4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
I was wringing out wet bathing suits and hanging them over the deck railing. Our front porch is about fifteen feet from the road with a lively view of the cove across the street. A man on a motorcycle rode by. He was on one of those big, fat Harley Davidson motorcycles wearing a leather vest and a skull cap helmet, his beard flying out over his shoulder, like a scene right out of Sons of Anarchy, but in Maine instead of California.
I had just given my kids post-beach outdoor showers and had taken one myself, and so, inexplicably, I was only wearing one of my kids’ bath towels wrapped around me barely once and tucked under my arms.
I looked up at the sound of his loud motorcycle, and he looked at me. We both sort of waved, and then he suddenly realized I was a mom on the deck, about to be naked, and he pushed me away with his wave, embarrassed, whether for me or himself, I’m not sure.
In that moment I was thinking about time. I’m pretty much always thinking about time. Often it is the passage of time, how fast it flies, how sometimes it crawls and creeps, how sometimes time can skip ahead leaving big chunks seemingly empty. But today I was thinking about the last time.
I was thinking about how there’s always a last time for everything. Will this be the last time this summer that I hang out their bathing suits on the railing? Will this be the last time this season we’ll swim out to the dock and then to the rock at high tide and jump off together?
Even as a kid when we would go to Cape Cod for our one week vacation, I remember I’d walk down the street onto the beach and across the sand to the edge of the water. I’d stand there looking out at the ocean and say goodbye, a romantic Judy Blume notion about how next year I’d be different somehow, older or wiser. Then one year there wasn’t a next year and whether because we’d grown too old or my father too sick, or maybe one of my sisters was graduating from medical school or law school or getting married, we never returned. I had no idea that would happen. And now that very last time is just a collage of all those adolescent goodbyes.
As I grew though, I knew that each goodbye with my father and brother, both brittle with illness throughout my teens and beyond, would quite possibly be my last. It was something I measured. I smelled them and looked in their eyes and said something I meant, like I love you. Even though my father’s death came as a surprise in the moment I remember exactly where I was standing the last time we hugged. I remember tucking my face into his neck and the feel of the scruff on his chin. I’ve polished this memory until it’s become worn but warm in its shininess.
I remember that the last time I saw my retarded brother I told him it was okay, that he didn’t have to keep fighting for life anymore. I handed my mother the camera and had her take photos just-so of the two of us, something concrete to mark my likely last time.
In February 2010, I was five months pregnant with my youngest and I read Chris Jones’ gorgeous piece in Esquire magazine on film critic Roger Ebert‘s battle with cancer.
“Roger Ebert can’t remember the last thing he ate. He can’t remember the last thing he drank, either, or the last thing he said. Of course, those things existed; those lasts happened. They just didn’t happen with enough warning for him to have bothered committing them to memory…”
There it is in an instant. The voice that filled our homes every weekend in our youths, telling us whether to watch Back to the Future or Out of Africa, gone, with no fanfare. But life is like that. Life is constantly like that.
Now as a mother I am amazed by the multitude of possible lasts. So many of their childhood markers are lost in the melee of parenting. When was their last diaper? When was the last bottle? The last jar of baby food? I don’t remember getting rid of their highchairs and we had three. And even as I lament these tiny things, I shudder to consider how many mothers suffer far more tragic and infinite lasts. I can’t even begin to go there.
I do remember the last day I breastfed my youngest child. I knew it was coming to an end. My husband had a camera, and so I asked him to come take a picture of us together in bed in the morning sun. It is one of my favorite photos of my youngest and me. That morning all my other children also came in and sat on my lap and looked directly at their father for a photo. These photos are breathtaking, in part because of the way I treasure this strangely visceral last.
Perhaps the trick is just trying to be present no matter what the moment is. Maybe we just need to dwell in the beauty and the importance of the nothing moments like tying a shoe, hearing them call me mama rather than mom, singing them Thunder Road as they drift off to sleep, helping them tuck a tooth underneath a pillow, leaving cookies out for Santa.
And maybe every day I hang our suits out on the deck, line the towels up flapping in the wind, I need to look out at the infinite expanse of water and consider this singular moment, with whatever it’s bringing me. Whether this is the last time or not.