Here’s the good part: They can do things on their own now. At somewhere around 18 months, my triplet grandchildren can eat enough during the day not to be wakened by hunger at night. And if they do awake, you can whip up a quick bottle, not even warm it up, and extend it somewhere in the vicinity of the crib. Two little hands will snatch it out of yours and pull it into the darkness and you can go back to bed.
These babies can get around now, sometimes on all fours, but more and more on just two. They can open things and close things and discover things you began taking for granted long, long ago. They want to run and jump and dive and break things and put things together that just don’t go together and push each other through walls and grab the spoon and feed themselves and make a mess of the high chair, their faces, their hair, the food.
So that’s the bad part, too: They can do things on their own now. They just don’t know what not to do. And every day the realization settles on you with ever-greater gravity that for the next 16½ years, you will be the obstacle between what they want and what you know.
I suppose I had that realization as a young mother with one reckless toddler after another half a lifetime ago. But when you have three reckless toddlers at the same time … that point comes home every day with a wallop. Let’s say Nattie starts getting petulant in the baby jail because she’s hungry. You don’t know she’s hungry. She could just as easily be tired. Or mad because Oliver has a toy she wants and is blissfully unfazed by her bullying.
But you dasn’t ignore her petulance. It can escalate into howling outrage at a nano-second’s notice. James is not about to be out-outraged by anybody, so he will join in, and before you know it, you have what I call the Bawlleluiah Chorus. The Bawlleluiah Chorus makes you lose your mind. You yank at the tinfoil on the little container of baby food and it suddenly gives, splaying a glop of mango-pear-spinach on the one cloth-covered piece of furniture in the room. You cannot find the oatmeal flakes that will thicken the potage, giving the babies a little extra wadding and you a little extra spill insurance. You struggle to get the legs of each child into his or her high chair, a task made exponentially more difficult by all the howling of lungs and writhing of limbs and arching of trunks. You get them belted in, plop a mouthful of mango-pear-spinach into each gaping maw, and hope the chorus will end.
It does. Halleluiah. You begin to talk to them in what you imagine is a very soothing voice, doling out plops of potage rhythmically. Then — whap! — a toddler paw swats with cobra speed, sending the spoon and its contents flying or, worse, grabbing the spoon and engaging you mano-a-mano in a battle that, whoever “wins,” is going to result in two things: (a) a mess and (b) the Bawlleluiah Chorus.
Only 16½ more years.
Perhaps it is that mental calculation that woke me this morning. The 18 years are up this weekend for one of my former employees. Her son will graduate from high school. As she began the year, she started what I knew would become a refrain: “This will be the last season of soccer for Callen.” Ah, I commiserated. Senior year. The Year of Lasts. And so it proved. The last season of soccer. The last Homecoming. The last concert. The last prom. And this week, a blizzard of lasts, culminating sometime this weekend with a tearful, beaming mom sitting high up in some bleacher, staring down at the mortarboard that is like hundreds of other mortarboards down on the gym floor below, but is distinguishable from all the others in some way that only a mother can know.
Probably she will be sitting there thinking, as I did, Wow. It all goes by in the blink of an eye. The night feedings when she thought she’d lose her mind if she didn’t get more sleep. The toddler in the high chair swatting the spoon out of her hand. The little boy wobbling his bike down the driveway. The kindergartner clinging to her leg on the first day of school. The sixth-grader falling asleep on the poster for his science fair project. The middle-schooler embarrassed to death that she hugged him in front of everybody at the school dance. The soccer player, violin player, oral interpreter, physics student. The handsome young man in a snappy tuxedo with the soccer star on his arm. The mortarboard tilted just so in the fourth seat of the third row of graduates on the field house floor.
“All done,” as my little James says emphatically when he’s had enough to eat. In the blink of an eye. Cecil Day Lewis describes that moment of transition in his poem “Walking Away,” in which a parent watches his child leave his orbit and enter into another:
I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show —
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.
This weekend and next, all across Montana, thousands of mothers and fathers will experience that gnawing ache as they pass the baton from their Year of Lasts to their child’s Year of Firsts. For just as surely as that they are mourning the end of an era, that child, if they’ve raised him or her right, is filled with restless anticipation for what lies ahead. And love is proved in the letting go.
Here’s the good part: At somewhere around 18 years of age, they can do things on their own now.
I know, I know: That’s also the bad part.