I am at the beach sitting with my book that I’ve been tearing through for hours. My 5-year-old daughter is in the sandbox with five other kids—cousins and second cousins and all the kinds of cousins, so many varieties that they are all just cousins to us here, on this vacation we take every year. Wally, my 7-year-old, is playing baseball with his cousin buddies nearby. And I am sitting with my book.

I think of my ambitious vacation stack I packed before this trip. It’s one of my favorite pre-lake packing rituals—picking from the hundreds of unread books on my shelf—which ones will make the cut. I stack the books in the order I believe they should be read, hoping the pacing and style and type of books complement one another perfectly. I try not to be over ambitious. I want every one I bring to be shifted, with a satisfying sigh, to the “read” pile to be given a review on Goodreads and set aside ready to be lent to a friend or put in a Little Free Library, or—as I make my stack before vacation, I can only hope—set on a keep-this-forever-because-its-so-good spot on my shelf. Like anticipation for vacation, anticipation for the books I will read is full of these kinds of hopes for goodness.

I say I try not to be over-ambitious with the selection, but I don’t always succeed. We’ve done this trip for over 10 years, since before having kids. Back then it was a reliable four-book trip. Hours in the morning, afternoon, and night spent sitting with a book in my lap near others with books in their laps, occasionally breaking to play paddleball in the water with the cousins from our generation, to tube or ski, to hike across sand dunes. One year another cousin and I were both working on the last Harry Potter, which had just been released. It’s so satisfying now to imagine myself with all of those uninterrupted reading hours stretching before me and the heft of that book in my lap, every page I’d read a delight and every page to turn promising to be more and more of the same. It was a feast—a feast of time and pages—and I indulged.

But as goes with life, with vacations, everything changes with kids. Our first year with Wally, he was 9 months old—the perfect baby age, where personality abounds, they love to spend time with mom and dad, and they are only slowly mobile (Wally got faster than me by the time he turned 1…I will not say if that speaks to his speed or my mad running skills). So imagine his delight when he popped up at the pre-dawn hours to find us in the room with him. Every morning his wake-up time got earlier and earlier. One little hand would show up on the ledge of his pack n play, then another. His little bald head would then slowly rise, like the world’s most adorable horror movie. I’d hear him rustling and hide under my blankets, cowering in fear. While keeping him quiet for the rest of the cottage, following him around and making sure he didn’t electrocute himself or grab at the piles of baby-level grabable knick knacks and trinkets in that un-babyproofed furniture stuffed rental, I’d mourn the lost sleep, the unread pages of my stacks of books that I would never, ever, be able to read again. I remember during the time of life with babies, the feeling of so many hours spent so busy doing nothing. How can being responsible take so much of my time? How can my house be so messy when all I did was be a parent today?

Screen-Shot-2013-08-08-at-3.55.30-PMIMG_5231But now I sit here on the beach on this same vacation with book number three. Somehow the years of babies who need me so much they rely on my body to live, and toddlers who need me so much they rely on my judgement to live, and little kids who need me so much, they rely on my discipline to live have passed—the years of babies, jiggling babies, of toddlers pouring buckets on their heads and toddling into the lake, of little kids, constantly snacking, chase-me-ing, what-should we-do-nexting. I am here, reading my book, and no one is needing me.

Silver LakeSilver LakeSilver LakeI remember when I first sensed this horizon. We went to a playground at the beginning of good weather last year. I sat on a bench with a book while my kids ran off. I didn’t read much because I kept thinking—look at me! I’m that mom on the bench with her book! I glanced up occasionally to see what my kids were up to, and I noticed moms from the club I’d somehow left behind. They were jiggling babies and walking the slow, zombie arms-out-and-up walk of moms on playgrounds everywhere. They were minding steps and offering help and good-jobbing. They were slightly annoyed at the presence of bigger kids, feeling protective, feeling like theirs were the precious ones. I remember, when I had little ones, somehow feeling like the parents of older kids were unlucky because my kids were at the best age. I didn’t know then that every age your kids reach is the best age. Every year they get better and better. Every year they need you less and less and somehow get to be more and more precious. Every year, they get to be more of them and you get to be more of you, until you could just burst with the joy it gives you to be their parents, to be one of the people who made them.

So here I am at the beach, doing the thing I’ve wanted so much for the past several years. I am getting through my stack, looking up every once in a while to see my kids playing happily without me. I close my book as my son runs nearby.

“Do you want to go on a kayak ride?” I yell.

“Ugh, mom, we are going to play tag!” he groans. And I get it. He is enjoying the luxury of being surrounded by 8-year-old cousins and hours and hours of nothing-to-do time. Just like I am enjoying turning so many of these pages again as I’ve imagined all these years. And yet somehow, while this is so, so satisfying, it’s as if I have another tank that is running low—some new need I didn’t even know existed has grown in all of these years of being needed.

Should I have listened when people made that impossible remark—enjoy it while it lasts? Has it lasted, and now it’s gone, leaving me wondering where it went and how I could possibly be missing it?

Later, my husband and I are walking the few blocks toward the beach from the cottage, only to find my son with my beach bag and chair, sloppily folded, trudging the load he was not responsible for back for me. Maybe this new tank of need can be filled in new ways—in the wonder of a kid being suddenly big.

This growing up—it shows up in so many ways, good and bad. It shows up in attitude, like not wanting to take kayak rides or pictures. But, like a tantrumming toddler who can redeem by saying or doing something cute, you know this will pass, and so you take the bad with the good. And he’s getting so, so good. He’s entertaining now. He’s a companion. He says things like, “fun fact—Vivvi didn’t finish her food,” and that when choosing desks at school, he made sure he picked people near him who were organized. When this wonder manifests in these beautiful ways, it’s a reminder—another reminder for this big kid phase, maybe a reminder that will keep on going forever with each growing-up phase: enjoy it while it lasts.

The next day we are walking through a cute lake town nearby, my son appears at my side and slips his still-little hand into mine. I pay attention. This hand, such a surprise, pressing into mine, unbidden. It’s still baby-smooth. It’s smaller than mine, but approaching my size—at least closer than ever before. Maybe “it” hasn’t “lasted” yet. Maybe there is still time. I think of him, my first baby. I measure his hand’s weight in mine again—still so small.

This only lasts a minute, and then he runs ahead to check out the candy store. My hand is empty, and before I know it, he’s gone.

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