The school year ended quietly at my house. It was a tough year coming to a close, on an unseasonably cool and cloudy day. A cold and broken Hallelujah. Thank you GOD, I think, I move the early-alarm button back one click to the “off” position, we made it. It’s ovah.
It’s not all the way ovah, not the last Last Day; we have two more years with the “baby” at home. But we are all (please God) hoping that she passes her driver’s test this summer, so this may be the Last Day of a year in which I am contractually obligated to be in the car each day around 8 am and again around 3 pm, something I suddenly realize – with slack-jawed disbelief and a renewed lack of confidence in my own math – that I have been doing for nearly half of my life: somewhere north of 4000 days and nearly 25 years, if you count preschool. (I think we should, don’t you? I mean, sleeping babies were awakened to do those runs, for God’s sake).
But even though my husband and I have been happily counting down the days and years on the way to the empty nest, on this Last Day, all the others flash before my eyes in a sun-washed, golden dream that I am – all of a sudden – not in such a hurry to end.
There were Last Days of little boys in uniform shorts and big Vans sneakers that made their feet look like giant puppy paws with laces, slowly and earnestly scrawling “I will miss you” on the big white paper for the beloved and departing teacher, and their arms draped around their buddy’s shoulders for the picture, and running with sheer jubilation to the car.
There were Last Days of little girls in their favorite headbands, carrying in their arms homemade cupcakes and special teacher gifts, radiating unabashed pride in perfect report cards, planning all the books they would read and summer adventures with their best friend: Anne Shirley and Diana, Bess and Nancy Drew.
There was the Last Day right before we moved halfway across the country, which I remember as a time of trepidation for what kind of summer we would have, in a new place where we had only each other, which I wasn’t sure would be enough, in an old house I loved but which I feared might not feel quite feel like home.
There was the Last Day just two years later, when I was skinny and bald and exhausted from an anemia I couldn’t shake, but mostly relieved, because what was also ovah was chemo, even if just barely; I’d negotiated a schedule that, by everyone’s estimation, would be quicker but harder to endure. Please, I’d begged, I can do it. I know I can. I just want to finish treatment before school lets out. I want my kids to have a good summer.
But mostly there were Last Days of family-wide hullabaloo in bright sunshine, beginning with special pancakes and ending with dinner at the pool, with a surprise guest that wasn’t really a surprise. It was always Daddy, secretly changing like Superman from his suit into his swim trunks in the concrete, wet-floored bathroom, and jumping ridiculously in the pool while yelling something funny. Slathering them with hugs as they swam right over and begged to be catapulted from his arms, feigned surprise and authentic joy. And with us, there at the pool, on the Last Day, was the promise of summer – our family summer – spreading out in front of all of us, a single calendar of mostly empty squares. Whatever kind of summer we had, it was ours, together.
I’m so distracted remembering it all that I almost forget to shout, “Good luck on your exams!” to the lone, remaining girl as she schleps to the car. I add an enormous smile and enthusiastic wave at the last possible second, guiltily trying to add some gravitas to the whole thing. I remember too late that I ought to have taken a picture. I always used to take a picture.
Even if I had remembered, would I have been able to capture all that I would have wanted through the lens?
I’d need the panoramic setting, I think, to have a chance of getting the breadth of all I’d want the picture to hold, and honestly, I never do that one right; I never hold it slow and steady enough while keeping it in motion. I can never manage to keep my eye on the “big picture” landscape I want to create and also on the camera at hand necessary to create it. Sometimes, when I am trying the hardest to get it right, I discover that I did not actually hit the button or am on the wrong setting entirely, and that I have done exactly nothing as I intently moved the phone from side to side. And I realize that despite my best efforts, not one bit of art has been created except that which results from mistakes and missteps, and I have to start all over from the beginning. I think that panoramic photos and parenting are pretty much the same for me that way.
Real photographers know that there’s a time, right before sunset, when the long day is nearly done, right before it’s all over, when everything is bathed in a golden light. When the light has traveled farther than at other points in the day, and it has to work to shine through more atmosphere. The harsh sunlight is gone, but so are the longest shadows. If you are far enough away, you can deepen your depth of field, and then you can see it all, in one frame.
It is the Golden Hour. And it makes everything look like a dream.