Ten years ago my kids were eight and five and the shape of my summer was completely different. Back then, I was obsessed with keeping my girls busy while trying to get work done from my home office. It was chaos. It was hard.
It was the best time in my life.
I’d get up early, I mean really early, and ride my bike for 90 minutes before the girls woke up. I’d be showered and sitting in front of my computer by eight. When they invariably wandered into my office demanding hugs and breakfast, I’d send them downstairs to their father, promising to take them to the pool later. Then I’d squeeze in a few hours of work before the heat drove me from my stuffy office.
I could hear them while I worked —laughing, fighting, watching SpongeBob. It was wonderful noise, but it also made me feel guilty to be sitting at my desk and not with them. I usually gave up on work at about two o’clock and ferried them to the pool, but felt even guiltier for being with my kids in the middle of a work day.
My summer days were chaotic, my schedule haphazard. But with my husband’s help, I made it work every year (and somehow stayed singularly obsessed with taking the girls swimming.)
I took them to town pools and swimming holes. Once, I drove two hours south to visit a beach in New Jersey. I accepted every invitation to visit friends’ pools. When they were really little, I’d convinced my husband to buy one of those giant inflatable pools so the girls could splash around in the backyard while I worked upstairs, watching them from my window (as if they were bright, giggling birds).
It felt like it would last forever — those kinds of summers — but a remote part of my subconscious knew it wouldn’t.
At the age of 11, my older daughter was diagnosed with cancer. She was hospitalized at the end of summer, a few days before she was supposed to start sixth grade.
That entire summer had been awful. She’d been irritable and tired, which I attributed to puberty. She was always cold. She’d been so mean to her sister, that they’d stopped talking. That was the summer of 2012, seven years ago.
I would have four more summers as the mother of two children, but after that year there were no more trips to pools or swimming holes. The infection risk was too great for my daughter. The very next summer, fresh from a successful liver transplant, my daughter stayed mostly indoors.
She played a lot of video games with her sister. We sat in the yard instead of searching for a place to swim. My kids were twelve and nine. I was 42 and could feel the shape of summer start to shift. It was the feeling of lasts — of time running out.
It was the end of a very specific type of summer vacation and I didn’t comprehend how much I’d miss it until it was already gone.
As my daughters got older, summers became less about me and more about hanging out with their friends (and sleeping late.) By then, I’d stopped cycling and had begun a slow, inevitable weight gain that was the outcome of stress and depression.
I could now sit at my desk and get work done, but this was a joyless endeavor. It was too quiet. The days were too long. It reminded me of something my father used to say — be careful what you wish for.
I’d often stop work each day at around one, as if there were still two little girls suited up, holding towels, waiting for me to drive them to the pool. Most days, I would eat my lunch and take a short nap before returning to work.
Sometimes I’d convince my younger daughter to ditch the video games (or her friends) and come with me to the mall or the movies or the park. Looking back, I realize it was a slow transition from those busy summer days to quieter summers filled with more work and less play.
When my summers were busy, it seemed to me that there was never enough time to get everything done. I felt guilty and inadequate, constantly trying to do it all, but never coming close. I’d breathe a sigh at the end of each day, tuck the girls into bed, grab a glass of wine, and sit down to watch TV. Those moments of solitude were pure bliss.
Be careful what you wish for.
My older daughter died two years ago. My younger daughter is fifteen. Suddenly, I am facing a summer filled with days that are much too quiet and far too long.
Today, my backyard is filled with bird feeders. The ugly inflatable pool is long gone. I haven’t gone swimming in two years. I spend summer mornings on my porch drinking coffee and watching hummingbirds, my tiny dog curled at my feet.
I think about how different summer looks now and try not to dwell on the days when I watched two little girls from my window, instead of birds. They flew around the house. They played in every room.
They filled the driveway with chalk drawings. They fought and forgave, giggled and cried — they begged me to take them for ice cream ignoring my protests about needing to get work done. They loved to swim.
My melancholy isn’t just about longing for a time when my children were little, it’s far more complicated than that. The feeling of nostalgia that comes with summer is inseparable from my grief.
I’m learning that it’s important to appreciate this new shape of summer. Looking forward — or back — is a way to avoid the present and I don’t want to do that anymore.
Instead, I think I’ll drag my younger daughter out of bed and see what she thinks about going swimming at our newly renovated town pool. I’m determined not to miss these last few summers with her before she flies from my nest and my summers become completely my own.