It’s funny, how things sneak up on you. Feelings, emotions are sometimes tucked in the corner of a room and we think nothing of them, until the day we go into the corner and pick them up and look at them again. Sometimes we know what these are, how we’ll feel, but sometimes we can be surprised.
Recently we painted my youngest daughter’s room, covered the pink paint that covered the walls since 1997 with a deeper, more mature color (two shades of purple with a cool angular design). Looks good, and the new carpet is soft and warm under our feet. Of course, to do all this, you have to pull everything out of the room and tuck it somewhere else while you work. That place was my son’s old room – the next project on our list. Flash forward to yesterday. Andrew’s old carpet needs to be pulled up and tossed, not so much for a style change but because the dogs had chosen that room when they were puppies as their personal pee-spot. Try as we might to shampoo the smell out, it lingers, much to Andrew’s chagrin during his last few months here before moving to the Big Apple to begin the next phase of his life as a young executive. So, with the room vacant, the carpet’s finally going to go, and while we’re at it we’ll paint the walls and breathe a new look into the now-spare room. Plans and schemes, paving the road for the next path life will take us on.
Everything has to come out of this room now, bookshelves, the bed and desk, to get at the carpet. Like the Audrey-project, every memory tucked in the corner or on a shelf passes from my hand into a bin or a temporary stack in the hallway.
And memories come flooding back. And I become sad. And I wonder why.
The memories themselves are not sad, in fact they are some of the best memories of my life, and I wonder why the word ‘sad’ comes to me. Sword-fighting with my boy outside with plastic or foam-covered swords (there was a short time where he used a wooden sword but my friend Al, on seeing the blood stains from my knuckles smeared across the wood, took the sword one day when visiting and hid it on top of the kitchen cabinets). Sitting in the girls’ bedroom (when both daughters shared the then-pink room) while all three kids acted out one play or another (usually directed by Amanda and written on the fly). Piles of action figures in the middle of the floor, fodder for battles between Luke Skywalker and Spiderman and a Tyrannosaurus Rex, taking pictures on the steps in the front hall of my son and daughters in their Halloween costumes, sitting at the kitchen table helping with homework (and half the time knowing less than they did on some subjects), every bedtime reading the latest Harry Potter novel or Calvin & Hobbes comics or Animorphs book, every night, sometimes falling asleep beside them on the bed.
The memories are joyous. Too often we dwell on the space around these moments, the crazy schedules, the stress of adult life, the good and bad times in the air that surrounded those oasis of fun and smiles. Children look at their young lives in snapshots, moments and memories, I know I still do of my own childhood, but as adults there’s always a big picture and in that are the individual memories, which slowly, inexorably, get tucked away. Replaced by others, some just as good and memorable, even if different: visiting New York City with Andrew looking for apartments replaces visiting Storyland, checking out colleges with Amanda instead of browsing through a candy store letting her pick out her ‘one thing,’ consoling Audrey during her first real breakup instead of kissing the booboo on her knee before the Band-Aid goes on.
As I clean out the kids’ rooms, even if only temporarily, the items that trigger these memories pass through my hands and I ache for their loss. I’m sure every parent goes through these times in their life, these ‘empty nest’ moments as we begin Phase 3 and watch the kids move into their own Phase 2’s of life. I was sad – ‘melancholy’ was the word I gave to my wife, and confused as to why this was so, because these moments were wonderful.
Then, driving to church last night, the answer came. Each and every moment, and there were many, spent with my children were like Christmas presents. Each and every moment unwrapped was a surprise and exciting and new and though the physical things which may remind me of them will wear out, or go in a box in the attic for safe-keeping, the memories of each is still as warm.
But there’s always the day after Christmas. When the presents have been opened and the needles are falling off the tree and the radio stations finally stop playing Christmas jingles and the world is no longer covered in bright red and green wrapping paper. ‘The crash’ as I used to call it. The yearning for the next Christmas three hundred and sixty-something days away.
Going through their rooms, seeing those presents of the past opened in the reading of a book, or watching a karate class or soccer game or dance recital are still there, in my hands or in my heart, and we can linger on them and wish for those moments back, but looking back we miss the road ahead. Life is relationships, as my pastor said this weekend. Relationships – with our children, our parents, spouses, siblings, friends, and the stranger we meet at the gas station, are countless presents coming our way every day. Christmas Comes But Once A Year is a lie. Every moment I spend with my kids today, even if for the older ones it might not come as often, is a gift that I open with joy every time I see them. When I kiss my wife, hug a friend, visit my parents, meet someone new, it’s another gift, and another, and another.
There is an innocence in children that buoys us and allows us to relive our own childhood memories or desires. But there’s an innocence and excitement in sharing ourselves and our love with everyone we meet. It lifts us up and allows us to be real, in the here and now with as much joy, if not more, as anything else. Every moment of our lives we can open a new gift given to us from someone else, or ourselves, or God, and when we let that happen the day after Christmas need never come again.