As an older mother, I sense that my role has morphed into something like a reverse mortgage. I’ve put in nearly eighteen years of equity and have looked on as my investments grew. They are 17 and 13 now, a girl-woman and a boy-man, mocking my maternal sentimentality and insistence on proper dishwasher loading and — thank you infant baby Jesus — still kissing me on the forehead before they turn in at night. They are innately good and flawed people, who care about stray animals and the state of our country and about elderly people struggling to climb subway steps. They have my blue eyes and my temper, although they enact that Celtic fire in ways that uniquely belong to each of them. I am desperately in love with them and will forever be, in ways that I still cannot properly express but pray they will still sense long after I am gone from this earth. They can always dip into those reserves, which will forever be plentiful.
Last month, as we celebrated our daughter’s 17th birthday, it struck me that we would enjoy only one more birthday celebration together as a family unit before she heads off to college. Her birthday falls in October, and after next year, she’ll be in Boston or DC or Iowa or God knows where by then, taking poli-sci classes in her fall semester, drinking cheap beer, and making magnificent mistakes—and figuring out who she was born to be. After so many years of princess birthday cakes and streamers and sweet 16 party carpools, the realization was stunning. This would all end, which I understood in theory, of course—but was still so astonishing to comprehend.
I realized that, in addition to firsts, we encounter so many lasts, and that there aren’t any blank books or photo albums dedicated to their documentation. They catch us off-guard and unaware all of the damn time, and we never know to honor such moments until they are out of reach, long past our line of sight. The last bottle she’d drink on quiet midnight feedings while we rocked together in the darkness and listened to cargo ships blow their horns in the thick San Francisco fog. The last time I’d swoon to hear him mispronounce his sister’s name when he was a toddler, before some neural pathway in his brain strengthened and redirected his small, rose-lipped mouth to say it correctly. The last time I was “Mommy” instead of “Ma.” The last book I’d read to them at bedtime. The last summer day that we’d spend together on the playground, chasing each other and laughing. The last Christmas morning that they believed. The last time we could all fit comfortably into our queen-sized bed. The last time I’d need to drive her somewhere before she got her license.
There were lasts in my life before I was a mother, of course. The last Manhattan checkered cab ride I’d ever take before the taxis were all decommissioned and scrapped in junkyards. The last time I’d cross East 19th Street and see the glint of trolley car rails embedded in the asphalt—the same rails that my great-grandfather once rode as a ticket taker around “Dead Man’s Curve” circa 1903, which strangely brought me comfort as a young woman living alone in New York City. The last breakfast I’d eat at The Paris Commune on Bleecker Street. The last time I’d hold my grandmother’s hand before she died, and the last time that my parents would pose together for a photograph before they divorced. The last time I’d see the World Trade Center, shimmering at the far end of Seventh Avenue on a hot summer afternoon, standing so tall and sure.
We cannot know when these lasts will happen, but we must live as if they are occurring all of the time. Not to clutch them too tightly to our bodies and psyches, but to savor them so sweetly when they have passed through us, to let them linger on our tongues and fingertips and minds, to ache so exquisitely for how it once was—as we let it all go and marvel at what we were so blessed to have been given.
(Previously published in part on Streetlight Magazine, February 2019; https://streetlightmag.com/2019/02/11/the-last-time-by-kathleen-mckitty-harris/)
Kathleen McKitty Harris is a fifth-generation native New Yorker whose work has appeared at Sonora Review, Creative Nonfiction, Full Grown People, McSweeney’s, and Rumpus, among others. Her essay, A Timeline of Human Female Development, was recently published in the anthology MY BODY, MY WORDS (Big Table Publishing, 2018.) She has also performed as a storyteller at The Moth in New York City, and at Listen to Your Mother, a live-reading series in northern New Jersey, where she lives with her husband, two children, and irredeemable dog.