The Last Time

As a young mother, I spent a great deal of time documenting “firsts.” I was there for my babies’ first smiles and laughs, their first steps and first words. I snapped pictures of their first tinseled Christmas mornings and first cellophane-wrapped Easter baskets, which, quite honestly, were a blur in the midst of fractured, new parent sleep. I wiped away my sudden, hot tears on their first days of school, their first wobbly executions on bikes without the aid of training wheels, and while witnessing their first home runs and first school concerts.

There were so many entries in their baby books. So many photographs, now stored away in computer hard drives and files. So many candles lit as rooms were darkened, and as off-key lyrics of “Happy Birthday” were sung. So many days of nervously watching as each child left the nest on their own remarkable terms, inching further and further down the branch at every opportunity before they took flight. So many days of letting go, when I wanted nothing more than to shamefully keep all of it for myself.

Now, as an older mother, I sense that my role has morphed into something like a reverse mortgage. I’ve put in nearly eighteen years of equity, and have looked on as my investments grew. My children are 17 and 13 now — a girl-woman and a boy-man, mocking my maternal sentimentality, my insistence on proper dishwasher loading and — thank you infant baby Jesus — still kissing me on the forehead before they turn in at night. They are innately good and flawed people, who care about stray animals and the state of our country, and who offer dignity and assistance to elderly people struggling to climb subway steps. They have my blue eyes and my temper, although they express the latter in ways that uniquely belong to each of them. I am desperately in love with both of them, and will forever be, in ways that I still cannot properly express but pray they will still sense, long after I am gone from this earth.

Last month, as we celebrated our daughter’s 17th birthday, it struck me that we would enjoy only one more birthday celebration together as a family unit before she heads off to college. Her birthday falls in October, and after next year, she’ll be in Boston or DC or Iowa or God knows where, taking poli sci classes in her fall semester, drinking cheap beer and making magnificent mistakes — and figuring out who she was born to be. After so many years of princess birthday cakes and streamers and sweet 16 party carpools, the realization was stunning. This would all end, which I understood in theory, of course — but was still so astonishing to comprehend.

I realized that in addition to “firsts,” we also come to experience many “lasts,” and that there aren’t any blank books or photo albums dedicated to their documentation. The “lasts”  catch us off-guard and unaware all of the damn time, and we never know to honor such moments until they are out of reach, and long past our line of sight. I didn’t bronze the last bottle that our daughter drank during a quiet midnight feeding, while we rocked together in the darkness and listened to cargo ships low their horns in the thick San Francisco fog. I didn’t think it would be the last time that I’d swoon to hear our son mispronounce his sister’s name when he was a toddler, before some neural pathway in his brain strengthened and redirected his small, rose-lipped mouth to say it correctly. I didn’t commemorate the last time I was “Mommy,” instead of “Ma.” I couldn’t have known that we’d choose the last book that I’d read to them at bedtime, or the last summer day that we’d spend together on the playground. I didn’t savor the last Christmas that they still believed, the last time we could all fit comfortably into our queen-sized bed, or the last time I’d need to drive her somewhere, before she got her license.

There were other lasts in my life before I became a mother, of course. There was the last Manhattan checkered cab ride I’d ever take, before the taxis were all decommissioned and scrapped in junkyards. The last time I’d cross East 19th Street and notice the glint of trolley car rails embedded in the asphalt — the same rails that my great-grandfather once rode as a ticket taker around “Dead Man’s Curve” circa 1903, and which strangely brought me comfort as a young woman living alone in New York City. The last breakfast I’d eat at The Paris Commune on Bleecker Street. The last time I’d hold my grandmother’s hand before she died, and the last time that my parents would pose together for a photograph before they divorced. The last time I’d see the World Trade Center, shimmering at the far end of Seventh Avenue on a hot summer afternoon, standing so tall and sure.

We cannot know when these “lasts” will happen, but we must live as if they are occurring all of the time. Not to clutch them too tightly to our bodies and psyches, but to savor them so sweetly when they have passed through us, to let them linger on our tongues and fingertips and minds, to ache so exquisitely for how it once was — as we let it all go, and marvel at what we are so blessed to have been given.

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