My daughter had her kindergarten performance last week.
She was excellent, of course. She sang the crap out of “My Hat and Gloves” and when she acted surprised during the line at the end, you really believed that she had no idea her hat and gloves were already on her hands and on her head. Perfection.
She sat pouty when they first took their places, because she couldn’t find me in the audience. That was because some toddler with less-than-attentive parents was standing on his chair directly in my daughter’s line of sight. I leaned from one side to the other, trying to make eye contact but that squirmy toddler was all over the place. Finally I moved one chair over, which meant that I was right next to a stranger but now my daughter could see me and all was well with the world…besides the fact that there were two empty chairs to my left and I was rubbing shoulders with someone I did not know. I was outside the boundaries of normal Midwestern space allowances. Here, the unspoken rule goes, you keep at least one chair between you and a member of the next party. This makes for challenges at any even with assigned seats, because on the one hand, you want to obey the dictates of your ticket, but on the other hand, the one seat buffer rule runs strong.
I sat there and listened to song after song, all with special actions and costumes. The kids’ practices in the months leading up to the event made it go very smoothly, and no one panicked or went off script. They did a great job all around.
As they exited and the audience filed out of the auditorium (which was really just a gym), it finally struck me that this is the end of my last child’s last year of less-than-all-day school. My daughter only does half-day kindergarten, and she’s my youngest. That means that next year my three kids will all be in school all day long. This is a milestone for our family, a very significant moment for her, for my kids as siblings, and for all parents of young-ish children everywhere — we thought we wouldn’t make it! We thought the napping schedule, the potty training, and the endless snacks would undo us! But we have triumphed!
It felt like a passing, as well, like the end of an era. It is the end of those youngest years and the beginning of official school-age-dom. She’ll do great, she’s ready, it will be fine. But it is also something worth marking as a significant transition, both for her and for our whole family. It was sweet but tinged with nostalgia for the safety, innocence and dependence of those first years.
Later that evening, my husband Pete and I left the kids with a sitter. We drove across town and joined the rest of my family at my parents’ house in Minneapolis. We had received some terrible news that morning, and it was one of those times when it is helpful to be together in order to shore up one another, to distribute the weight of the burden over all our shoulders. It is a crushing weight even for ten people, so for the only one or two people most affected by it to be forced to bear it — it would lay them out flat.
We sat outside under the fushia colored crabapple tree in full bloom, its scent filling the air and wrapping around us. My dad was physically with us, but his disease made him slow and confused. He sat quietly as we talked around him, taking it all in. These are the people he loves most, these are the ones he raised, these are the ones he wants most to protect from the pain of his illness. He cannot protect us now. He never needed to, but it’s built in to his habits, the habits of being the father.
The dissonance of my day, the way the planet continues to rotate even when your own world feels at a standstill, the pride and excitement of my daughter’s kindergarten performance at the beginning of her life and my dad’s diminishing health at what may be close to the end of his, the significance of the events of my day — these things left me filled with incongruent emotions.
Those conflicted emotions may be the new normal for us. We may be in a new chapter when we must savor the beauty of the moments we have, even as we jam every important moment into an abbreviated timeframe.
(It feels disloyal to even admit the possibility that my dad might not recover. That’s not how we function as a family. We always find the positive and focus on that.)
Those moments, while being meaningful and sweet, are also nauseating and laced with sorrow because they are unlikely to be repeated again. Can you fully enjoy something when you know it is probably the last time you’ll have that experience? How can the present warmth be coated with the frost of the future? Somehow they coexist, mingling and informing everything I come in contact with.
It’s exhausting. I don’t know how to do this. I especially don’t know how to do this with grace, patience, acceptance, all while being dignified. I feel small, powerless, numb and shrunken. Maybe I’ll figure it out. Or maybe this is just how it will be for me. Either way, however I manage to approach it, it will continue. I’ll have to just follow along and figure it out as it comes. There’s no individualized guidebook for this. We all just handle it the way we’re able, and that’s good enough. That has to be good enough.