We have a chalkboard decal in our kitchen. I bought it and put it up with the intention of changing it out weekly with Bible verses, notes of encouragement and silly sayings. Turns out, I'm not very good at keeping up with that kind of thing though. We mainly use it for countdowns: 12 days until Christmas, 10 days until a birthday, and so on.
Right now, it's counting down the days until my son Nathan starts kindergarten.
Six. That's how many days are left. Nathan, per usual, is playing it all very cool. Oh, he shopped with enthusiasm (and a mind-numbing level of deliberation) for his new backpack and lunchbox. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve told him we cannot yet open the new boxes of crayons or glue sticks that have been purchased. He gets a little quieter, though, when we talk about his new class, new teacher, new routine: all unknowns. The uncertainty of the unfamiliar balances the exhilarating newness, until he is neither excited nor nervous.
His 2-year-old sister does not share his ambivalence. As we walked through the halls of his new school today to finish registration, I noticed her wide eyes taking in the bright posters and boisterous kids.
“This is Nathan’s new school,” I explained, trying to help her make sense of it all. “This is where he will go to kindergarten next week.”
“Yes, me too,” said Ellie, nodding confidently. They’ve always done preschool together. All summer, she has been his shadow. Of course she would come too; she knew no other way. I tried to break the reality of the situation to her gently.
“No baby, this is just Nathan's school. You won’t go here yet.”
“Ellie, too?” A question, this time. Uncertain. She looked at me, brow furrowed. Like she was trying out this idea of a place where her big brother would go and she couldn't follow, and it didn't quite fit.
“No baby, not yet. You still need to stay home with mama for a little longer,” I said softly, squeezing her hand.
She didn’t answer, but her eyes studied her feet instead of the walls. Her eagerness was replaced with resignation. She understood; he was leaving her behind.
And me? I tell everyone who asks that I feel conflicted; excited for Nathan, but a little sad and nervous about such a big change. But that's not entirely true. Or, at least, it's not the entire truth. The reality is, I'm shell-shocked. How is it possible that we have only six days left?
It's as though we are perched at the top of a very tall roller coaster. We've been climbing and climbing for ages, like we'd never get here. Now we're paused at the peak for the briefest of moments. In a split second, we'll pitch forward and, with a speed I didn't think possible, careen down the rails. Kindergarten changes everything. Our years will soon fall into a familiar pattern; dictated, even, by the district schedule. School starts, then there's fall break and Christmas break. We'll blink and it'll be spring break, then summer, then the cycle starts all over again. Each year will flow seamlessly into the next.
There's something about predictability that makes the days go by faster, it seems. Those early years, the ones with little ones, are so scattered and unsettled. I remember it was the days when the routines were off that seemed the longest. The baby didn't nap or wanted to eat more often or the toddler wanted five snacks instead of three meals. The hands on the clock seemed unmoving on those days; the sun constant in its position in the sky. Maybe chaos eats up less time than order does. Now, our days will have rhythm and routine, and I know what that means.
They'll blur by before I can scarcely catch my breath.
Tonight, after the dishes had been cleared, the baths had been taken and the books read, I lay in bed next to Nathan until he fell asleep. I don’t usually do that; our typical routine is a few minutes of snuggling, then hugs and kisses and I’m out the door. But tonight, when I went to pull my hand away, he grabbed it and clutched it to his chest. With eyes closed, he sleepily whispered, “Just one more minute, Mom?”
I don't need a countdown in the kitchen to know these days are numbered now. Before long there won’t be a bedtime routine, and it won’t be too many years after that when I’m telling him goodnight and shuffling off to bed while he stays up. So tonight, I left my hand on his chest until the rise and fall became steady and even. I leaned my face into the top of his head and breathed in his still-little-boy smell. I even let a tear fall. Not because I’m grieving the passage of time, though. Children are meant to grow up, after all.
No, I think it was just the fullness of the moment. I stopped and savored, and my worn mama heart was filled right to the brim. A little spilled out, I suppose, and slipped down my cheek.
Perhaps that's the secret, really. Wrapping my arms around the present, and holding still for what is happening, instead of planning for what is coming.
For the space of a few heartbeats anyway, I managed to stop time.