Yesterday, my one-year-old daughter stabbed a strawberry with a fork. Her chubby fingers triumphantly raised the skewered fruit like Lady Liberty’s torch, her eyes wide with pride while my own filled with tears. Another ‘first’ had come and gone.
Wielding cutlery is a simple milestone that shouldn’t cause an emotional breakdown. It wasn’t her first step or first word, though those have passed as well. Still, it stung. Lately, she’s a runaway train of accomplishment, mastering basic life skills at an alarming rate.
In one regard, her growing abilities put me at ease. They denote she’s a healthy, developing toddler, but they’re also a stark reminder of the inevitable. That every milestone, no matter how slight, will be the first and last.
My husband and I made the conscious decision to stop at one child. We’ve weighed the pros and cons, and ultimately concluded that our daughter—our world—completes our little family. I made peace with this choice, even relished it, but recently, a seed of doubt was planted. Was I ready to stop experiencing these miraculous ‘firsts’?
For some, a second child is the missing puzzle piece. Or perhaps three, or four. That’s entirely valid. The perfect family isn’t one-size-fits-all. But for us, another child wasn’t the solution. God-willing, they’d follow a similar developmental trajectory, then leave the same gapping void I’d hoped to fill.
Damned if I do, damned if I don’t, I settled into the unease. Even good decisions come with repercussions. I’d simply have to deal. Until one afternoon, when a new perspective came in the form of a flower.
Sakura, or cherry blossoms, are prominent in Japanese culture. They bloom for a few short days in spring and are celebrated with viewing parties, called hanami. I was scraping dried cheese from a highchair when their image appeared on my television screen.
The wide-angle gave a breathtaking view; thousands of snaking tree branches coated in pink, sprawling across the landscape to kiss the horizon. But a close-up revealed the impetus of the fuss. Five-petal blossoms were attached to the dainty limbs like mini-corsages, superlatively arranged like only Mother Earth can.
“The Japanese people admire nature’s transient beauty and ponder the brevity of life,” the journalist explained, motioning to groups gathered beneath rows of never-ending floral canopies.
Her words tightened my chest. They were as heartbreaking as they were eloquent. What a concept. American culture rejects the passing of time (especially threats to youth and vitality), and yet, hanami was honoring beauty’s peak and embracing its imminent end. Opposing notions that, whether we like it or not, come as a packaged deal.
The journalist continued with historical facts, but the people stole my attention. Under the largest tree sat a family. A toddler was squirming in the concave of his mother’s lap, while she readied a snack to keep him content. His sibling, a girl about five, busied her father with a stack of books.
But most intriguing was an old woman, perhaps the grandmother, serenely observing the beauty overhead. Her expression held a quality I recognized. Blissful, yet afflicted. In her face, I saw my own.
Beauty and impermanence
Right then, something clicked. “I’m watching the blossom,” I thought, reflecting on my daughter. Whenever she spoke a new word, learned a task, or stealthily escaped her playpen, I shared the old woman’s expression. The lingering unease that accompanied the fleeting ‘firsts’ wasn’t to be pushed aside, as I once thought.
It served a purpose. It was a necessity. A reminder of a season’s impermanence and to appreciate the intricacies of the beauty before me. Like the burgeoning flower buds on the cherry blossom tree, her childhood is a puff of wonder destined to vanish in the blink of an eye.
All parents, whether of one or 10, can relate when I say childhood is like a cherry blossom, bursting with magic but far too short. Even if the celebration rolls around again, like each child, the beauty is nuanced. Unique to that season.
But when the child is your only, I can’t help but think of that grandmother, and the heaviness in her gaze. For what she and I understand is that no matter the distractions, we must not turn away, because another spring isn’t guaranteed.