There are lots of ways to be reminded of the passing of time. The holidays are always a big reminder for me: the traditions, the family visits, the ringing in of a new year. For a long time, the beginning and end of a school year were pretty pronounced markers of time passing. Then I finally finished school and, for a few years, “summer break” and “back to school shopping” meant nothing to me. Now I have kids, one of whom just finished his first year of public school (universal pre-k for the win!) and time, again, seems to be picking up speed, if for no other reason than there are more ways in my immediate world to recognize the passing of it.
Next week, my baby turns one. There’s another marker. In the weeks and days before her birth, I was so anxious — so worried about the labor being as traumatic as my first one and the weeks following being as challenging as they were the first time I brought a new baby home. It wasn’t and they weren’t. We’ve had some moments, but, for the most part, this year with Baby Joanie has been a dream, and it’s bittersweet to see it come to an end, just as it was bittersweet to pick up her brother from his pre-k class yesterday for the last time, watching the kids say good-bye to each other and their teachers. I cried a little. Jackson did not.
Even though he LOVED his class and his classmates and his teachers and everything about school (Monday mornings are his favorite time because: school!) and even though some of his best friends will be moving this summer, he did not cry. He was focused on the special lunch I promised him after pick-up (a pizza party with some of his friends) and then the playground after that and then first day of summer camp this morning. He’s going to camp three days a week this summer and he’s been so excited. On our walk to camp this morning — it’s a much longer walk than our quick walk to school — he sang the whole way, and he talked about the field trip they’re going on today. And then we got to camp and we walked up the flights of stairs to his classroom and we met his counselors and some of the other kids and I put his lunch in the lunch pile and his thermos in the thermos pile and his towel and change of clothes in the cubby marked “Jackson” and, when I turned around, he looked at me and his face crumbled and he cried and cried. I think it finally hit him: things are changing. (Which is really what the passing of time is, isn’t it?)
It broke my heart to see in his face the same thing I feel in myself so often: fear of the unknown and the realizations that things can change on a dime, that we can’t control everything, that our comfort zone only extends so far, that, despite having family and friends and a community, we still travel this world alone; there’s not one person who will be with you through everything, and, even at four years old, there will be times when you find yourself among people who are all strangers to you. It’s a lonely feeling, and it’s one that’s particularly hard to see reflected in your young child’s face. I want to spare him — and Joanie — all the loneliness and sadness and hurt and fear they’re going to feel in their lives. But that’s not my job. My job is to guide them through those feelings and to give them a soft place to land on the other side.
I hugged him and reminded him of the field trip he was looking forward to later in the day and the counselors he met over spring break who would be there with him and how he’d make lots of new friends and that next week an old friend would be joining him there. But he kept crying and looking at me like I was a traitor. Like, “How could you leave me here? Where I don’t even know these people?” He wanted to be back at school, in his classroom with his friends and his teachers and everything familiar and comfortable to him. I could see it in his face. And it broke my heart not just because I love him and I hate to see him upset, but also because I know that pang and I know it will come again and again over the course of his life, because life means change and the passing of time and the beginnings of things and the ends of things, and all of that is hard.
Time always passes at the same pace, but it can certainly feel suspended or sped up in different circumstances. As a parent, I have experienced so many hours that have seemed to drag on and then, suddenly, a year has passed and one kid is finishing school for the summer and the baby is turning one and Simone the cat is about to turn seventeen and my dad will be 70 and I’m two months away from turning 40 and it’s like, “Holy hell, how did all that happen? Wasn’t I just moving in to my freshman dorm last month?” And here I am, trying to shepherd my kids through these life transitions, the passing of time, and I don’t always handle them myself so gracefully.
“Seventy-two days until you can go back to school,” I told Jackson yesterday. He’s always been so obsessed with dates and numbers and structure, and I think giving him a count-down — 72 more days — provides him with some sense of comfort, making an abstract idea (time) a little more concrete. But I’m beginning to wonder if that might be doing him a disservice. Maybe, instead of focusing so much on the passing of time (or time, in general), we would both be better off focusing on this moment, right here.
Seventy-one more days ’til school starts back up. The countdown has begun.