Dispatches from Graduation Day: Elementary School Edition

The youngest is graduating from elementary school today. “I can’t believe it’s over; I spent more than half my life there” he says. He recognizes this as a Big Moment. “It’s the first big school transition, Mom.”

“What about from pre-school to kindergarten?”

“I didn’t even know what was happening. I thought we moved.”

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2011 Kindergarten Graduate

It’s a big transition for me, too, even though almost nothing changes. Same work, same routines.

Still, our children’s transitions are our parenting milestones. They mark the passage of time, creeping closer to the day they grow up and out. I may be wrong, but my hunch is that my kids’ 0-18 years will be one of my life’s favorite phases.

I remember one early, major milestone: The Stroller Transition. From the first days of motherhood, this new accessory came with me everywhere. In the car trunk, on the sidewalk — the stroller was an extension of me. It carried my child, and I guided it. It connected us. And then, one day, my younger son stopped needing it.

One would think this would be liberating! No more schlepping equipment to and fro, up and down stairs! And in some ways it was liberating. But it also meant I would no longer catch my reflection in a store window, arms extended pushing my baby, but instead chasing to keep up with a growing child running ahead of me on his own. It took me longer than necessary to abandon the stroller, because it signaled that I was leaving part of my then-identity behind — Mom of Little Ones — even as it heralded the beginning of new, wonderful phases, being the mother to growing, curious, expressive kid/tween/teens.

So elementary school will be behind us by day’s end. Onward and upward. Middle and high school. College. Jobs (please God). And at each transition, each new milestone, I will remind myself to appreciate the unknown wonders that will come next, and allow myself a few tears for the parts of ourselves — both the parent and the child — left behind.

 

 

 

Lesson from the check-out line: Spread Joy

This time my prophet appeared in the form of a Trader Joe’s cashier.

Let’s call him AJ. He was chatting with the cute young woman in front of me, and their conversation continued after she had paid and her groceries were bagged.

I felt aggravation bubbling up. I took a deep, patient breath. I decided to notice the sweetness in their conversation, to wonder if this moment would be the one they would tell their future children about — how Daddy handed Mommy his phone number on a bent and dusty business card.

They finished talking after about 10 seconds, probably less, and he began ringing up my purchases. I was proud of myself for not wasting energy on harrumphing. He was one of those “How are you? I’m great, I’m super, what a blessed day” type of guys. As he started ringing up my purchases, he offered up his personal M.O.: “I wake up in the morning and decide ‘Today going to be great.’ No matter what happens, you have to decide that.” He explained, as he bagged my frozen taquitos and smoked mozzarella, that with this attitude, even if he has a car accident, it won’t ruin his day. It’s just part of his day.

His attitude dovetailed with my new resolution to laugh more. To lighten up. I tend toward the serious. Even my gratitude is serious – for the absence of all the baaaaad things that can happen. My motivation for the new attitude is my kids; I want their idea of me to be fun and laughing, not worried and cranky. I have precious few years left to imprint their childhood memories.

This happy-gas effort has been working, though it takes some mindfulness to counter my default “serious” outlook.

Let’s be clear, I have nothing against seriousness – it is requisite for significant social change. I mean, we have to presume that America’s Abolitionists, Suffragettes, and the leaders of the Civil Rights movement were serious people, who were never heard to utter, “Let’s not worry about equal rights! Turn up the music and pass the cupcakes!” Seriousness of purpose has a place. But I don’t have to be so serious all the time.

The day after AJ, I heard the same message at Torah study. Even though the weekly portion was about skin eruptions. 

I will spare you the gorey details and cut to the chase. Rabbi Amy Bernstein showed us a little rabbi trick she had learned, because rabbis like to play with language and meaning. She took the Hebrew word for blemish, moved its letters around, and turned it into the Hebrew word for joy. Whether you see a blemish or joy, she suggested, depends on your perspective.

Joy blooms when you look for it. The sages knew it. AJ knew it. And, just like certain skin eruptions, joy can spread to people around you, be they your kids, your spouse, or the lady in the check-out line.

Be careful. It’s catching.

 

I wanted to tell you.

I’ve been wanting to tell you some things, but I haven’t had enough time or patience to give them their due, to connect them in a coherent story. So they sit in my head, unsaid. Sometimes I’m too busy living my life to write about it. Not writing makes me grumpy. It’s a physical need, to process through words, to wonder. But things move fast, and writing requires stillness.

So I wanted to tell you some things and it may not be perfect.

I wanted to tell you that we’re not too old to play. I nag my kids to go outside and they turn it around, ask me to play Capture the Flag. I have to force myself say yes. Lo and behold, despite myself, I have fun.

I wanted to tell you that my 15 1/2 year old niece joined in last time and was as into it as any of us.

I wanted to say how fast they, and we, grow up. My sister pulled into the driveway to pick up this teenage girl who had been screaming with abandon, “Get the flag!! Get the flag!!” My sister moved to the passenger seat, and my niece took her place behind the wheel. I watched her drive away.

I wanted to tell you to keep playing, as long as you can, even though our bodies can’t keep up with our spirits. A couple of weeks ago my husband’s softball team learned that bitter lesson three-fold, with a broken leg, a torn Achilles, and a fractured finger. Yet wary teammates will return to the field, weighing real risk against real fun.

My Dad plays football every Sunday with the same group of guys. Football is for him like writing is for me. It fills his well. Last week a player came out of the game feeling sick. Tight chest and nausea. My Dad rushed his friend to the hospital a few blocks away, where he had a heart attack in the waiting room, surrounded and saved by paramedics, thank God.

I wanted to tell you so much more, to unravel the string of words that is knotted in my heart and head. I wanted to tell you to play while you can, that there’s not enough time not to play. There’s not enough time for perfection.

I wanted to tell you I appreciate you.

And it’s time for the next thing…

 

Seeing the Big (3-D Mammogram and Ultrasound) Picture

I brought a good book with me to the follow-up mammogram. Follow-up mammograms by definition are more worry-making than regular ones. You are there because something funky was going on, something needed a closer look. (FYI, the book I just had to keep reading was the forthcoming Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson (February 2016).)

I was doing a very good job of not freaking out. I had had a 3-D mammogram for the first time last week, and although my doctor had said they usually necessitate fewer follow ups, this one did. So what? I always think I’m special. So why should my breast tissue be common? Besides, I knew that whatever was or wasn’t there would be there or not there regardless if I freaked out in advance. If there was trouble brewing, I’d do plenty of freaking once I knew.

A nice technician named Fuschia led me to the changing room. It was the first cold Fall day, naturally, but the gown was a soft flannel. Nice touch. The facilities at St. John’s could almost be mistaken for a spa.

Almost, but not quite. She led me to the exam room. Brace yourself. At a follow-up mammogram they really really really squeeze the breast tissue as flat as they can to make sure that whatever they might have seen in the first picture is just breast tissue, or something that cannot be squeezed out of the picture. The spa feeling was gone. (I take that back — I once had a sports massage that was much more painful, and lasted longer).

After the mammogram they did an ultrasound, just to be extra sure. I hadn’t had one since I was pregnant. “Is it a boy or a girl?” I asked. “Everything looks good,” Fuschia replied. The doctor came in and looked, too. They said “see you next year” and I got dressed, paid for parking, and left. I had a day.

Last night my son awoke me with “I had the worst nightmare. You and Dad died.” He climbed into bed and we had the rarest kind of hug: one that he needed.

Here I am, a day later, yesterday’s appointment almost forgotten. And I stop myself, say “Pay attention.” Today could feel quite different. That mammogram could have set me on a different future. So I look at what I normally forget to see: Today, with all its potential for petty aggravations, for mindless running, for holding grudges, is a gift that I do not “deserve.” No day is earned.

Every day is bonus.

Life — even the longest — is too short. Love deeply. Forgive freely. Hug often. Savor mundane details. Play your music loud.

“How Do I Cherish Life More?” This Kid Wants to Know

Our fourth grader had a question: “How do I cherish life more? It goes by so fast. How do I slow it down?”

I don’t even know where to begin. Is this the mischief maker? The prankster who loves to break dance? He is all of the above. He is ten and he feels the speed that has taken him from baby to here.

This awareness isn’t new. He has longed for babyhood, toddlerhood, little-hood before. He has suffered through the realization of his own mortality. He gets that all this, that he himself, will not last. Now he says things like “cherish.” I’m so out of my league.

His father’s response: “Do me a favor. Just consider, a little bit, the idea of becoming a rabbi some day.”

And then, “Appreciate what blessings you have in your life, as often as possible.”

Yes to both from me.

And also, now that I’ve had time to consider, I would add:  Taste a strawberry verrry slowly. Look in my eyes for five seconds once a day. Stand in a patch of sunlight, close your eyes, and take a breath and feel it heat your skin.

I don’t need a clock or calendar to tell me time is passing too quickly. My 13-year-old son has outgrown his shoes from September, and he trick-or-treats without parental supervision. My niece fills out college applications, and new strands of white hair pop up on my head. These markers are more than enough clock and calendar to tell me that I need to cherish life more, too.

I step outside. It is a beautiful fall day. The rain last week washed our sky and I can still smell what it left behind — a sprouting blade of grass, a walk in search of puddles, a whopper of a double rainbow, and desperate hope for much more to come.