Why do parents obsess over firsts? We fill baby books with detailed lists of our child’s first step, haircut and tooth as if later this will be critically important information. In hindsight, it’s the lasts I desperately wish I could recall; the last time I transformed into the tooth fairy or Santa; the last time my son reached out to hold my hand in public; the final push on the swing before strong legs began pumping themselves; and oh that last sweet time we all nested under the same roof, a cozy soft bed for everyone. This is what guts a parent when the last child leaves home; all of those soft, empty beds; the vacant, unoccupied space where bodies and energy had seemingly, just seconds before, been enough to fill a life. Too much nostalgia can break a heart.
Life is a series of moments, woven together that, when teased apart like threads from a beloved sweater, are enough to make me weep. Not just because I realize the moments are gone, but because so often I know I wasn’t truly paying attention when they happened. Maybe I was preoccupied by bills I couldn’t pay, or frustrated by my coarse curly hair, or lamenting how my life was supposed to be so much more than this. Maybe I was simply wishing to be anywhere but on that damned playground again, pushing the swing for the billionth time. Seasoned parents wistfully told me to savor these days for they would pass by in a breath. Politely, I’d smile and nod, bleary eyed with sleeplessness and think, if only. It felt like time was standing still; an endless loop of naps, feedings, needs to be met, play dates to be kept. But time was not standing still at all. Those messy, chaotic years melted away as fast as a July popsicle.
Breathe in, push the swing, breathe out and I’m standing in the middle of Peace Park in Taipei surrounded by squealing children swishing down slides and soaring on swings. My teenaged daughter has spent the past year on exchange and I’m visiting for the first time. I gently remind her not to slouch and she snaps in frustration. Her longing for independence is palpable as, nearly in tears, she proclaims her autonomy. Not only does she not need me to push her swing or catch her at the bottom of the slide or hold her hand, she doesn’t need me.
And that, I suppose, was the plan all along. Parenting is, at its core, planned obsolescence; a poignant reminder of universal impermanence. Of course the antidote to wistful regret is presence. Emily Webb in Our Town realized this truth when she returned as a ghost to relive her twelfth birthday with her family. She desperately cried out for her family to just stop and look at one another. “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”