“What is it, honey?” I asked, my heart beating faster. “What’s wrong?”
He whispered, “Larry died.”
Larry is one of my husband’s best friends from childhood, a big-hearted guy with twin two-year-old boys. He’d been in a car accident. I burst into sobs, putting a napkin over my mouth so the people sitting nearby wouldn’t hear. We quickly paid the bill, went home, said good night to the babysitter. I tip-toed into my kids’ rooms, and planted long kisses on their foreheads. I thought about what would happen if I were never to see them again. But then, I think about that all the time.
I am not a morbid person. People tend to describe me as cheerful and upbeat; a friend in high school once joked I should be voted Most Likely To Smile. Like many of us, I used to never really appreciate the good in life until some tragedy gave me perspective. But I’ve lived long enough now and seen enough death to know that every day is a gift. It’s the sort of earnest banality you might see emblazoned in needlepoint at an elderly relative’s house, but it’s so true. Thing is, it’s not something most of us take time to think about…unless something awful happens.
My morning kiss routine started when my friend Karen passed away four years ago. She was a mom of three kids under five. Karen had an autoimmune disease; she’d wanted those babies so badly, and got them through surrogacy. One day, while her family was in a park, Karen keeled over. Her heart had gone out. It was the first time a close friend had passed, and hugging my children was one of the only things that got me through the grief. It was also the first time I started thinking about not taking life for granted.
Pondering the thought of no longer being there for your children is both hard and awful. Heck, some days it’s hard to even find time to think, let alone juggle a job, the kids, school stuff, house stuff, yada yada. It’s all too easy to get so sucked into your busy life that you never fully appreciate life itself, or how damn lucky you are to have two beautiful children.
After Karen’s death, I vowed to be more mindful when I kissed the kids goodbye before I headed to work-on a train, into New York City, where there would be daily terror alerts, typically yellow (elevated) but occasionally orange (high), a system that’s since been discontinued. I didn’t think, “I may never see them again,” which would have been a pretty downer way to start the day. I just kissed them with all of me. No quick pecks: Instead, I’d relish the feel of their cheeks against my lips, the smell of their skin. I’d tell them how much I loved them. If I were to never come home, they’d know how much of my heart they had.
In the ensuing years, when disaster and tragedy struck-the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti, the tsunami in Thailand, the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut-I grieved. But I never got that overwhelming rush other parents talked about of urgently needing to hold their kids tighter, because I’d already cherished mine like there was no tomorrow.
The other day, I watched a live story on the local news-some guy had fired shots at the mall, and all hell had broken loose. On Facebook, a relative of Larry’s wife left an update with prayers for her and the kids, and reminders to others to hug and kiss their family a little extra.
I had. Oh, I had.