During those first frenzied weeks after the twins were born, three children under the age of three made certain that no one slept for longer than 15 minutes. I calculated that we would change roughly 7,000 diapers in the coming year, prepare enough infant formula to float a small ship, and discard enough baby food jars to cobble half the streets in our village.
Imprisoned by our progeny, we left the house only to replenish rapidly diminishing supplies, wondering, as we glimpsed a world beyond babies, what had become of the life we'd once led, of movies and restaurants and languid Sunday mornings, of time to simply sit and think or sleep. I often wondered how I'd reach the end of the week, let alone survive the next few years.
But, of course, I was mistaken. Somewhere in that great thicket of mind-numbing chores, the last diaper was finally removed and discarded; the final bottle given; the pacifier set aside and forgotten.
I had thought I would never see the end of construction-paper alphabets or parent-teacher conferences; never stop walking them to school and picking them up again at 3; never finish driving them to play dates, birthday parties, soccer games; never stop telling them to drink their milk, brush their teeth, wash their faces. But in time it all stopped, and now, of course, I miss it - even those diapers.
We celebrate the great transitions of life: graduations from grade school, high school, and college; the sea changes of marriage, childbirth, and new employment. But generally we are better at marking beginnings than endings, more mindful at the start of some new endeavor than its conclusion. We prefer to look ahead rather than behind. Endings tend to be fuzzier. Most often it simply isn't in our power to know that we are standing upon a moment of transition, that the tide has turned beneath our feet, ebbing now instead of flowing.
Surely I would not have leaned over red-faced with exasperation at having to switch the shoes on my daughter's feet yet again if I had known that it would be for the last time. I would not have responded to my son's call to tuck him in with a reluctant, "I'll be up in a minute," if I had known that he'd stop calling me to his room for a story and a kiss goodnight after that evening, that the next time I'd read to him he would be in high school struggling over a passage of Shakespeare. But I did not know that any more than I knew the last time I cut my children's meat for them, buttered their toast, poured their milk.
When the sage was asked how we should best live our lives, he replied: as though each day were to be our last.
How much more attentive we would then be to every detail, every blessing, every wonder. Those diapers may not have seemed much of a prize back when three howling, wet-bottomed children demanded to be changed and we stood over them stupefied with exhaustion, but how dear that time seems in retrospect, how blessed with simple infant neediness. Would I want to revisit those years? No, I don't think so. But to have been mindful of the moment that last diaper was removed and the changing bag set in a corner never to be returned to service - that milestone I would have celebrated.
Our days are filled with endings, most of which we give scant thought to except in retrospect. Whatever became of that restaurant we used to frequent, that TV show we never missed, that treasured novel we read and reread? When was the last time we called that old friend, saw that distant relative, that former neighbor? If only we knew then what we know now, that henceforth all small fingers would find their own way into mittens, spoons into mouths, toes into shoes.
But we don't; we can't. And perhaps it's just as well. For the problem with living as the sage recommends is that the intensity of celebration, of perpetual gratitude, of a hyperawareness of life's blessings can lead to exhaustion. After the anniversary or birthday celebration, the holiday rich with thanksgiving, we seem to need time to recover, seeking respite in the mundane and the mindless, returning to routine. We lose ourselves in the petty details of the everyday. In retrospect, however, even those details may seem precious.
With one child in college and the other two aching to join her, it's too late to celebrate the many small milestones of childhood, but the twins still have a few weeks before they get their driving permits. They don't ask for rides very often these days, but when they do, I no longer begrudge the interruption. I'm eager to spend time with them and find out what's new in their busy lives.
All too soon this, too, will pass. A ride to the mall or to some friend's house will prove, in retrospect, to have been the last. Will I know it when it happens? Probably not. But I'll have enjoyed those rides.
And when, God willing, grandchildren come along, I'll be more mindful of the simple privilege of nurturing. But that's a natural condition of grandparenthood, I'm told. By the second time around we all realize how blessed we are simply to witness the daily miracles that fill our lives.