Thursday, March 13, 2014

I Wish I Had Pictures of My Memories

I remember when this picture was made.

I was 29 and Ethan was near his first birthday. It was the first time he'd fed me, seemingly recognizing for the first time that I ate. It was a special enough moment that I asked his dad to take our picture, something I never did. I have virtually no pictures of me and my children because I was always behind the lens.

I remember how special that moment was and it came back to me in a rush recently when E3, now about the same age, insisted on feeding me some of her lunch. The feel of baby fingers pushing bits of food into my mouth and the delighted grin on her face were both familiar and pulled at my heartstrings.

But although that image feels real down to the weight of my baby's warm bare legs on my lap and the way the air felt in the drafty old farmhouse and my favorite cotton sweater, I struggle to remember my children's childhood. Except for rare moments, it seems a distant blur usurped by more recent ones of different children -- the three little girls who consume my days. There are too few photographs like this where I can remember the details because I was actually part of it.

Some of it is relative. Just as time seems to fly by as each day becomes a smaller fraction of the sum total of our lives, I think the time that I want to remember became a smaller portion of their lives as well. While I want to remember bathing and dressing small children and the heft of their little bodies and the way they smelled, those memories are mixed in with all the other memories and buried under the years.

With Ethan gone and no more memories to add, I want to recover more and hold onto them, and being unable to recall the exact moments I want breaks my heart. Looking at old pictures, much of the time I cannot remember the why or sometimes even the where. Instead, it's the snapshots I didn't take: the first time the nurse brought him to me after his difficult delivery and said I should nurse him and I was shaking so bad and in so much pain from surgery that when I tried to hold him I couldn't; the first day of school when the bus didn't stop at our new home because when they told the bus driver to get Ethan she didn't realize a new Ethan had moved into the house and she knew the previous Ethan had left; Ethan's motto which he failed to follow "Make good choices," adopted from DARE classes in elementary school; standing in the ER with a sweaty middle schooler who had just broken his leg using his skateboard as a luge, and who would have to wait six weeks for the shower he desperately needed; taking an afternoon off from work to ride around with him and his broken heart and wishing I could do more for the 16-year-old who was turning into someone I didn't know but still needed me when his world fell apart.

Even those memories are buried beneath the roller coaster of loving a child with an addiction, who would sometimes talk about the things he wanted to do with his life and for me, and sometimes curse me and the day he was born; alternately smother me in a hug that warmed my soul and hang up the phone when I was unable to provide whatever he sought, whether it was money or an endorsement of his point of view; the funny boy who mimicked his grandfather and the people around him and the scary young man who appeared on the edge of hurting anyone in his path.

Beyond all the pain of losing a child, which is like having a limb violently severed and being left with the phantom pain of hurting for something no longer there, I'm sure most of us lose track of what we want to hold onto about being parents.

The fact is that like most parents I failed to appreciate the everyday miracle of raising a child. Instead of moments to savor, it's something to survive, teetering between joy and exhaustion. Caring for our children and watching them grow is all mixed up with trying to make a living, advance a career, work out the give and take of a relationship and do the chores to keep our homes going. First steps and silly giggles compete with overdue bills and demanding bosses for our attention. We're often still growing and changing ourselves and discovering who we really are may keep us from enjoying every discovery our children make.

It's why grandparenting, even without having lost a child, is so much more intense than parenting. It's not about loving these new little people more, it's about having the time to appreciate them, seeing memories of other now grown children and the growing awareness of our own mortality. We're suddenly aware that every first we're experiencing all over again with them, may well be our last first.

Our children may see this kinder, gentler, more patient and generous person and wrongly accuse us of loving a grandchild more than we did them. In fact, it's a chance to love them even more. Baby talk and dimpled legs become at times not just your child's baby, but yours all over again with a deeper appreciation for each moment. We repeatedly realize how much we've forgotten of what is so precious to us, no matter how many photographs and home movies we make to save the moment, and we try to soak it all in like a dried sponge tossed suddenly into a bucket of water.

The photos, I realize, aren't really for us at all because the real memories are stored in our hearts and souls. They're for the little people, and their future little people, so they can see themselves from the outside when all they remember is how it felt to live the moment, so their children can look at Mommy at 4 and marvel about her hair and the fact that she was little.

My daughter has lots of pictures of her babies feeding her. I know because I've been the photographer at each first birthday party when they've smeared cake on her face and laughed with delight at the fun of mashing food. But I realize now that I need to hand someone else the camera more often.

I realize, looking at that old photograph again, that they are for the survivors of life, no matter who they wind up being. They help conjure the vague memory of the moment and reconstruct it into something you can hold in your hands and savor. When my granddaughters are looking for the pictures of their memories, I want to be in the picture. I don't care how I look any more when the moment happens. Whatever the future holds, I want them to have more than just their memories to remember it all.

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