“Is this the last summer like this?” my friend said, as we sat by the lake early one evening and watched our kids swim. Her 11-year-old practiced her crawl all the way to the floating dock in the middle of the lake, her dad swimming beside her and offering encouragement. Her teenager sat in a beach chair, absorbed in a book. Our 5-year-olds splashed in the roped-off kiddie area. My toddler methodically transferred sand from a bulldozer to a plastic bucket and dumped it out again.
“No, no, there will be lots more summers like this,” I said, but I knew what she meant. The teenager leaves for college in a year. And this might be the last summer the 11-year-old will want to swim with us, her family and friends, rather than hang with the older kids at the beach. This is the last year the 5-year-olds will be confined to the kiddie area—they’ll be striking out for the floating dock themselves soon. The toddler will soon learn to swim.
By next summer, the kids will be different—they’ll still be kids, sure—but it will change. My 2-year-old won’t need to be scooped up and carried so often. No one will say to me, oh, cute baby, because he won’t be a baby anymore. Our 5-year-olds will elongate; their faces will thin out; I’ll see flashes of ankle from my tall boy and know that I need to buy new pants. Maybe they’ll ask what various naughty words mean, or exhibit grumpy flashes of pre-tweendom. Maybe they’ll start rolling their eyes or getting themselves a snack instead of asking for one, or not needing to be tucked in at bedtime.
By next summer, I might be Mom instead of Mama. We might be done with diapers and strollers and sippy cups; our vacations will be determined by the Department of Ed. A few more summers after that, and our older son might prefer to go to camp instead of our annual lake-house vacation.
“What if, once she gets to college,” my friend said, about her teenager, “she wants to spend summers at home? What if this is the last summer all our kids come on this vacation?” My friend Bob, preparing to send his only child off to college, said, “This is the last summer I’ll have a kid at home, at all.”
When you’re a parent, no moment is the same as the moment before (except for the painful and sleepless newborn stage, when time, in fact, stops). Children grow by swift and alarming leaps—when my friend and I drove home from the lake, we sent her middle kid into the bakery to buy some bread, and the child who came out looked years older than the child we sent in. I find myself months or even years behind with my own son: I’ll be searching the playground for a small child and my tall boy will suddenly appear, forcing my gaze about a foot above where it was.
Tonight is the last night of our vacation, and I’m listening to the cicadas signal the beginning of the end of summer. My sons are giggling, even though it’s way past their bedtime—they still want to share a room, even though they don’t have to, because they can yuk it up for hours after lights-out. Is this the last summer they’ll want to bunk together? Is it the last summer they’ll find sparklers thrilling or fireflies a novelty?
Summer, our favorite season and our longest vacation, is the only stretch of time we have with no busy morning rush or harried dinner routine to cloud our enjoyment. For me, summer is full of moments that make my heart seize for a split second, knowing that time is slipping by, sluicing like water off my boys as they grow up and up and up. Some summer soon, they will be grown. Some summer soon, they might not be here at all, and my husband and I will fall asleep to the cicadas by ourselves.
Being a parent suddenly elongates your vision: You can see what’s coming, like Cassandra, except that every other parent knows it too. You know that the older generation won’t always be around the dinner table, and that the younger generation won’t always fit on your lap. You know that time moves only forward, even in the long hot days of July. You know that this is the last summer exactly like this.