First days and last days (Summer 2019: that's a wrap)

This week we got the lunchboxes out, set our alarms and said goodbye to the summer of 2019 with our first walk to school of the new academic year.

Nora replied with a chipper “yup” when I stopped her at the door to see if she knew where her classroom was. Gabriel had me ask a teacher if she could point him in the general direction of third grade, then gave her a resolute nod and marched on without looking back.

Aidy, dressed in a unicorn dress, with her unicorn backpack on her tiny shoulders, all ready for her first day of kindergarten, cried. Hard. She cried at the doorway of her classroom and begged me - begged me - to pick her up early, that maybe this first day could be just a half day? She dug her fingers into my forearm and I had to pry them off, one by one. She asked over and over if I could just come in? But I couldn’t, and her very sweet teacher gently ushered her inside while J and I stood there and watched her go. And then we got into a fight when he suggested that maybe I was prolonging the goodbye and I suggested that his “suggestion” was “really bad timing.”

How quickly we move on, however.

J and I made up. I said that although it might seem silly to him, it was a hard day for me, and that’s why I was feeling so sensitive. He said he shouldn’t have criticized me for holding on and that although he wanted to get it over with in the moment, he felt badly about leaving our scared youngest child all by herself in this brand new situation, even though we had to.

And, Aidy. She greeted me at that same door seven hours later yelling, “I love kindergarten!” followed by a stream of passionate exclamations about it all. She did art with the art teacher! She played on the playground! She didn’t make any friends yet but she talked to so many people! Her teacher told me the crying had stopped just a few minutes after we left.

I, meanwhile, spent my children’s first day of school in a series of states, none of which yielded much in the way of insight or productivity. It all started out ok, but devolved. Realizing I was alone for a significant number of consecutive hours for the first time in many weeks, I got excited and wrote a bunch of emails! Ones I’d been meaning to write! Then I…folded some laundry! Then went through, like, three pieces of paperwork I needed to deal with. Then put the paperwork back onto the large pile I’d taken it from and wandered from room to room trying to figure out my purpose in life. I landed in the dining room, got out my computer, looked at a picture of my three children and thought about the sometimes unsettling and always overwhelming passage of time itself. I got all teary-eyed and ate a cookie. Multiple cookies. The good Italian kind with powedered sugar and jam in the middle.

I sunk into a weird mood that I haven’t quite shaken in the few days since. Part of it, I think, was due to the very common feelings we parents experience when our children approach milestones. I mean, kindergarten! I’d been reeling a bit since Aidy graduated from our beloved preschool in May, so watching her walk to elementary school with her older siblings was like a second punch. Too close to the first one.

Also, summer was over. Not technically, sure, but emotionally, big time. I’m usually ready to get back to the routine and, if I’m being honest, away from my children. But this summer - this busy, buoyant summer - was so good…so exactly what summer should be…that I hung on. The kids reunited with friends at camps in Maine and here in New Haven. They swam and ran and screamed with cousins. They slept out under the stars while the grownups sang along to favorite songs at a weekend-long music festival. They stayed up too late and got used to ice cream almost every day and, in Nora’s age set started playing games of truth or dare and talking about crushes, although all their parents were sitting right there and could totally hear them (we could totally hear you, guys).

And there were guests! Old friends and family and, when J’s JMU buddies came up in August, a swarm of seven additional children. Immediate BFFs who climbed the rocks together, jumped in the frigid ocean on the count of three, held a multi-day sleepover and planned a talent show so funny and poignant and - remarkably - not 700-hours long, that I put my hand to my chest and looked at my friends and said, with real feeling, “this is amazing.”

I knew I’d have a hard time reining them in once school started but I didn’t care. And I should have realized - although I didn’t - that after a summer of reuniting with some of my favorite people, spending relaxing days and many happy hours with my mom, literally doubling over with laughter on a regular basis, doing way less work than usual and drinking a lot of amazing wine (thanks, Russell!), it’d be hard to get myself back into a routine, too.

This summer I didn’t worry about much (is everyone getting enough sleep? am I writing enough? Is Aidy charming that stranger she’s been talking to for 45 minutes at the pool or driving her crazy?) in favor of letting it all play out. It wasn’t because of a new zen state I reached or morning pep talks. There just wasn’t time to fret. We did a lot of fun things because we said a lot of “yesses.” This isn’t necessarily practical for everyday life, but for one summer? Or maybe every summer from now on, forever? Beautiful.

So, when I walked the kids to schoo then came back to my empty home that was at first welcoming and then too quiet, it just felt like too many ends and beginnings all at once.

I don’t know. Maybe that’s a little saccharin, you know? Like, it is literally just the passing of time. Overwhelming or not, and as much as us moms and dads and everyone else gets kind of emotional when we think about these rites of passages and memorable events, I like to remind myself that they’re just the facts. “This summer I spent time with a lot of people I love.” “My child looks a lot older than he or she used to.” “School starts tomorrow.”

We move on.

Except not always. And not quickly a lot of the time. Because there’s a reason these moments (saccharin or not) come on so strong. The beginnings mark the ends. And you can’t go back. I don’t want to - I’m a perpetual lover of whatever is next - but it’s another fact. You can’t.

When Aidy had her last day of preschool, way back in late May, at the unofficial beginning of this wonderful season, I got in my car to pick her up and attend the little graduation ceremony they’d planned. I cried the whole way, listening to music that was provoking even more crying. Didn’t even think about turning it off. Just letting it happen.

I was excited about all the “next,” but on that drive all I could think about was how celebrating my last child’s last day of preschool made me think of everything before. How she’d gotten up that day to dress herself in one of her never-matching, magical outfits all by herself, and all of a sudden I was remembering her in the delivery room, wailing angrily about her arrival, as late-day sun filtered through the hospital window. And remembering Gabe as a toddler dancing happily to tunes from a play violin. And Nora singing the words all wrong to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Me and J’s parents, and a milllion friends, at the engagement party we had at our house in North Carolina. My high school girls and I in - well - high school.

All of it visible on a mental horizon that seemed close enough to touch.

That’s what happens, I think, when these last days and first days and everything else gets us. We long for the memories because we’re so solidly reminded that it’s time to move on. For me - as I’m prying my young daughter’s fingers off my arm, or trying to get my son’s attention when he’s already looking down the hall - it helps to have an anchor in that moment. My friends, who I talked to about all these things all summer. My family. A sweet teacher who ushers them in.

I do this thing in the car every since my dad died. Sometimes when I’m feeling emotional, or super angry at Mitch McConnell or throwing my hands up in disbelief about this country’s lack of gun control or gasping about the latest tweet…or if something funny happens, or the kids are being nice to one another in the back of the minivan which is a rarity, I take my hand and I tap it to the roof. Like, “Hey, Dad! Did you see that? Can you believe that? I am watching the road and you KNOW I’m more careful than my brother!” It helps me feel settled when everything seems up in the air.

As I drove towards my last preschool pickup, feeling so excited about the summer ahead and so very sad to leave that spring behind, I put my hand up to the ceiling to say hello.

I usually take it right down. But as the years have passed, I’ve come to grips with yet another fact: sometimes these transitions require additional support. That morning, I left it there.