I’m learning to parent like I’m dying. Tomorrow, or next Tuesday, sometime soon. Death is imminent. And really, it kind of is. In the grand scheme of things, the hundreds of millions of billions of souls floating back and forth from Earth to sky, our death is imminent. We are all dying. Every day. Every second.
This morning, I laid on the floor with my middle child, his chubby fingers stroking my shoulder. He picked up my arm as he always does, turned it inward with both of his hands, straightened it and kissed the folded skin of my elbow. Twice. Three times. This is his favorite spot, and now it’s mine.
I never thought about my elbows before this wonder of a child came along. Bony and dry, wrinkled pliable folds of skin, ready to be kissed. We laid on the carpet, my middle man draped across my chest, his face against my cheek. He would sigh, go back to rubbing my shoulder until those elbows popped back into his mind. Then he’d roll off, grab my arm, and sneak another elbow kiss.
For twenty minutes this went on, and though my half-packed suitcase lay just to my right, opened and waiting to be finalized, I stayed there on the floor with him, giving him this time, giving me this time. I was leaving for New Jersey that afternoon, and you never know when that plane is going down.
Any other morning, I would be face first in my pillow, punching snooze on my phone, ignoring the calls from the boys’ bedrooms. “Mama! We’re up!” But this wasn’t any other morning, and death was imminent.
I had a flight six hours out with two days on the East Coast, kid-free. I couldn’t spend my last morning in a pile of my own drool as my children stared into another episode of Bubble Guppies. So when my little elbow-lover came strolling in our bedroom five minutes past 7:00, I stopped what I was doing, stepped away from my suitcase and wrapped him up in my kissable arms. I want him to remember me this way, our quiet moments turned into minutes, looking into his wide-set eyes, telling him how much I love him, that he is my beginning and end, my existence hinges on his giant spirit. I am his mother, and he is my child. And my death is imminent.
Then the baby climbs up the stairs and stumbles into our room. He lays down next to me and rests his head on the stack of clothes that haven’t yet made it to the open carry-on. I stop what I’m doing. Again. He blinks the sleep out of his eyes, deep and blue, then stretches his arms around my neck. “Enjoy this,” I tell myself.
“Hello, my baby.” I kiss his forehead, then his nose. “Do you know how much Mama loves you?” He releases my neck and stretches his arms out wide this time until his fingers dig deep into the carpet. I nod “yes” and press my lips into the dark mess of hair at the crown of his head. I want him to remember me this way, loving and gentle. This is not always my forte, and I hope these last minutes together wash away the shouting, angry mama he’s seen so many times before.
When I head downstairs to tackle the list of last-minute errands that need completing prior to my departure, the oldest wanders out and throws himself onto the couch. My list sits undone on the kitchen counter, yet I cup his face in my hands and press my forehead to his.
“Good morning, Mama.”
“Who is my first baby?”
“Yes, you are, and I love you forever and forever and forever. Do you know that?”
He nods his head and smiles. I take a huge breath and commit to memory the way he smells. I wonder if I get to take that with me, his little boy scent, the feel of his coarse rose-gold hair against my fingertips. These things are too magnificent to be forgotten. Let me keep these things when my soul floats back to sky.
We make breakfast together, and the boys take turns cracking eggs and placing slice after slice of bread into batter to make French toast. It takes more time, and I have things to do this morning, but I want them to remember me this way, patient and calm, with the cinnamon and frying pan sizzle filling our kitchen.
Our errands take us to a pet store. The boys beg to look at the little rodents lining the aisles. “Mama! We want to see the animals!” Time is short, but I indulge their requests and we spend ten minutes talking to the fish and the turtles, the hamsters, guinea pigs and new kittens. The boys smile and shout back and forth, enthralled in this miniature zoo for purchase. I want them to remember me this way, allowing time for them to explore their world. Any other day, I’d be dragging them by the hand out of the Petco with its odor of sawdust and wet dog.
We finish our errands and run home for a quick lunch before I have to go. I let them eat off of my plate and feed them from my fork. Before I know it, all three are lined up, baby birds, mouths open, squawking. I giggle as they appropriate my meal. Who is this new mama they’ve found, this nice mama, this quiet, laughing mama who willingly shares her food, who doesn’t hide in the pantry to eat the good snacks? I want them to remember me this way.
Sitting at the gate, waiting to board, the man next to me pulls out a guitar and starts to play. The song is pure joy, and my eyes well as they do when art busts me wide open. My death is imminent, and I hope I can take the simple notes strung along in rhythmic beauty with me. What a perfectly lovely final hour I’ve been blessed with.
The guitar-playing man starts to speak overtop the melodic buzz. He chats with the children he’s brought along, his girlfriends’ kids I surmise after a few minutes of overheard banter.
“Have you ever flown first-class?” he asks the young girls. “Shall we go to London today?”
He calls them “Georgie-Porgie” and “Addie-Maddie” in a way that sounds forced. I cringe each time the sing-song names drop from his mouth. These are not his children. It’s clear. And it feels like he is putting on a show now, with the strum of his guitar and the awkward exchanges. When the girls interrupt his song, he scolds them and it makes me uncomfortable.
“Now Addie-Maddie, can’t you hear me playing a song?”
“Georgie-Porgie. You are stopping me again. That is very rude, isn’t it, Georgie-Porgie?”
I had assumed the music was for the girls, but their interest is waning and he continues to play, growing more and more irritated each time their squeals or curiosity get in his way. I stop crying. The guitar feels out of tune now, and I think maybe I won’t die today.
Maybe I’ll make it back to my boys and my husband, where nothing is forced, where love bubbles over and pours out onto the floor as we lay there together, kissing elbows. It comes so easily, like breath, like joy, like opening your eyes when the sun steals away your restful slumber and says, “Welcome to today. You get another chance.”