Sunday, October 7, 2018

Is it the last time?

At a family event over the summer, my nephew Alex, 14, sat down in his mom’s lap. He stayed there for just a minute, looking like a stretched-out toddler version of himself, with his long, skinny legs overlapping his mom’s, touching the floor.  He smiled, gave her a quick hug, and ran off to hang with his cousins. And watching the moment, I wondered if I was a witness to the final time of lap-sitting for a boy and his mom.
            When my children were young, all the “firsts” were so important. From first bites of solid food (mashed bananas) to first steps and first lost teeth, every milestone was met with fanfare and the recognition that the child was moving onto something new. As my children have gotten older, I recognize that the “lasts” are significant too, but the problem is, we don’t know when the “lasts” happen until they have been gone for a while. None of my children sit on my lap anymore, but I couldn’t tell you exactly when was the last time for any of them. I suspect Jacob and Liam lost their lap time earlier, in deference to their two little sisters. And Jamilet, now 15, was always on the go and eager to catch up with her older siblings, so she likely climbed off for the final time somewhere around third or fourth grade, but I can’t be sure.
            When was the last time Liam pushed a car on the floor, making a drooly “rrrrrr” sound as he drove it across the rug? What was his final Lego creation, before he put the blocks away for good? When did Jacob choose to relegate his bear, Colors, to a basement closet, rather than the space next to him, in his bed? Liam is in college; Jacob is out of college—for them, these events happened a lifetime ago; the dates and times these chapters closed don’t matter. My sons are looking forward—ahead to the first apartment, the first real job. When they were little, though, I didn’t know a chapter was closing, and now I carry a touch of sadness. Looking through a family photo album, I saw Teenasia, age 6, dressed up in a fuzzy dragon costume. She used to wear that costume around the house all the time, not just for Halloween. And then she stopped. I’m not sure when that was, or why. But I wish I could give her a hug in her final day as a green dragon and thank her for the extreme cuteness of that period.
            My interest in these “lasts” of my children have made me think of my own “lasts” that I didn’t know about at the time. I was a teacher in my 20s, and when I said goodbye to my class of seventh graders, I thought I was just taking some time off for maternity leave. I ended up finding a new profession after having Liam, and never went back to teaching.
            The constant movement of life means we have many “lasts.” Sometimes we are aware of them—like when Bill and I recently said goodbye to a dear family friend as he was dying, but more often we are not. Seasons of life, like actual seasons, change gradually. We see the leaves changing color in autumn, we notice them falling, but rarely notice the final leaf. And maybe this is by design. Perhaps our brains protect us as they prevent our awareness of the thousands of “lasts” that join with the thousands of “firsts” to make up a child’s first 18 years.
Amid the loads of laundry, the projects at work, the supervision of homework and the constant shuttling between home, school and practice, parenting does not allow for much reflection time. We are so deep into the demands of the present that a perspective of the moment’s significance can be forced out of reach. And that can be a blessing, because if I knew it was Liam’s final Lego tower, I probably would have burst into tears, and that would not have served young Liam well at all. I may not have let go of my tiny dragon girl—and she needed me to let go, so she could get on with her childhood. I may have asked Jacob to harbor Colors for another night or forced Jamilet into one more storybook on my lap. Our obliviousness to the “lasts” is what allows our children to grow up. They change gradually, and we unknowingly support them, by not stopping their transformative moments.
Yes, we notice later. Later, we glimpse what is missing; a habit or an action that has been replaced. Our children grow outside of our line of sight, without our permission.
For this, I am thankful.