05/12/2015 12:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Pomp and Circumstances: Lessons Learned From Preschool Graduation

Life is a series of moments -- thousands, millions of them, strung together in dizzying, relentless procession. And sometimes they rear-end each other, piling up in a tangled, mangled mess of memory so we don't know when one ends and another begins, and we risk losing forever the ones that get pancaked in-between.

The soccer game is well underway when I arrive -- yes, against my will, I am a soccer mom, this is all my husband's doing -- so I thread my way across a field of chaotic toddler soccer matches, heading toward my daughter's team at the far end. I chuckle at all the packs of miniature people stumbling after soccer balls nearly as big as they are, entire teams falling on top of each other in wiggling piles, like litters of clumsy puppies.

My family is easy to find. My broad-shouldered husband towers over everyone else in his bright red shirt; my long-legged oldest daughter bounds down the field, a gazelle in a lavender jersey; my other children giggle on the sidelines, balancing fluorescent orange cones on their heads. I mingle my sigh with a laugh: My children, the cone-heads.

The 2-year-old's cone topples to the ground, and she glances up. Spotting me from yards away, her big brown eyes sparkle in that crinkly way she inherited from my grandmother. "Mommy!" she squeals, drawing out the word with the shameless exuberance only a toddler dares embrace. And she is off, scampering toward me on stumpy legs, her cherub cheeks flushed pink with play. Curls, damp with baby-girl sweat, bounce around her chin; her chubby, grubby hands reach for me; and joy, transcendent glee, lights her face. My heart sprints ahead of me to hug her. I toss a prayer heavenward: "Please oh please let me remember this moment." And even as I rush toward her, I desperately try to brand the memory -- the unbridled affection in her eyes, the clumsy cadence of her run, the lilt in her little-girl voice, the squeeze of tiny arms around my knees, the swell of my own heart -- somewhere deep inside, forever.

And then it's a spring evening -- not even 7:30 -- and the children, exhausted from a day spent in the wholehearted pursuit of childhood, are already snoozing. My husband calls me outside to show off his handiwork with the sprinklers. He's spent days lying on his stomach with his arm shoved, shoulder-deep, into the red Georgia clay, and I follow him into our front yard. He's happy with his accomplishment, and his contentment is contagious. I look around. The mosquitoes and humidity, those plagues of Southern summers, have yet to arrive this year. The air is cozy, friendly, a warm breath teasing our cheeks with hints of honeysuckle and magnolia. And as my husband gets distracted -- fiddling again, always fiddling -- I look up at the sky. The blue is fading, diluting, more white now than blue. Already I can see the pale half-moon, making an early appearance.

While my husband tinkers, I plop down onto the prickly grass, breathing the clean air, peering up at my children's darkened bedroom window. I smile to myself. This is nice, I think. I'm happy. A flicker of fear for the unknown future darkens my thoughts, just for a heartbeat. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, I tell myself, reining in my imagination, but right now, in this five minutes, life is good. All is right in our little world. I swirl the feeling around inside myself -- tasting it, savoring it, imprinting it into my heart, storing its essence for a time when I may need to recall the memory of serenity.

Sure enough, hours later, my daughter sleepwalks and mistakes the carpet for the toilet. Peaceful moment gone. New moment -- gross moment -- begun. But all night long -- all week long -- my mind flits back to those five twilight minutes spent basking on my front lawn, an arm's reach from the man I love.

Days later, my oldest child "graduates" from preschool. Sure, it's all a bit comical -- preschoolers, decked out in scarlet caps and gowns, "Pomp and Circumstance" lending undue solemnity as they parade down the aisle -- but still, I cry. (Of course I cry. Always, I cry.) The end of innocence, it feels like. Like she's walking away from her baby-girl years for good, off for the big bad world of kindergarten. And it's a bittersweet foretaste of the real graduation to come, thirteen blink-of-an-eye years from now, the one when I finally lose her to the real world. But today, my daughter -- so often reserved and shy in groups of people -- today, she glows. Her bronze cheeks radiate a rosy pride, her black eyes sparkle, and her giddy, giggling grin sets my heart soaring. She has never been more beautiful.

By the time the ceremony ends, I've already forgotten the songs she sang, but I know I'll never forget the dance in my heart and the way that she smiled, marching down that aisle, taking my breath away.

Most of us will stop to acknowledge life's milestones, the scrapbook-worthy events. But so often it's the little things that mean the most -- a sunbeam smile from a child, a well-timed finger-brush from the one we love, a laugh-till-you-cry phone call from an old friend. Add up these countless, seemingly insignificant memories, and you've got a life.

A life worth living.

A life worth remembering.

The trick is to be aware enough, present enough, to recognize those little moments when they come -- and not just the happy ones, but the gut-wrenching ones, too. The heartbreaking ones, too. Let us put life on pause, just for a heartbeat -- enough time to take a snapshot in our mind, bottle a feeling in our soul, and choose to live, and love, one moment at a time.

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