodka, how we found our car, how we had money for gas or didn't get pulled over for swerving or smoking pot (or being on the road at three am, though that's not illegal) how we managed to make it home alive is miraculous. Once, pink vodka warming our guts, we drove into a swirl of thick snow for an hour and half, driving north on interstate 89. The flakes grew into a thick curtain and we crept, giggling and singing and finally quiet, only the sound of the engine and useless whir of  wipers.

From his life raft of a couch, my father alternated between intellectual pursuits. Amid piles of overdue library books on history, politics and always a heavy helping of current fiction, he lived. While reading he was quiet. He worked only when his unemployment counselor insisted he make an attempt at gainful employment, and then only until he figured out how to recieve unemployment.

The number of lights shining in the windows as I made my way home in the evenings, after practice for whichever sport I was in -- field hockey in the fall, basketball in the winter, track in the spring -- the lights were how I knew his mood. Fewer lights equaled shitty mood, better to steer clear of him and his insults. More lights, better dad day. He might have gotten off the couch, turned on the stove, taken a shower. Though showers were few and far between when he was cocooned inside winter depressions.

My mother called me when I moved out. She cried and I told her I knew she loved me but that dad, his couch shouted slurs, they were simply too much to tolerate. And, I would not tolerate them anymore and in fact; I wanted to know why she did? She cried and didn't have a good reason. But I hated when she cried. I remember during one of our conversations; those phone calls being some of the first real ones we'd had in a long time, eating cottage cheese. I had left home, taken control of my environment, and so I was also going to take charge of my weight. I was going to get skinny, really skinny and I did. I had power again, so what if I didn't know what I wanted to study or if I'd go to college. My dad had assured me I was too stupid to go and I had failed chemistry, so he was probably correct.

I worked hard to live up to my father's predictions of failure. My father left my mother when I left for college. He moved to Texas and planted himself far away from his former life. In my efforts to live up to less than, there were years of a circuitous route through the halls of higher education. Weedy depression, debilitating anxiety and absolutely no idea how to outrun what seemed to be a hereditary propensity to be an asshole one month and a wild ride of fun the next. Those wild ride were times when things got done and the messes from the asshole could get mopped up. And through it all there was always a boyfriend who demanded attention, fixing, had a sad sack story that I was determined to turn around for them. Yes, like my father on the couch, they were smart and good but sad and mean.

This slurry of teenage memories, they are the backdrop from which I parent my teenage daughter. I had an idea she'd be everything I wasn't and within that idea, I had no worries because she would succeed and never be hurt, compromised or self-destructive. When she tested the waters, got messier in her approach to life, I panicked.

It took having teenagers, one out of the house and another preparing to launch for me to realize how deeply affecting the loss of parental guidance is for teenagers and young adults. I thought my job was done. But I had a nagging suspicion I was missing something. Something that I'd learned a long time ago. Something I'd tucked away because I knew, however painful I'd need to revisit the source. Revisit the source in order to go forward with grace when the landscape of parenting changed, and my children grew into selves other than creations of my imagination. So, my father's couch bound years (five in all), my mother's work, home, cook, bed, routine, my sister's escape to college and then Central America, were years I learned about loss. I knew then and I remember now, that kids, even nearly fully grown ones, are only as healthy as their center, which is their home, the place that grew them.