Counting The Days

There are moments when I wish I could roll back the clock and take all the sadness away, but I have a feeling that if I did, the joy would be gone as well. Nicholas Sparks

Time morphs after you have children. Moving like molasses on some days, it races like winter runoff from the Sierras on others. When the kids were little, there were afternoons when I counted the minutes until Dan got home from work and others when I’d look up from making dinner and think, “Where did Jimmy’s baby fat go?” “When did Molly become a little girl?” as if these transformations had taken place overnight.

In When Breath Becomes Air, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi shares an adage from residency that the days are long, but the years are short, something that’s equally true of parenting. I loved so much about each age and stage of my kids’ growing up years, yet I wasted far too much time focusing on what was coming next. Instead of savoring Molly and Jimmy as bright-eyes newborns, I counted the days until they could roll over or crawl. The minute Jimmy learned to hold a pencil, I insisted he learn to write his name. I looked forward to preschool, to kindergarten, to the stage when they could walk home alone from school. As the kids each achieved a new milestone, I’d immediately start anticipating the next one. Like Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth, I looked forward to what was next instead of being where I was. Restless and distracted, I failed to fully appreciate, or sometimes even take note, of what I had.

I kept this up after Jimmy’s brain cancer diagnosis as a means of survival. Counting to thirty for the daily radiation treatments and to nine for the rounds of chemotherapy helped me avoid thinking about answers to the terrifying questions before us: “What damage am I doing to my child in order to save his life?” “What if this protocol doesn’t work?” I wanted our old life back with its everyday fears and mundane worries. It never occurred to me that returning there was no longer an option.

Everything changed when Jimmy’s cancer recurred two years later. Time slowed down. Or more accurately, I did. I was no longer in a hurry to start the next treatment or hear the results of the latest test. Instead of looking ahead to what might be coming, I burrowed into what was, trying to mark and remember even the most mundane of moments spent together as a family.

Being in the moment is one of the hardest things we do. Standing in the liminal space between the old and the new, suspended between the past we can no longer hold on to and the future we can’t yet see. It’s like sitting at the top of a steep slide, afraid to let go for fear that no one will be there to catch you at the bottom.

It was Jimmy who taught me to be where I was. To settle into the not knowing and stop worrying about what might come. The quarterly MRI that might or might not reveal new tumors. The college admission letter that might or might not offer acceptance. The winter storm that might or might not snow us in. I began to accept that I had no control over any of these outcomes, and no amount of fretting, complaining or bargaining with the universe would change that. I learned that to sink into the time I had with those I love most is to watch time stretch and expand. That there’s beauty and magic to enjoying the mystery of the moment, even if what’s coming next could be devastating.

During the holidays, Molly spent time watching home movies of when she and Jimmy were rugrats. Last week, she sent me a folder with a clip of the day we brought our first dog Bronco home. Just seven-and-a-half weeks old, he’s a roly poly mound of white Lab, snuggled up against the side of the couch. Fifteen seconds into the recording, a nine-year-old Jimmy appears in the frame. “What do you like best about him?” asks Dan off camera. “That he’s playful,” answers Jimmy. A few seconds later, four-year-old Molly appears and whispers, “He’s a tired puppy, Dad.”

I remember that car ride home with Dan, our sweet, calm pup curled up on my lap. How excited we were to give Jimmy the dog he so desperately wanted. Watching the footage, I have no memory of this moment, but I am there in the background, listening to Molly when she races over to share something important about the newest member of the family.

There are thirteen more videos in the folder. Two-year-old Molly singing the Pokemon song. Four-year-old Jimmy holding her the day she was born. The two of them playing together at various ages and darting in and out of the waves on the beach in Oregon.

I cry as I watch each one, remembering how kind and gentle Jimmy was with Molly. How much fun they had together. The way they made each other laugh. How fiercely they loved each other. I hurt for everything the three of us have lost now that Jimmy is no longer here and for how much he has missed out on. But unlike the footage of Bronco’s first day, I remember so much of what’s in the other clips. The hours spent together. How light-hearted we were, not knowing what was to come. The way Dan and I soaked in the kids at every age. Despite the holes in my memory, I realize that I was present and paying attention, marking the moments that made up our lives together.

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