It took me a while to figure out what was so different about us compared with the other families in church on Sunday. Unlike most of the children in the surrounding pews, my four children didn’t eat Cheerios. They didn’t ask to go out for a drink. They didn’t kick their siblings or tug on our sleeves or have to be taken to the bathroom. In fact, they sat still and listened to the homily.
OK, so they’re mostly teenagers. But still. It was nice to be reminded that time passes in ways that make family life a bit easier, at least in certain situations.
Later on Sunday, we went to the beach — all six of us — to mark the end of summer and spend a day with the daughter and sister who leaves for college Wednesday.
Once again, I was startled to see how different we are from the families whose beach equipment included port-a-cribs and baby joggers and buckets full of beach toys. Our bags held towels, iPods and novels my children are reading that I plan to borrow when they are done.
It’s not that I didn’t notice that my children have grown. It’s that I didn’t notice how fast.
One minute you are driving to the park in your first minivan, singing along with “Elmo’s Greatest Hits” on the cassette player, wondering how old you’ll be when you finally get to take a shower without interruption, and the next minute you are packing your third (and hopefully last) minivan with every conceivable dorm accessory, anticipating with subtle dread the part when you must leave your child behind.
The span between those two moments is truly a metaphysical mystery. Not because it can’t be measured, but because there’s so much in between that it seems scientifically impossible.
I remember when my children were small I often heard from older parents, “Enjoy these years — they go quickly.” I used to nod and smile, but really I was thinking, “Easy for you to say. Your kids don’t have gum in their hair.”
Now, with a second child fleeing the nest, I realize that those parents were being dishonest anyway. What they meant to say was, “Hold onto your hat, honey. This isn’t even the hard part. Just wait until they grow up to be the most delightful, interesting and well-behaved young adults you’ve ever met and then, Wham! They’re out of the house and you’re left wondering where all the time went.”
But no one ever said that.
As parents in this culture, we’re easily distracted. Our families compete for our attention with every sort of natural disaster and political scandal and shocking crime spree that grabs our interest through a 24/7 media cycle.
We worry about our jobs, our retirement accounts and our home values, as if worrying will somehow make us more secure.
We fret over how we’ll provide for our children in uncertain times, as if fretting will somehow have an impact on their futures.
Oddly enough, there’s only one thing that is certain, and that is the passing of time.
Even if you don’t notice that it passed.
On Friday evening, my husband and I will drive away from a lovely college campus in an empty van pointed 13 hours north. We’ll probably lament the fact that we won’t see our daughter for two whole months when she will come home for a midsemester break. In those tender twilight hours as we make our way back home, I’m guessing it will feel like forever until we see our girl again.
But with any luck at all, time will fly. As usual.
• Visit Marybeth Hicks at www.marybeth hicks.com.