Life and death, love and loss and the fragility of our shared humanity are prominent in the national discourse today as we collectively struggle to understand the motives of humans and higher powers in a situation that is beyond imagination. For those of us who have walked in similar shoes, enduring the sudden and unexpected loss of a young child, this is a time of deep sadness, of empathy and a reignited pain that we know will never be far from us.
Others are spending the time focusing their attention on the gun culture in this country, and to a lesser extent, the gutting of the mental health care system and safety nets. These conversations promise to continue long past the last memorial service for these latest victims, and will blend messily into the next national tragedy.
While these are valid and important discussions, today I leave these to the pundits and focus instead on a more personal lesson – a lesson on time and what is really important in this short walk we take on this planet.
Like many Americans, I work too much, and play too little. I’m fiercely proud of the fact that as single mother I defied the odds and have 2 terrific children and a successful career but this comes at a cost as I often find myself working 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. Sure I have all the visible accoutrements of success, including a nice car, an abundance of clothes, all the latest technology, and money to spend, but I have less of the more holistic joys of life than I would have bargained away had I been given the choice at some point with this same vantage point.
As a busy professional who travels a good bit and a grandmother with young grandchildren, I am often torn between grabbing a few hours here and there for those necessary but pedantic tasks (laundry, housecleaning, basic shopping, etc.) and requests from my grandchildren to spend time with them. This seems like a no-brainer, and of course, I’d much rather eat ice cream with the grandkids than dust the living room or unpack another suitcase and sort out the dirty laundry, but; the realities of the pressures multiple work responsibilities and my travel schedule mean that there are times when I have to say, “not today, Grammy is too busy – how about next weekend?”
Not long ago I faced just such a weekend. I had returned from another week away, and had dirty laundry, a messy house and dry cleaning to drop off. I also had some additional pressures – brought on by myself in the form of taking on additional consulting work – and another trip out of town coming the very next week. I’ll never know why, but that weekend I just refused to let work or work-related issues get in between my grandchildren and me. That Saturday, the three of them and their Mother spent a casual day at my house. I made cookies (a rare thing for me – I’m not very domestic) and had them warm and fresh from the oven when they arrived, and allowed them to peruse my attic for “treasures” to their hearts’ delight. They played on my laptop and eReaders, and watched Sprout on TV. I answered 500 questions of “WHY?” and nonchalantly mopped drinks that were spilled on my couch, prompting my daughter to ask, “Who are you and what have you done with my mother!?” (I would have hollered at her and her brother for the same accident). We enjoyed a long afternoon of just being together. Nothing formal, just being Grammy and Mom on a rainy Saturday afternoon. During that afternoon, my grandson was lobbying for me to take them to the local farm market for a tractor ride, and pumpkin. His sisters had gone earlier that week on a pre-school field trip, but his promotion to kindergarten this year meant that he missed the trip and he was determined to get out there!
In the back of my mind, I was groaning as I thought about how much I had to catch up on Sunday, and the rainy weather was not making me want to sit in the back of a wagon pulled by a tractor, so I said what my own grandmother often said: “We’ll see…”
The kids went home and I was invited to dinner, which I accepted with delight (my daughter is a good cook). That night we spent another wonderful few hours together; I helped with their baths, and combed the girls’ hair when they got out, and helped them into their jammies. I read a couple of bedtime stories, and received multiple hugs and kisses before they all went to bed. It was, in a grandmother’s view, the best day anyone could ask for, and receive. I went to bed content, and happy and assured that the charmed and blessed life I have been living would continue, uninterrupted except by the annoyances of work, bills and the natural transitions of life.
The next day my daughter called: “Ethan is asking when you are coming to take them to the Farm,” she said and I winced just a little looking around at the dog hair that needed to be vacuumed, the refrigerator that was past due a clean out and the rain falling steadily outside in the cold, Autumn air.
“Does he know that it’s raining and we probably won’t be able to go on the tractor ride?” I asked, hoping that common sense would prevail. “It shouldn’t be raining next weekend and that would be more fun.”
“He knows it’s raining but he doesn’t care – he wants Grammy to take him to the Farm to get a pumpkin.”
I don’t know too many grandmothers who can resist that kind of plea. I glanced one more time at the messy house and said, “I’ll be there before 2 – it’ll be fun; we can drink some cider, get balloons and find a pumpkin and maybe the wagon will be covered since it’s raining.”
I arrived to the gleeful hugs of my 3 grandchildren, delighted to be heading out on a Farm adventure with Mommy and Grammy. We spent another wonderful day at the Farm market, where we indeed drank warm cider, nibbled on freshly-made funnel cake and listened to the local college choral group sing. I bought balloon characters for each of them, and they all picked out a pumpkin and some decorative gourds. Hayrides were cancelled due to the weather, but they didn’t seem to mind. We rounded out the day in the market section where we sampled various types of apples, looked at antiques, and drank more cider. We had another wonderful day: nothing fancy, just once again spending unstructured time together. We returned home, had dinner, and after sampling my daughter’s homemade whoopee pies (pumpkin flavor), I again got to comb little girls’ hair and wrangle underwear, pajamas and stories before bed. I went home later that evening to the still-messy house, and the still-packed suitcase, but I had spent a beautiful weekend with 4 of the most important people in my life, and that’s all that mattered. I had no way of knowing that night how profound that peace would become in the coming days, weeks and months.
Not a day later, I received a frantic call from my daughter that would change all of our lives forever. Our little Elise had gone to bed that night like she did every night, and when her father came home from work and, as he always does, went upstairs to kiss and check on the kids, found her stiff and cold in her bed, dead of what remains an undetermined cause (we suspect it is related to SIDS, and is referred to as Sudden Unexplained Death of a Child. It is similarly elusive in terms of its cause, and is used to describe these kinds of deaths in children older than 1 year. We believe it may be related to emerging research around febrile seizures).
I have not even begun to explore the depths of this loss to me, personally or to my daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren (her siblings) and the others in my family, but I can say that I am so very grateful for the instinct that nudged me to ignore the ‘duties’ of life and just spend the time with my precious grandchildren. I am grateful that the memories of me that little Elise took with her across that veil include the weekend of freshly-baked cookies (which she sneakily helped herself to after her mother said “no more”), the trip to the farm market, balloons, cider, bedtime stories and Grammy helping her into her jammies. I am extremely grateful that I can look back to that last weekend we had with her and know that I didn’t put my job, or housework, or anything else in front of spending time with my precious grandbabies.
I’ll never know what made me throw my standard habits to the wind that weekend and spend the majority of both days with my daughter and her children but I am eternally grateful for the memories and the important lesson it taught me. We hear this a lot, but I doubt that we really download its meaning: all that we have is this moment, right now.
We can’t go into the past, and have no access to tomorrow. Live today as if it will be the last time you have a chance to hug the ones you love, because as I know, as my family knows, and as the people in Newtown, CT know – you may not have that same opportunity tomorrow. Take time for pancakes with your grandkids, lunch with your grown children, or dinner with your aging parents/grandparents. The housecleaning, work deadlines, and laundry will be there tomorrow, and the day and weeks after that, but the moments you have to share with the people you love, are fleeting.
I know my grandmother, and my great-grandmothers profiled in my series ‘The Circle of Aprons‘ are pleased that I have finally learned this important lesson, and if there is any comfort to be gleaned in times of such deep grief, it is in my belief that Elise is tugging on the aprons of the grandmothers, asking for one of those freshly-baked cookies that I’m sure they have in ample supply on the other side of the veil.