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  • Laura Perry

What You Keep

My daughter Charlie seldom lets me take pictures of her. Yesterday I snapped one of her snuggling with the dog on the carpet, and she flipped me off. So, the first picture was of her and the dog; the second picture was of her, the dog, and her middle finger extended in front of her face.

The reticence in front of the camera is frustrating, because she's 19, nearly 20, and a rising sophomore in college, and my time with her is already short and getting shorter. And it's also frustrating because it's a reminder of how much has already slipped by me: my little girl used to love the camera so much that even when I was snapping pictures of her newborn baby sister she would sprint across the room to make sure she got her toothy grin into the frame. We'd have Abbe in the picture, being a newborn and sucking on her fist, and Charlie with her little blond head inserted into the tableau out of nowhere, her smile saying that she owned the place.

(The author plus her offspring, about 10 years ago, when the spawn still thought their mom was cool.)

This spring/summer has so far been one of my most difficult as a parent. The girls who used to ask ME what we were going to do in the evening, when we were going to get dinner, what we wanted to do to hang out, have made plans in which I'm not even a tag-along or an afterthought. They are limitlessly busy, their schedules eaten up with friends, work, and even Netflix shows they'd rather not watch with me. My comments and suggestions are met with raised eyebrows, sidelong glances, and, more frequently that I would prefer, cutting comments. The perspectives I share seem to them quaint and grating. Even the way I breathe annoys them. When our wills collide, they join forces with each other in the push-back. I feel like I am tiptoeing around through a minefield, unsure of whether I'm on solid ground or about to set off an explosion that's more likely to damage me than anyone else.

I want to follow my girls around, persuade them of my relevance. Your beautiful minds are voraciously curious because of all the books we read together as you grew, because of the long conversations we had, because of the experiences I insisted you encounter, I want to tell them. Your love for travel? The fruit of our trips together and the way I insisted you journal and soak up every moment. Your desire for social justice? Indelibly connected to my life's work. Your passion for literature? Not just the books we read, but your lifelong immersion in Shakespeare and Harry Potter and Narnia. Can't you see how linked we are, how much everything you love about yourself is the fruit of something we loved together first?

But adolescence and young adulthood are never persuaded by logic, and if I were to try to insist on my importance I would only render myself utterly obsolete. So I stand here calling down the tunnel of the past toward two little girls wandering hand-in-hand in the Birmingham botanical garden in dresses I sewed them, their flaxen heads inclined toward one other. I am homesick for my children the way the one is homesick for a childhood home demolished to make something new. Sure, the replacement structure might have central AC and bigger bedrooms and a screened-in deck, but it isn't the place where you turned a staircase into the path to Mordor or wrapped yourself in a comforter to listen to the crickets sing by the window that always stuck just a little bit when you scraped it open.

(The author plus offspring in the current era. The author is only taller than her daughters in this picture because her sandals have heels.)

I am trying to hold the waves on the seashore with scrabbling hands and force of will, and it's not working. I think of being introduced to my children for the first time right after their births, looking into their brand new, squished faces and kitten-closed eyes, already knowing them on a deep and fundamental level and at the same time experiencing such a fresh outpouring of love that it felt like I would shake to pieces with the force of it.

What did I do with the time between then and now, the time during which they grew taller and far more articulate and independent? I can't recall what I did with those individual days, though I must have done something. Whatever it was, it didn't hold the time close enough; I wrote my life's work in sugar in the middle of a monsoon. I remember wishing that some of the long days of limitless doll tea parties would end. Why did I wish that? I would give a finger now for one more afternoon of those doll tea parties, filled with animal crackers, silliness, giggles, sticky fingers.

I read somewhere that the tragedy of life is that it is only appreciated in retrospect, but it must be lived facing forward. I refuse to accept this. I refuse to accept that life is one long experience of regret-filled nostalgia in the prison of the present. I look in the mirror and I don't remember aging; I don't recall the point at which my musical tastes became "classic rock"; I can't grasp hold of the moment when I went from iconoclastic 20-something to embarrassing relic. I am 42 and belong in a museum, apparently.

Like these priceless, effervescent moments with tow-headed babies who let me hold them until they fell asleep, I see other things slipping by. I've let whole years of party-throwing potential with my best friend Nancy slide into the past with barely an observation. Sometimes we go a whole month without having lunch together. I look at my precious husband, who has turned 58, and then 59 in my arms, and realize that we've already experienced more than one miraculous year together. How many will we get? 15? 20? 30? Not enough.

How is it I am wasting even one moment when I have such richness at my fingertips? How many have I already wasted?

But if I am brave enough, if I am present enough, aware enough, I can grasp hold of the truth that the past isn't lost to me. It isn't even past. In the layered timelessness of June, I am still 29 years old with a child nocked under each of my arms, dozing lightly in the late evening. I am still listening to Charlie explain to me, on a plane ride, why the oxygen at flying elevation isn't breathable because she's 7 years old and sleeps with an encyclopedia for fun and this is a fact she learned. I am still cradling kindergarten Abbe who hates every torturous moment of school - but with the added benefit of knowing that in 12 short years, she will be not only fine, but strong and resilient. Those moments aren't lost to me. I defy anyone to take them away. They are a part of the fabric of who I am, and they always will be.

When you look into the into the infinity of a baby's eyes, you are in the presence of the holy, for everything is possible. But that same infinity is within us, nurtured in the tiny, often hard kernels of love we too often withhold from ourselves. We may have adopted silly ideas like "tomorrow" and "responsibility" and "grown-up" but these are as artificial as the made-up words children utter in imitation of those who theoretically know the language better. In reality, we get to keep every now, for now is all we have, and every now we remember to treasure is held forever and utterly present, always. It is only lost if we throw it away, by not remembering, by being inside a phone instead of inside a moment, by choosing a fog of amnesia instead of the clarity of connection.

I have chosen amnesia, usually passively, far too often. I have lived too many years half-asleep. I don't want to lose another single moment, not one.

I've seen Michelangelo's David, I've wandered up the field of the battle of Hastings where the Saxons lost Britain, I've stood on Hadrian's Wall, ridden to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and I've walked through the Roman Forum. I've seen two oceans and a multiverse of sky. The world is large and magnificent, with limitless mysteries. But the greatest and most wonderful mystery is how the soul remembers with piercing precision the experience of love, in all of its forms.

This is what we keep, the forever of the love to which we are fully open. We keep the heart that sees and understands, and every precious experience for which we were utterly present. In this universe, I fully love my daughters at every age; I love my husband until the earth goes spinning into the sun, I celebrate life with my best friend. I can be 83 and still cradling the newborn Charlie, in full awareness that one day she will be taller than I. I can hold that moment while I look at her turn 25, and 30, and 50, time layering richness onto experience instead of taking away. This isn't always easy; this year, it's singularly difficult, because it takes all the effort of which I'm capable, and then some, to hold onto the beauty while letting go of regret.

But because I love, I get to keep this forever.

Well, this, and the picture of my daughter flipping me off.

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