We used to say that when we went to a restaurant, there was a window. It became Sean's standard new-dad-but-getting-the-hang-of-it line. "We know that when we walk into the restaurant we have 20 minutes, 30 or 35 tops, before the wheels fall off. My goal is to always be through the door with the car seat or stroller before a single wheel drops," he'd say proudly.
He never judged the parents who missed the window, but like some sort of talent scout watching a football game in the midwest, he'd cock his head toward a table, click the side of his mouth, and say, "They're on the edge of their window." To this day we still watch parents with toddlers at restaurants, not to stare daggers and make them feel like dirt for daring to bring their messy life into a restaurant, but rather to smile and admire the beautifully choreographed chaos of crayons that get pulled from pockets, paper airplanes that get made from napkins, or the sweet nothings whispered in tiny, pink, seashell ears that bring little belly laughs.
I was once so moved by the weariness on the faces of the parents and the bottomless energy of a child, that I whispered to Sean through tears, "Let's pay their check, OK? Pay it for the cash-strapped parents we were. Promise?" He nodded and I slipped out, knowing all too well I'd nearly missed my emotional window.
This time of meals and snacks and boo-boos and dust-ups, it's so maddeningly exhausting and relentless. Some days it feels hopeless, while others it feels as if it's my calling. Lately I've been yearning to wrap my arms around time, buffering us from anything but being one another's center.
Saturday we went to a restaurant. We didn't think about a window or about crayons. We didn't panic when there was no kids' menu or lemonade. We sat in the candlelight alongside a pond filled with the fattest, happiest ducks you could ever imagine. Ave's stuffed lamb came in with us, alternately nestled in her arms and prone on the table, a still life of daughters and road trips, and the tenuous cusp of crying into pillows rather than cuddling stuffed animals.
We watched those ducks and talked about the restaurant, from the light fixtures to the beams running along the wall behind us. Snow fell outside the windows and children at another table carried on conversations that were not unfamiliar to us. They ran around their parents, squealing and sliding in a way that was just shy of being too wild, their years of outings having taught them about windows, too -- how far mom and dad can be pushed. Testing and pulling, but never letting it go beyond that magical window.
A quiet moment and a sound different from anything I'd heard at the table happened. Finley, her head resting on the table, arms crossed beneath her face like a cradle. Her voice no more than a squeak, I missed it the first time.
"What's that, sweet love?" I asked, leaning into her.
"Mama, I don't want to grow up."
She stared at me, the tell-tale wrinkle in her chin, her lips turning down at the side, and that surprised look she gets. It's almost shock that in this life that she lives with such unbridled joy, there is something so sharp that she has to cry out. She waits, watching me. I am sure that my forehead matches hers, the pull at the sides of my mouth equally intense. The clash of knowing she must grow up and loving that she is so happy as a child, as our child, choked me.
I paused -- more and more I know that selfish responses can offer fleeting satisfaction and lasting repercussions.
"Oh, but do you know a secret? No matter how big you grow or how old you get, you will always be my littlest." She paused, considering it. "You and I will always be mom and baby inside ourselves." This time I watched her.
She swallowed and shivered, "Even if I catch up to my sisters?"
I smiled, "Even then, but we have so much more you-aren't-grown-up-yet time. OK?" She nodded, tilted her head, and climbed into my lap, her arms snaking into my shirt as snow fell outside and the lights at The Foundry twinkled around us.
I'll never stop looking through this new window, marveling at the colors and brushstrokes that these years have painted on my heart.