Gathered on any random Saturday night before the pandemic, my friends and I would often recount our day. My tale usually involved our family of four bouncing from activity to activity like human pinballs caroming from one corner of the county to another. Inevitably, someone would kid me for our full itinerary. Dubbed “The Crammer,” I was accused of trying to win a contest of efficiency when, really, I simply operate on the principle that when opportunity presents itself, take it. It is a philosophy that has guided me since before I became a mother.

As a British Literature instructor at a small private high school, I loved teaching the importance of the written word. More so, I loved my students, including “Alex,” as clever and joyful as young people come. I still remember Alex’s smile and the way it won its way into a favor. I remember the way he ran his fingers through his hair when he became embarrassed. I remember the moment I learned he was killed in a car crash. I remember the wails of his brother, also a student at our school, during the funeral service, and how they were muffled when an instructor enveloped him in her long arms. I remember her jacket being discolored by his tears when he raised his head. I remember feeling guilty about all the life I had led and angry about all the life Alex would never experience.

That was the first funeral. Three more followed. In one school year, our tight-knit campus mourned again and again and again after separate, tragic incidents. It felt at once unreal and horrific. Students and staff were devastated by the overwhelming loss and jarred by the idea of young lives ending so abruptly. Much discussion and introspection followed, and though I appreciated that my job involved preparing students for the future, I decided then to enjoy the fullest life I can each day. Hyperaware that virtually any activity “could be the last time,” I said yes to everything I could. Years later, I still appreciate that tomorrow is not assured for me or for anyone I love, and this practice has made me abundantly happier. 

My philosophy has allowed me to enjoy some exotic adventures abroad, but more often it has strengthened moments with family and friends. I am lucky to live close to my parents and siblings, and it would be easy to deem our frequent get-togethers as routine. Still, I never turn down a chance to catch up, and I never leave a birthday or Monday Night Football dinner without having laughed all night and feeling refreshed. Likewise, if friends text while we are out and about, we make time for them that evening. I know we may be tired later, but tired at home means dozing on the couch to bad TV. Seeing friends rejuvenates us. The odds are low that it will be “the last time” we hang out but remembering that it could helps me focus and appreciate the company of those I love.

It has been almost a half a year since we sat in my parents’ house, sipped cocktails in our friends’ backyard, or met another couple for dinner. Who knows when we will return to those days? Who knows when we will enjoy theme parks, playlands, or museums again? After remaining “safer at home” for over five months now, my kids talk a lot about “before” – long plane trips that no longer feel safe and quick visits to restaurants that have shuttered their doors for good. “That’s sad, mama,” Thomas recently muttered upon seeing a neighborhood ice cream shop boarded up. From the backseat, he sighed, “Well, at least we went before they closed!” I squeezed the steering wheel and thought, “My goodness, he gets it. He honestly gets it.”

Even before the pandemic, I had marked several “last times” with my boys. There was the last time I pushed Thomas in a stroller. The last time I fed Devin in a highchair. The last time I dressed either one. More lasts will follow. One day Thomas will not kiss me in front of the school gate. One day Devin will not write Santa a letter. One day they will leave home. Watching children grow is to enjoy many firsts and mourn just as many lasts.

So, when the boys ask me to join them in the pool after I just washed my hair I ask, “What if this is the last time?” Would I rather remember splashing and laughing with my sons or not having to shampoo twice? Any time I can, I do. Lately, my days seem spent saying “no”– no playdates, no pool parties, no movie theaters; I want to cram in every “yes” I can.

I also want to get back to packing our days with experiences and people outside of our home. Until then, we enjoy new interests like puzzles, gardening, game nights, and reminiscing about our adventures, big and small—not in sorrow for what we have lost, but in gratitude for what we did not let pass us by.