"If there ever comes a day when we can't be together. Keep me in your heart. I'll stay there forever." -A.A. Milne
When my neighbor James moved into the house next door to us last year, I decided to introduce myself right away, sort of as a warning. I wanted to let him know what he was getting himself into, living next door to us -- a house full of four kids. We can be noisy, messy, full of life. He has warm, soulful eyes and when we shook hands, I knew we'd get along just fine, especially when he told me he has five grown kids of his own. When he said that, our handshake turned into a secret handshake. It came with the same look of understanding I get and give when I meet another parent of four or more children:Hello, fellow large family. I know. I understand.
I believe people are placed in my life for a reason. James is wise and kind. Everyone needs someone like him in their life. When James sees my children, he never looks at them with annoyance. Instead, his eyes light up and he seems genuinely happy to see them. But when he turns to talk to me, there always seems to be an underlying sadness to his eyes as he hands me little pearls of wisdom to hold onto for the rest of the day. One day last week, he handed me one such pearl. I've been holding it, my perfect little treasure, polishing it and trying to decide what to do with it. It's delicate and so wise, I almost fear it. The words he said were: if only.
My children had been playing outside for hours, riding bikes, playing on a neighbor's rope swing and chasing each other and friends during tag, with bright red cheeks and sweaty hair that made them smell like little puppies in need of a bath. James had been working in his yard, in his usual quiet way, watching and working, sometimes smiling and chatting with them as they ran by asking him questions, curious about his work. I grabbed my phone to take a picture of the girls when they brought out their dolls and settled into quiet play in the grass with the sun starting to dip in the sky.
He called me over and told me to take a picture from his yard so his ladder wouldn't be in the background. Snap. I looked it over. It captured them perfectly in the sweet moment. "It goes by so fast," he murmured. I nodded, "I know. I can't slow them down." He shook his head as if to say, No, you don't understand. At that moment, my 4-year-old boy zipped by, big grin, bright brown eyes, proudly riding his bike without training wheels. James seemed to be searching for his words and then he handed me my pearl, "I have two grown boys. Grown men now. They both played sports. One was a football player. Both tall, strong men now." He nodded towards my boy and quietly continued:
I just look at your kids and think, if only I had held my own boys on my lap one more time. If only I had hugged them when they were little just one more time before they got too big. They're too big to do that now. Too big to crawl onto my lap for a hug and for me to hold them tightly. If only I had done it one more time.
I nodded, understanding his words. His warning? As parents, we all know having children does something to time. Before children, time seemed steady and sure. Now, it's like I'm on a roller coaster that's going downhill, full-speed, my life flashing by me in blurred images. I feel like I need to reach for the brakes, to at least slow things down. But there is no emergency brake. And every time I blink, the wind stinging my eyes as I race down the track, my children are bigger, older and on to the next stage of their childhood. I see it. I can see why James' eyes are so soulful and wise -- he reached the end of the track for his kids' childhood and I can see the end of mine right around that corner over there.
I walked back to my house, needing to show my husband my newest pearl. He simply nodded. He knew what I wanted to ask, but he also knew I needed time to be alone with my thoughts. "So many if only's," I whispered as I tucked my pearl into my pocket. I brought it out when I went for my run the next day, knowing I needed to sort through my own bucket of if only's.
If only I had helped my oldest son with his superhero costume one more time before he got too big and learned how to do it on his own; If only I had tied my oldest daughter's yellow, sparkly shoelaces one more time before she proudly learned to tie them with her tiny fingers; If only I had rocked them to sleep just once more; If only I had dressed my youngest daughter carefully in her footed pajamas, remembering the sound of the snaps and breathing in her fresh baby smell just one more time before she got big enough to dress herself; If only I had held the twins, one on each hip and spun them around to make them laugh, one more time before they got too heavy for my arms to carry that way.
Sometimes we know it's the last time we will be doing something and we take a mental snapshot and place it carefully in that treasure box in our heart -- memories to keep forever. But what James reminded me was there are times we just won't realize it will be the last time. Time is funny that way.
I'm holding on to my pearl, still uncertain what I need to do with it. I know there's no way I'd jump off the roller coaster because I'm excited to watch my children grow. I love seeing them blossoming from the babies they were to the children they are now to the adults they will become. I don't wish for them to stay little, but I understand what James wanted to tell me-being a parent is bittersweet as time hands you a bucket full of if only's.
Nicole Scott writes about her faith, family, fitness, and love of running, at MyFitFamily.