I was the only mother at my son’s preschool graduation without a camera. One by one, twenty four- and five-year-olds stepped up to the microphone and told us who they wanted to be when they grew up. I no longer remember their answers precisely, but I remember that we in the audience sometimes laughed. Like when one boy said Batman. Or maybe it was Superman. I also remember that we sighed when a little girl whispered something sweet. I think she said preschool teacher, but it may have been baby nurse. With cameras flashing and videos rolling, every parent but me recorded the moment in pixels.
I cannot blame absent-mindedness. It wasn’t that we had rushed out of the house or that I was distracted by straightening the bow tie my little boy had begged to wear.
I chose to leave my camera at home.
To become a mom is to learn to live with loss.
No one ever told me this, though this truth shadowed even my first baby shower. In a sun-drenched room draped in pink bunting, I was given a scrapbook and two photograph albums. Now I understand the secret significance of those gifts. They seemed to promise that I would be able to grasp and hold and keep the new life I was being given. They have not fulfilled their promise. These twelve years of motherhood have poured through my hands like water.
Glancing through that scrapbook, the first two albums, and a few of the many albums that followed, I encounter half-remembered shadows. There is the two-year-old girl who mimicked the ice skaters on television so perfectly she even included a dramatic fall halfway through her performance. There is the little boy who could drag a chair over to the front door in order to reach the highest lock. Our downstairs neighbor once found him headed for the park.
I shore these memories like a bulwark against loss, but they are few and meager weighed against the life I have lived in these years. Too many experiences have fallen through the cracks, as if they slipped between the albums, lost in the dusty corners of the bookcase.
The last time I gave her a bath.
His first time without training wheels.
The first time she hugged me back.
What his voice sounded like when he said his first word to me.
I have lost baby laughs and toddler tantrums. I have lost four pairs of infant hands. After weeks of tightly clenched newborn fists, those suddenly open hands always looked to me like two starfish. Or flower buds that had finally bloomed.
Of course, those flowers did not fade. They grew, they changed, they became something else. Something new that could not have been if not for loss.
I imagine some mothers respond to the inevitability of loss by doubling their efforts. They take more photographs and catalog them more thoroughly. They scrapbook. They write down memorable sayings and childish mispronunciations. They never forget to have their child stand up against the height chart for a birthday measuring.
I admire them, yet I seem to be moving in the opposite direction.
In part, this is because I am overwhelmed by a wealth of options. Still or video? Digital or print? Frame or album? External hard drive? Acid-free cardboard box? Blog, journal, or perhaps a letter written on each and every birthday? Having gained four children and lost so much, I am, with more and more frequency, choosing deliberate forgetfulness. With so many choices to make, I throw up my hands, and I choose only to leave my camera at home.
But perhaps when I throw up my hands, I am not giving up. Perhaps I am practicing release. Because to become a mom is to learn to let go.
I may wish I could hold her small hand forever, but love requires that I do not try. I might yearn to remember every charming thing he ever said, but sometimes being present requires that I do not record.
Of course, the risk of not recording is forgetting.
Yet when I intentionally leave my camera at home, I acknowledge the impossibility of holding onto everything. I enter into a special moment knowing it will not last. And the moment is different because of it. Not better, necessarily. But different.
I have not entirely given up. I opened a new, private Instagram account intended only for photos of my children. I also bought a new lens for my old digital camera. I used it to take a picture of my kids in their Halloween costumes, and the picture turned out so well, I may order a print. Perhaps someday I’ll even manage to put the print into a frame and hang that frame on my wall.
But, mostly, life continues its wild river pace. Day by day, my children are taller, smarter, funnier, moodier, new. Mostly, they are new.
And though I have no photographs or videos from that preschool graduation, I don’t think I will ever forget that my little boy wore a bow tie patterned with toothy gray sharks. If I look hard enough, I think I could find the bow tie tucked into some corner of the closet.
I think I will look for it and stash it in my own drawer. Perhaps someday I will pull it back out for a grandson. Perhaps even for my little boy’s own little boy.
And wouldn’t that be something. Something marvelous and new.
Contributing Writer Christie Purifoy’s first book, Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons, will be released on Feb. 2.
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