Everyone tells you about the firsts and how special they are: the first tooth, the first step, the first word. For my daughter, I dutifully kept track of these milestones in a Word file, in a baby book, and several photograph albums. But I didn’t know I should pay equal attention to the lasts: the last bedtime story, the last time I would walk my son to school, the last night my daughter would wait for the tooth fairy to arrive.
I didn’t realize these events were the very last in our lives until days, months, or even years after the fact. At the time, it seemed as though my son and daughter would live in childhood forever — it was impossible to accept that the children I loved more than anything would someday be gone. And because it was so gradual, I never even had a chance to say goodbye.
The dates of our last trip to the playground, the last block tower we built, and the last time we played with Play Doh are not recorded anywhere. There were no ceremonies or celebrations, just fleeting moments that make up a childhood, fading and then gone.
When my children were younger, bath and bedtime were events Stephen King couldn’t do justice to. The blood-curdling screams and fights seemed to last forever, and they were just two more obligations in a long day separating me from a glass of wine.
My children are two years apart; I must have helped with those baths more than a thousand times when they were young. But now, I can’t clearly remember a single one, and certainly not the last.
Photographs remind me of chubby-faced smiles and towel-wrapped hugs. When I look at those pictures it is almost as if I’m transported back in time. If I could go back — even for just a moment — I would hang on to the damp-warmth of their skin and lavender-scent of their hair. But I’m certain that, at the time, my mind was often elsewhere: on work, the future, and a million little things that needed to get done.
My daughter is now 13. She chose not to have a bat mitzvah and, since no one in my husband’s family did for generations, we respected her decision. Although I remember many details from my own ceremony clearly, I understand the importance of commemorating the passageway to adulthood now, much more than I did when I was young.
These days, my daughter would rather go with her friends to many of the places we used to go together: Starbucks, the movies, the mall. Sometimes it feels like we’re breaking up.
If I could have raised her in reverse, from teenager to infant, I would have treasured each time she ran down the stairs, excited to see me after work. Since I cannot go back to those days, I got a dog — and I again have someone who is always happy to see me when I come home, and walk to the farmer’s market with me on Saturday. (What’s more: The dog never talks back.)
My son is 11 and I’m trying to identify the last milestones before they’re gone. Was this the last time he’d dress up for Halloween? Is today the last time he’ll want my help with his homework? The last night he’d ask me to come to his room and say goodnight?
Maybe. I don’t know for certain. That’s just the thing about lasts — no one ever says, “Pay attention, because this, right here, is the end of something special.” You have to do it yourself; pay attention to each and every moment.
So today, I will try to remember every detail while sitting at the dining room table with my son and his books. It’s not fun to help with long division, but this is his childhood and I don’t want it to end.
The time our children live in our homes is so short; our time to do everything together, as a family, is even shorter. My kids will live with me for several years yet, but we no longer head to the park together, or assume that we’ll all be watching the same movie on a Friday night. Now they make their own plans with friends after school and on the weekends. They have hobbies and passions that are all their own.
That’s as it should be: We raise our children to let them go. And yet, somehow, the leaving is still just as hard as the loving.
Header image via Getty Images/Cristian Mihai Vela/EyeEm