Life is full of last times. For a few weeks, months or years you find yourself doing something routine and then, sometimes barely realising it, you stop doing that thing forever.
While there is only one very first time that you did something for the last time, perhaps before you can even remember it, the idea I’m interested in is last times in general. (The title is also a play on a popular Capital ‘ism’ – When was the last time you did something for the first time? – A call to arms for new experiences.)
In his book “4,000 Weeks” Oliver Burkeman describes picking up his son in his arms. Obviously, there will be a last time he picks his son up – he won’t still be doing it when his son is 30.
I started thinking about last times recently when potty training my two-year old. I thought “there will be a time when it is the last time I will change a nappy”. With two children, nappy changing has seemed an integral part of daily life for such a long time but it will just fade away. It’s not a bad thing – it’s not always the most fun or pleasant of tasks but it does represent the passage of time and that with a child, there will be so many last times. The last time she will let me read her a bedtime story. The last bathtime. The last piggyback. The last trip to the park.
Many last times will be very apparent in the moment when they are happening. You may lock the door and stand staring back at the house you’ve lived in for 25 years before a move, knowing that this is the last time you will turn the key in that door or set foot in that house. You will think of all the memories. Coming home, kicking your shoes off, putting the kettle on, sitting in your favourite seat. The family gatherings, having your children’s friends’ round, film nights, first steps and maybe moving in day.
Saying goodbye to your first beloved car – when was the very last time you drove it, where did you go?
A lot, maybe most of our last times will tick by unnoticed. When was the last time I listened to music from a CD player? The last time I watched a VHS video? The last time I manually re-wound a cassette tape?
Sometimes, you will be doing something and not know in the moment that it is the last time, but you do now realise.When my son was at nursery, he would get dropped off in the morning by my partner. His pram would be taken apart, folded and stored in the pram store ready for when I would pick him up after work. He was one of the first in and also one of the first to be picked up. This meant that all other prams had been put on top of ours in what I like to call “Pram Jenga”
I would be tired, maybe cold if it was winter, hot if it was summer with the added ‘benefit’ of being stressed from the airless, cramped, inferno of being on the Central underground line. I would be confronted with the infamous ‘Pram Jenga’. I would let out an exasperated sigh of resignation before taking the prams down one by one, putting ours together and then stacking the rest back. I thought to myself – “one day will be the last day I have to do this.”
But it came a lot sooner than I thought. One rainy day I tackled Pram Jenga, I got Theo in the pram and got on the bus. He watched the rain on the doors as they opened and closed to let people off. We went past the duck pond like we usually did. Quack quack. Walked home, very wet, put everything away, time for dinner. And then we never did it again. The following Monday the country and soon the entire world locked down. Once the world started to emerge from that first lockdown we had moved. We didn’t need to store the pram anymore. That very last day came two years earlier than I thought it would.
Lockdown is perhaps responsible for a lot of last times. There was perhaps, the last week I ever had to commute and work in an office from Monday to Friday and not break it up with working from home. When was that last week?
I remember the last time I saw my mum. She was in hospital. I didn’t know it would be the last time in the moment – no doctor had mentioned that things didn’t look great. I was going on holiday, to the motherland (or rather my mother’s land) for the first time. What’s the point of being half-Jamaican and never going there? My mum spoke about Jamaica a lot and I was excited to be going. She gave me some dollars to spend, which I hadn’t expected. I hugged her and said I would see her when I got back. We were all going to my sister’s wedding, weren’t we?
No. I never saw her again. That was the last time.
When was the last time I spoke to her on the phone? What did we talk about? The last time we had a meal together? The last time we were in the car together? The last time I woke up and saw her in the morning?
I have been guilty many a time of saying – “I’ll be happy when” and maybe you have too.
I’ll be happy when my house is organised
I’ll be happy when I finish that big project
I’ll be happy when I can finally retire
I’ll be happy when the children can dress themselves
I’ll be happy when
I’ll be happy when
I’ll be happy then.
I used to rush through tasks to get onto the next thing. I need to get through things, so I can complete things and finally get to that time when all things are done and I can be happy.
But everything will never be done. That’s life. Getting things done. I don’t need to get things done to be happy. I need to be happy doing the things.
I realise now that for all the things – boiling the kettle, walking to the corner shop, going to a restaurant, riding my bike, brushing my teeth, sitting on the beach – there will be a last time – and I may not see it coming.
A few books I’ve been reading this year describe how it isn’t necessarily only big events that contribute to your overall happiness. Big events can and often do make you feel happy but it’s also the day to day moments and really slowing down to be present in them that can add up to a sum total of happiness and contentment. You never know when another last moment is coming (or going).
Bathtime was a big one for me. I often felt like I needed to get bath and bedtime over with – there’s dinner to make, I’ve got some work to do and I need to get the meal plan done for next week. Now I take the time to enjoy bathtime for what it is. I’m silly. I’m playing. I’m singing. I’m not rushing. “Five more stories mummy” Ok. Happiness is in big memorable events that don’t slip by unnoticed like so many last times. But it is also in the giggle of a two-year-old who has soap bubbles landing on her nose.
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