Practicing Presence

I attended a funeral mass today for a woman I worked with for the last seven years. Her name was Paula, and she was a delight. Warm, smiley eyes and always a kind word, Paula’s death seems a textbook example of the “good die young” cliché. She was 45 years old and her death leaves behind her parents, her husband, and her four children.

Sitting in mass today I was struck by the love in the room and especially touched by the number of students who were in attendance. Everyone with whom I work knows we have the good fortune of serving very special kids and working with an even more special staff. We are a community of certificated and classified employees gathered for one purpose: to educate our children.

Only our “children” are in high school. For whatever reason many of them still love us like children half their ages love their teachers; I think they do because we love them like our own.

Paula, however, wasn’t their teacher. She was the financial technician at our school, the lady students knew as the one who sold tickets at ball games and prom tickets from the Student Body Office. At most schools the faculty wouldn’t even know this person, let alone the students. We’re not most schools, however, and Paula wasn’t most financial techs. The church today was filled with loved ones: family by blood, family by marriage, and family by school.

Two rows in front of me sat three colleagues who also happen to be brand new mothers with babies ranging from six weeks to four months old. These moms left their babies home, timing the jaunt to this service in between breast feedings so they could pay tribute to Paula with the rest of us. After the service I got to hug them and congratulate them and ask them all about their babies. With that bewildered, exhausted, elated look common to all new parents, they each talked about what it felt like to hold their babies and how, even though it was the hardest job in the world, it was still by far the best.

I thought about Paula and the things that were said about her just moments before and smiled thinking, I bet she felt the same about her babies. Just like I did. Just like anyone feels who has been blessed with a child. I then I thought about my own boys, now five and eight, and how years earlier I was the new mom talking about how much I loved their warm, squishy bodies and their soft little heads.

In lightning speed came the next thought, “Where did that time go?”

I’ve always been driven, ambitious by nature with a work ethic to match. Like every other part of my life my boys were planned, fitting their births into a window of time that would work around my school schedule. They complied, albeit each of them eight days late.  We read every book there was written on childbirth and breast feeding and dealing with the tantrums of toddlers. I remember my grandma said, “Your generation reads too much” and I laughed at her thinking, “Oh, Gram, you just don’t get what it takes to raise children today.” The last laugh is certainly hers as I sit here close to nine years after his birth remembering what I did to prepare for him better than the sweet, beautiful baby that was my first-born son.

If I think really hard I can make out his big round head and blue eyes to match and I can remember how he felt in my arms at different stages of his growth. Only I can’t remember his laugh. I know he had one—a big baby belly laugh—but for the life of me I can’t remember the sound. So many things I don’t remember, so many moments gone that I fear I’ll never get back.

I was so busy. I was teaching full time, washing clothes and keeping a house (reasonably) clean; I was teaching him his colors and reading to him and baby proofing the house for when he learned to crawl. I cleared out clothes as soon as they got tight to make way for the next size and I taught him how to use a tough guy voice to deal with mean kids in day care. We were always doing something, the two of us, and I wonder what would have been different had we simply spent some time doing nothing more than being together.

I’m sure sometimes we did. Much of this might be just a nervous look back at things I might not have done, a very normal experience after attending a funeral for someone who died so young. But the fact that I really can’t remember what laughter of my baby boys sounded like, that I really have to struggle to remember the details of their little baby faces–that’s not ok. I should be able to pull those memories up with a moment’s recall, but I can’t. I can’t because I was so busy preparing, teaching doing…just so damned busy.

How much time have we lost to this disrespectful use of time? How many people who have lost their loved ones to an untimely death would give anything to have just a little more time together? Granted this miracle they would spend the time intentionally attentive to the details that matter and they would do so because they know the tragic sting of real loss. I don’t want to have to know that sting intimately before I learn the lesson. The time for wasting is gone and the time for living is now.

I think rather than lament the point further, I will shut off my computer. I will imprint the sounds and sites of the day on my brain and in my heart and I will vow to never be too busy to give thanks for the life that is ours to live together.

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