Joan Wickersham

‘Cherish this time. It goes so fast’

By Joan Wickersham
February 18, 2010

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My son was 2, and we were in the grocery store. Something had gone wrong, from his point of view at least - I had said no, we can’t buy that cereal; or he had managed to kick off one of his snow boots and I insisted on putting it back on; or he was just tired and cranky. Maybe it was all of the above. At any rate, he was crying, and I was trying to persuade him to stop. And that’s when the old lady walked by and smiled at us. “Cherish this time,’’ she said. “It goes so fast.’’

I smiled back, but what I thought was: Lady, are you nuts?

Now, 20 years later, I know exactly what she meant. Time goes really slowly when you’re raising kids, but seems to evaporate when you look back. One afternoon, when my son was in third grade, I waited in the carpool line at his school and calculated that my husband and I had waited about 1,600 times in the line, and that we still had 3,520 more times to go before he and his younger brother would graduate from eighth grade. Eventually, they both did graduate, but now whenever I drive along that stretch of road and see parents waiting to pick up their kids, I feel a stab of something that is not just nostalgia but envy.

Raising children is thrilling and boring, fun, intensely moving, and sometimes heartbreaking. Things that you wait for never happen, and other things happen that you could not have anticipated. I had a private, soppy wish that someday my child would ask me why the sky was blue. The older one never did, and I pretty much forgot about it until one day the younger one asked me and I realized I had absolutely no idea.

Then they were teenagers. Both were polite. They didn’t slam doors or say they hated us. But in their quiet way each of them withdrew. Some of this was good - their lives were based at school, they had good friends, they were becoming independent. And some of what happened just felt hard, for them and for us.

These days our older son is at college, but he lives in the town next to ours, and he comes home a lot, for dinner or for the weekend or so that I can drive him to the dentist. He shows me something he’s written, asks us if we’ve ever read James Ellroy or Philip Roth or Don DeLillo. Says, “You guys might really like this movie - it’s a Western, but it kind of plays with your expectations of a Western’’ and sits down with us to watch “Appaloosa.’’

It feels like your child is gone. And then suddenly there he is again. He’s emerged from the sad enigma of adolescence but he hasn’t yet moved away, really away, into his own marriage or demanding career or decision to live in Thailand. He talks to you. You talk to him. It’s companionable and lovely.

When my son was little and the old lady spoke to me in the supermarket, I thought, She’s forgotten. She doesn’t remember what it’s really like, these long, tedious afternoons yoked to a toddler. Now I think the opposite. I think she remembered exactly what it was like, and that’s why she spoke to me. She saw something I was too young to see, too mired in the present reality of my sobbing child and my own tired, frustrated wish that I could just run out and buy milk and tuna fish without it being such a big production. She was looking at life whole. No one told me to expect this stage we’re in now, this sort-of-but-not-quite-empty-nest stage. I get that we’re lucky to have it, thanks to happy accidents (my son’s school isn’t in California) and temperament (we like each other). And I get that I need to cherish this time, because it will go so fast.

Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index.’’ Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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