Suzanne Tobias

Firsts and lasts: Bittersweet milestones drift by unnoticed

Whenever “Sweet Baby James” comes on the radio or shuffles into my iPod earbuds, I remember the rocking chair.

Night after night, I’d sway back and forth in that glider rocker in the corner of the bedroom, nursing and singing and rocking my babies to sleep.

“Sweet Baby James” was Jack’s lullaby. I knew most James Taylor songs by heart, and he seemed to find it soothing. And I appreciated the irony of sending my baby boy off to sleep “thinking about women and glasses of beer.”

A couple years prior, with my daughter Hannah, I mixed up the lullaby playlist a bit. “Hey Jude” was on heavy rotation, as were “You Are My Sunshine,” “Landslide,” “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and the Preamble song from “Schoolhouse Rock.”

Looking back, I remember the crying. I remember exhausted pleas for another hour of sleep. I remember the feel of their cantaloupe heads and the smell of baby shampoo, tiny fingers and dimpled elbows. Our evening routine was an endless loop: dinner, bath, PJs, book, song and finally, eventually, blessed quiet.

What I can’t recall is the last time I rocked them to sleep.

You’re vividly aware of firsts when they happen. Baby books feature pages upon pages on which to record first smiles, first words, first foods, first steps, first teeth, first squiggly crayon drawings. You remember the first haircut, the first day of kindergarten, the first trip in an airplane.

But lasts? Those sneak by unannounced. Even as they happen, you don’t know they’re happening. It’s like some bizarre, space-time matrix.

One day you’re pushing a child on a swing, and the next you’re standing back, watching her soar. Then, what seems like split-seconds later, you’re telling your teenager, “You know, we haven’t been to the park in forever.”

I don’t remember the last “Barney” episode Hannah watched. All I know is that purple dinosaur was at the center of my daughter’s life – a singing, dancing, hee-hee-heeing part of her every day – and suddenly he wasn’t. Had I known that final show was indeed our last, I may have stopped whatever I was doing and sung her favorite tune with a little more reverence:

If all the raindrops were lemon drops or gumdrops,

Oh, what a rain that would be …

But I didn’t know, and neither did she. That’s how change happens – not with fanfare or volcanic eruption but a slow, steady tectonic shift.

You turn around and things are different. You can’t remember walking into a forest, but suddenly you gaze up and see the canopy.

I’m glad those bittersweet milestones drift by unnoticed. Otherwise, we’d live our entire lives like one of those histrionic senior-year memory books – This is my last first day of school! My last football game! Last prom! Last final exam! – and we’d all just be exhausted by the effort.

When shoes get too tight or pants too short, I deliver bags of hand-me-downs to friends with younger kids. When interests wane, I pack away “Full House” DVDs and American Girl doll clothes. I note the changes but try not to obsess on details, on dates, because thank goodness there’s no “Book of Lasts” that needs filling.

Each year brings new passions, new pastimes, new favorite songs. But when I hear “Sweet Baby James,” I remember the rocking.