Tuesday, July 13, 2010

This, Too, Shall Pass

We took the kids to see Toy Story 3 the other day. With a movie audience of several small kids, I knew to expect some noise, crying and disruptions. I didn’t expect, however, to personally contribute to any of the aforementioned distractions. But there were several scenes – when the mom looks around at Andy’s packed-up-for-college empty room, the display of friendship and acceptance by the toys at the dump inferno, and Andy (spoiler alert!) introducing the toys to Bonnie and playing with them one last time – that should have choked up anyone with a beating heart. My face was marked by the telltale mascara roadmap and I was still actively crying in the bathroom after the movie ended, as I changed Liam’s diaper, picturing him going off to college and my life being devoid of the very children that make me batty on a regular basis. He smiled his beaming baby smile at me, oblivious to the fact that his mom is just slightly unhinged, unaware that life is always changing, nothing is permanent – for better or worse – and that life is sometimes full of heartbreak.

My favorite mantra is This, too, shall pass. I remind myself all the time that whatever is difficult/frustrating/annoying/challenging won’t be that way forever. Because things change, things pass. Kids grow, and then they’re grown up. And though I look forward to the free time and peace and quiet that will someday come when the kids are less dependent, I also know that the silent void will be deafening, because these times are precious, and fleeting.

We recently went on our family vacation to the Black Hills region of South Dakota. The kids did great, all things considered. Twelve-week-old Liam traveled like a champ, and Grace and Nadia really could not have been any better than they were. None of this means that traveling with little kids is easy, but, for this trip, our kids were about as easy as kids can get. This time.

On the second full day of our trip, we headed to Mount Rushmore. It was a hot one – about 100 degrees. The kids were dragging a little bit, from the heat and crowd and probably the unspoken disappointment of having to look at a big rock all day. The plan was to rent the audio wands for the self-guided walking tour and, since it was lunchtime when we arrived, getting food, so as to stave off kid-discontent as we toured. At the audio rental stand, we, of course, found out the trail through Rushmore wasn’t stroller accessible. So, after schlepping the stroller back to the car and facing the prospect of wearing Liam in a pouch on a 100-degree day, we raced through a meal, during which Liam became miserable. I ended up feeding him - again, which bored Grace and Nadia, who were getting antsy to do something, after having sat in the car a while, then having stood in a long line, only to sit down again to eat and wait for Liam to be fed. I was hot and frustrated and feeling a little weepy about how exhausting and difficult it can all be (gone are the days of my great friends, Quick and Easy).

Just then, a man approached us. He told us that he and his wife were watching us from their table, remembering when their lives were like ours – youthful, full of kids, on an adventure – and envying us. He talked for a little while, offering sage advice from the perspective of life’s rearview mirror. He told us to enjoy our greatest treasure – the kids – because they grow up and it all changes (ends, I think he meant) so quickly. He told us that, even on the worst day, these are the best days.

After he left our table, I immediately started to cry, partly grateful for the reminder to be appreciative of the now and to not take any days for granted, partly shamed at my earlier frustration with my “difficult” life, partly in heartbreak for those future days when the kids are all grown up and too busy for us, or just not even interested in us. I know he’s right. Everyone old enough to have a little perspective, and distance, seems to say the same thing. We heard it again on the trip at a diner somewhere in central South Dakota, from a woman stirred to nostalgia because of our chaotic, mini traveling circus. She, part of a duo of retired couples, was traveling footloose and fancy-free, yet said the same thing as the man at Rushmore – to enjoy these days because they go by so quickly, and then we’ll realize how good these days were.

Even though I know what they said is true, I get so distracted by the demands of the day that I forget. Often. We are frequently nostalgic for the past, we are optimistic about the future, but the present…well, the present is another story. I think, if asked to describe their current life, most people would say something negative – it’s stressful or exhausting or challenging. The present is confounding; it’s all we really have, yet it is so hard to appreciate in real-time. It seems that only when the present becomes the past is it possible to appreciate fully. I wish it wasn’t like this.

It’s sad…that this life we’re living goes by so quickly and that the proper wisdom to take it all in, and properly appreciate it, develops so late in life. Today I am the changer of the diapers. Tomorrow, I will be the duster of the empty room and forgotten toys and, the day after that, I will be in the sunset of my life and on vacation, envying the young, burnt-out parents and their noisy brood causing the commotion at the table next to me, wondering where all the precious time went.

Again, it’s enough to choke up anyone with a beating heart.