It first happened in our upstairs hall last summer while I sorted school supplies into two piles. One for the big one and one for the little one.
I had given Tucker, capable, soon-to-be fifth grader, a Sharpie to label all of his notebooks and folders. But I wrote Case Adams in the other folders myself, in perfect Momma script. I was four deep before he stopped me.
Can I write my name?
Of course you can, I said, even though I really, really wanted to finish. Why? Labeling your child’s things is so parental. It means you’re in control. It means they need you.
I’ve never written with a Sharpie before, he said, giddy and sliding onto his belly to form each letter in permanent black.
He was ready and I missed it.
I missed it because I was all consumed in Tucker’s lasts. His last year of elementary school. Their last year together for years. The last bit of little. I’d been devouring blogs, wallowing in other mothers’ weepiness. Stories about moms who couldn’t remember the last time they’d washed their kid’s hair for them. And, alarmed, I realized that I couldn’t either.
Lost in the middle of the rewind, I was fast-forwarding through the now.
I used to be aware of their heaviness when I carried them upstairs to bed. I don’t carry them anymore. I don’t help them get dressed.
I do still help with the hair. Y’all. I have to.
And, though it’s been country miles from perfect, I’m aware of a shift to first.
Shifting to first. Just as there’s only one last, there’s only one first. They’re easier to miss because you don’t see them coming. Instead of mourning what you had, it’s a shift into relishing what you have. We have fragile, incomparable life springing up, always. And it’s so sweet to catch.
Like the first time a gnarly man stink smacks you in the face; it’s coming from your boy and that sweet swing-set sweat is long gone.
The first time he asks for Axe instead of that unscented organic stuff you bought for him. Wait. What?
A pimply nose pops up in place of a stuffy one.
Baseball cups replace sippie cups. There one sits, on your kitchen counter! The horror! The ew! And you want to scold, because this is certainly not the place to leave it, but you stop, awestruck. No way this type of cup is really necessary?!
Then there’s the first time they defy a life-long fear and ride a thrill, seemingly on whim. And you wonder: how long have they been tinkering with that in their brain?
The first time they peck at keys, typing a report. And the project is their vision, not yours.
The first time they realize I don’t know everything. The first time they challenge me with their eyes, then their anger, then their words.
The first time they come to your rescue. You mess up, they cup your cheek with their growing hand and they tell you it’s okay.
The first time the little one prays for his big brother, out loud, through a toothless lisp, “on our journey to goodness.”
The first time you hear them chatting after midnight, serious conversations about God, girls and Clash Royale between bunks, and you realize that, though they’re made to share a room, they’re choosing to be friends.
A few weeks ago, we drove up to South Carolina to see Jeff’s dad, host to a legion of cancer. Though I never dared let my worry speak out loud, it was a farewell trip.
I know the exact minute it hit me that this could be the last time we’d see him. The truth flickered across my murky brain and seized my gut.
And the moment felt empty. Inadequate. There we sat, in quiet panic, blinking, dumb, circled up in the living room. We didn’t know what to say.
In the middle of that too-still last was the first time I saw my child’s full heart. Tucker climbed up on the couch next to his Gamps and laced his 10-year-old fingers between the cool 67-year-old hand.
In the Venn diagram of fear and the unknown, our boy laced them together with hope.
Days before he died, he gave our sons, his grandsons, a copy of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. He wrote this note, in a permanent black:
This from a soul who was a conductor of adventure, vitality and faith, a living example of being ever-present: in his last message, he was encouraging them to shift into first.