My two younger kids were feeling nostalgic last night. While they have long been in the habit of reading on their own at bedtime, last night they pulled a few favorite picture books off the shelf (The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel, and a falling-apart-and-taped-and-retaped copy of Richard Scarry's Busy Busy World that was mine as a child) and asked me to read. Our ad hoc storytime echoed the hundreds of nights when we had babies, toddlers, and preschoolers who required nightly bedtime stories, no matter how tired all of us were.
The kids went off to bed and I settled in to read my own book. But Ben came back. Climbing into bed with me, he said he was feeling sad. He struggled to articulate why. I listened to what he was saying, recalled that even before the nostalgic storytime, we had been looking at baby photos for Meg's school project, and eventually asked, "Are you feeling sad because you're remembering being a younger boy, and you're sad that you won't ever be that younger boy again?" Ben nodded, and a tear slid down his cheek.
I told Ben the truth, which is that this feeling—call it nostalgia, call it bittersweet, call it grief—is familiar to all of us. He will feel it again, now and then, for the rest of his life. I told him that I feel it too. Looking at my children's baby photos—those chubby cheeks and thighs, those toothless smiles, those faces so openly expressing utter delight or timid curiosity—leaves me aching. I realize I will never again nurse a baby until the milk runs out of the corner of her mouth and her eyes roll around, drunk-like, before closing into peaceful slumber. I will never again kiss the bottom of my baby's feet and then his tummy and each hand as I change a diaper, eliciting laughter that bubbles up out of his drooly grinning mouth.
I told Ben that this sort of nostalgia doesn't really make sense: Surely he is glad to be a boy of 8 who can sing and dance in his beloved musical theater productions and read a book all by himself. Surely I am glad to have three children who are growing and thriving as they were meant to do. But even if it's not logical, it's still hard, I told him. And the only thing I know to do when these feelings come is to feel them, and to pay grateful attention to the life we are living now. A few years from now, after all, he will sometimes feel sad that he's no longer a little boy of 8 who still falls asleep in our bed. I know that in a few years, when he is a gangly teenager, I will eye his calloused man's hands and marvel that they used to slip so softly and easily into mine. I will look at his hooded eyes and deliberately blank expression, and miss the little boy who told me everything, and didn't always need words to do so.
(What I don't tell Ben is that, even though I try to take my own advice to pay attention and be grateful for every day and every stage, this doesn't make those inevitable moments of bittersweet nostalgia any easier to take. I don't tell him that, as much as we remember, there's so much more that we don't—quirks and phrases and routines that were daily fare for a season but eventually tapered off and have since been lost to the limits of memory. I don't tell him that paying close attention doesn’t prevent this loss. I don't tell him how photos and videos can only help a little bit, or that for me, gazing at those infant faces and listening to those high-pitched toddler voices on video can sometimes make the loss even sharper.)
This wistful remembering is yet another symptom of the human brokenness that stands in such contrast to the wholeness for which we were created. Wholeness. That's what's really missing in these moments, isn't it? I feel broken in two, pulled in different directions, unable to reconcile my melancholy over what used to be with my gratitude for and satisfaction with what is.
I think of a passage from Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters, a lovely book in which Amy Andrews and Jessica Griffith tell a story about their deep friendship andspiritual yearnings through letters they sent to one another over the course of several years. In one letter, Griffith writes:
Chronos is the measurable passage of time. It’s chronology, the time “which changes things, makes them grow older, wears them out.” [quote from Madeleine L'Engle] Kairos is the immeasurable moment, an opening or a breakthrough, an intersection with eternity; God’s time….[M]aybe this tug [of kairos against chronos] is what has driven us to seek God. This obsession with time has become only more acute with motherhood. I can’t experience a moment without mourning its passing.
Later, Griffith writes:
This is the first concept of heaven that has filled me with anticipation rather than dread. That I may remember and know my life and its loves in the next life, but that all the pain of existence will be made whole at last. We will not forget or long for the past; we will have it, perfected.
I didn't try to explain to Ben about chronos and kairos, or about how this is one sign that we are not yet the whole people God made us to be. I just let him sit with me for a while, knowing that this moment—his weight leaning fully into mine, my words and my touch still capable of calming him—is another moment in which my gratitude for what is and my grief over what is passing meet in an uncomfortable tension. I sent him off to bed. I drifted off to sleep clinging to the hope that someday "all the pain of existence will be made whole at last. We will not forget or long for the past; we will have it, perfected."
May it be so.