“Hi, Mama,” my 6th grader says as I walk up behind her. It’s Field Day, and she’s sitting with a group of her 12-year-old friends. Mama. She says it casually, naturally, just as when we are home, both she and her six-year-old sister alternate between calling me Mommy and Mama. I feel a wave of tenderness and relief. She is still a child, not embarrassed to call her mother “mama” in front of her classmates.
When I take her and her best friend out for lunch and frozen yogurt, they are silly and laughing, visiting the bathroom together as you do, mixing each other’s weird soda concoctions together (peach lemonade, vanilla root beer) to make an even more unappealing flavor. They sing along together to “The Greatest Showman” soundtrack in the backseat, always knowing which one of them is singing Zac Efron’s part on each track. They have it well coordinated. They burp to the rhythm of the song and laugh hysterically while I pretend (?) to be disgusted in the front seat. They are still children.
In five days, she will be done with elementary school. Continuation, they call it, to make it a more accurate and perhaps less emotionally laden experience than graduation. But whether it’s meant to be merely a step in a seamless educational journey, let’s call it what it is: an ending. Elementary school is ending. And if there’s one thing I have always handled gracelessly throughout my life, it’s endings. I desperately acknowledge ends of eras, lest they slip by unbeknownst to me and leave me with regrets, and yet those ends of eras nearly undo me. I have never been good at letting go. I cling. I’m a hold on-er.
I see one of my favorite moms at Field Day. She and I embrace, grasping the bittersweet (mostly bitter?) tone of the last Field Day. We remember our first anxious days of kindergarten, me nine months pregnant with my second daughter, we remember our gap-toothed first graders and earnest fourth graders. I tell her that my husband randomly chose this week to remove the old baby furniture (ill-suited though it clearly is; a six-year-old does not need a dresser with a changing table on top.) from our youngest daughter’s room. I gasp when I see him carrying a plastic tub of bristle blocks downstairs.
“What are you doing with those?” I demand indignantly, readying myself for peaceful protest. “I’m just taking them down to the crawl space.” His tone is gentle and placid; he knows me better than to put the decade-old blocks in the donation pile. I do not want the giant new garage sale dresser in her room. I do not want the ripped and virtually destroyed pop-up books to be removed. I do not want my six-year-old to ride the school bus alone next year, as her big sister will be walking to junior high down the street.
A few days ago I took them to school and then walked across the street to teach music class to preschoolers. “We can go alone from here,” my 11-year-old told me, and they waved goodbye and headed up the walk to their school. I stood and watched them walk, holding hands, toward the entrance, and had one of those rare moments when you are fully present for an ending. These are the last days they will attend the same school, ever.
I have been so aware, these past months, of how useless it is to try to stop the flow of time. I know the only way is to surrender to it, to get caught up in its natural rhythm, to enjoy what is happening as it is happening and not look back or ahead. And yet. I remember; I hold on; I prematurely grieve what has not yet been lost; I gather up all the millions of losses of every incarnation of my children in the past nearly twelve years: the ingenuous new big sister, the brown-eyed baby who loved to be with mama in the night, the chubby-cheeked three-year-old who entertained us with impromptu recital after recital, the preschooler who taught us her Montessori belly breaths.
I do this thing where I shortchange my children and myself of the last bits of our ages. I have begun to call myself “almost 40” instead of saying I’m 39. I refer to my oldest as my “almost 12-year-old” though she has three whole months left. I prepare myself for the loss of 6 by thinking of her as close to 7. So maybe when 7 comes I will be ready for it? I’m not sure why I do this; perhaps I will make an effort to stop. Right now I am 39. One is 11, the other 6. We will just be here.
As I attempt to wrestle my heart into a more graceful submission to these endings, my grandmother is dying. We don’t know exactly how long– days, weeks, perhaps even months? She has surprised us before. I haven’t been able to see her to say goodbye, although I suppose every summer when the girls and I go visit, I am saying goodbye in case it’s my last chance. But I long to go now, dreaming of her at night, and yet reminding myself we have continuation, and recitals, and I have work, and traveling is impractical.
She is 96 and I know it’s time for her to go. I want her to go. And while I know that at my age, it’s unusual to have grandparents still living, I feel desperately sad thinking that I will finally be without grandparents. It’s another “end of an era,” and true to form, part of me rails against it. It was just yesterday that my brother and cousins and I sang the song from their wedding at their 50th wedding anniversary, and yet it wasn’t yesterday. I was 16.
I am not ready to lose my last grandparent, and I am not ready to have a middle schooler, but ready or not, it’s happening. I will lean into the flow as best as I can, and I will be ready to celebrate the beautiful things around the corner with our new beginnings. But also, I will hold the endings in my heart, and I will gracefully, gracelessly, mourn them.