Five generations live on our small cul de sac, and while we are all at different stages of life and busy pursuing responsibilities and passions, we’re a tight bunch. One of our neighbors passed away last week after a fight with lung cancer and pneumonia. As I arrived home from dropping my 13 year-old at a school dance, I found a fire truck and ambulance parked in front of our house. Oddly enough, these guys are not such an unusal sight in our circle, so started knocking on doors, only to find they were taking Kendall to the hospital. He was the kind of guy who always, I mean always had a smile. In his late 70s, he knew each day was a gift, talked fondly of his memories and made subtle comments about the memories he saw others making with their children. As the EMTs loaded him on the ambulance, we could see him trying to chat and eek out a quiet chuckle. His wife of just a few years is a quiet and steady rock who had everything under control and was doing what she needed to in order to care of her husband. As I spoke to her, it was clear that her strength had sustained her through a couple of rough days and I got the sense that she knew she was saying good-bye.
Pretty heavy stuff for a blog dedidated to children, I know. But as I watched this sweet couple and our neighbors pull together to reminisce about this gentleman whom we’d know for a fraction of his nearly 80 years, it reminded me of the lessons we learn from children. It also reminded me of how in later years in life, many are able to revive that sense of wonder for life, an appreciation for the joys each day brings, and hang tight to rich memories. In the words of Springsteen, our glory days can be gone in a blink of an eye – and makes me wonder if most of us can really appreciate the glory each day presents so that we really live each day the way young children and folks like Kendall do?
I don’t know one parent or teacher who doesn’t feel overwhelmed by schedules and to-do lists this time of year. Closing celebrations for school and activities, final exams and projects, and the added pressure to coordinate summer activities often mean we are just going through the motions, checking things off a list. While children don’t have these responsibilities, they sense the harried nature which sometimes raises their owns anxieties about the transition between school and summer. Slowing down seems Sysphian, but it can benefit both adults and children. The smiling face of a neighbor or young child serves as a reminder that lists are lists, but all those moments are real and fleeting unless we make an effort to turn them into memories. As I worked through my check lists this past week, memories of my neighbor reminded me of this, as did my observations of my first graders.
Children have a remarkable gift to live both in the moment and to hold on to memories in ways adults often forget how to do. When most children walk into school, whatever happened earlier in the morning or the night before are behind them. It’s what is happening in the room and with their peers that’s on their mind and in their hearts. The are keen observers and thinkers, and while they may be whirling through their brains like CPUs to connect what is immediately before them with anything else they’ve experienced, they are completely present in experiencing each moment for what it is. Returning from a field trip in Washington last week, I watched one child intensely observe a sleeping classmate in the bus seat next to him. The sleeping child is one of those always-busy, helpful, engaging children whom most others look to for guidance. The observing child marveled at her stillness, then began testing if and how he could touch her hands without disturbing her. To his surprise, she didn’t react and so then he tried whispering to her and touching her tight curls as they blew in then wind. His curiosity got the better of him and he gently and carefully expanded what he knew about his friend. No worries about what anyone else thought nor the remote risks associated with touching her hands or hair. For that moment, he could see his friend in a different way and lend her a hand (literally, as he propped her up as the bus bounced down the highway!). That moment became embedded in his memory, like countless events that children cling to and carry with them. The stories that come out in a first grade classroom often rival Hollywood stories, like the magnitude and significance of a baseball game (with a triple play!), daily rituals with dogs on the beach, terrible thunder storms, and much anticipated family reunions or trips all come to life like the characters in Night in the Museum. What adult among us doesn’t have those real memories – the kind where you don’t just see, but hear, feel, smell — some piece of childhood? Occassionaly, when I see new bike riders off on their own, I am taken back to Admiral Drive, where I when I was finally allowed to ride my bike to the next block, I could feel the wind blowing my hair as I flew down the hill and lifted my feet off the pedals. I feel the purple bike with the glittery banana seat, my hair flying everywhere (no helmet!), and my heart beat fast as I swerved back and forth through the street and around the corner. Thirty-something years later, I can still be in that place.
Childhood is about building these memories. Even if children remember the events in slightly skewed ways, they hold onto those memories. While the purpose of our field trip last week was to see the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum and to see some of the rocks that were studied in science, I imagine most of these first graders will remember best the day with their parents or the spontaneous game of “Sharks and Minnows” on the National Mall.
We’re counting down the final days of the school year, and I have many memories of how my children have grown and the lessons they have taught me. Seems it’s just about the time I am getting consumed with tasks, children remind me of what is most important – and it’s often not on any list. What many of these children need as the year winds down, is to be in the moment with friends and adults to bring closure to the the year, to celebrate their growth, and to ponder the possibilities that lie ahead. They need caring adults to be walking along side them to do that – and most of us need a child or two to provoke us slow down and be fully present. When we do that, we’re building memories and habits which will relied on for years to come. Life is full of glory days – especially with the prospect of summer right before us — don’t let them pass you by.
P.S. On a completely different note – it’s Memorial Day and that cannot go unnoticed. I hope you’ll take a moment to check out the links to the right, especially Operation Iraqi Children and Support Your Vet. As a spouse of a veteran, I am so grateful for the sacrifices of all our service men and women and believe Iraqi children, like children all over the world, deserve basic necessities for learning and life.