It was my first term at university and I was walking to campus for a late afternoon lecture. The sky was a dark, twilight blue as dusk rolled in – and as I strolled, my eyes were drawn to a house with the lights shining bright inside. Without the curtains pulled, I could see two school children sat in the lounge. They were watching afternoon TV, sipping cups of orange squash, and nibbling biscuits.
A scene being played out in thousands of houses all over the country.
A scene I’d played out thousands of times myself.
And my eyes took in that familiar scene as I strolled past the house to my lecture, it hit me like a lightning bolt.
That part of my life was over.
I would never be a schoolchild again. I’d never get home from school and raid the biscuit tin. I’d never sit and watch after-school TV.
It was over.
I had been so excited about moving on with my life, leaving home for the first time, cooking my own dinners, making my own decisions about what time I would roll into bed in the evening, and what time I might roll out of it the next day, that I’d completely forgotten that I was leaving so much behind.
Did I want to go back there? No way. You couldn’t drag me.
But for the very first time in my life, I had an understanding of the finality of time. And I was shocked to realise that there was no way back. Even if I ended up hating university and wanted to go home, I could never be a schoolchild again drinking squash and nibbling biscuits.
I often think about that autumn afternoon stroll to university, because the realisation had shocked me. And over the years that followed, it had taught me to stand still and think ‘enjoy this moment – because once it’s over, it’s over.’ I learnt to appreciate moments, like the last night at university dancing in a dodgy club with my housemates, the day my boyfriend proposed, and the final dance on our wedding day.
But the finality of time has never been more obvious to me than since my first baby was placed on my chest back in April 2012. I suddenly wasn’t pregnant anymore – and until that moment, I had no idea I would miss the bump that housed the very baby I had been desperately trying to evict.
In fact, in the months and years that followed, I wished so much I could go back and tell my newly-pregnant self to enjoy that pregnancy. To soak up every second as life would never feel as exciting or as special again. To sleep, to relax, to cradle my bump, to take hundreds of pictures of it. To truly appreciate those nine months.
And there were lots more moments to remind me that life was passing at a crazy pace. There was the moment I was stood behind another mother with a newborn in a supermarket queue and her baby jumped in shock at a loud noise – and I suddenly realised, with absolute horror, that my baby didn’t do that anymore.
There was the pace at which he grew out of sleepsuits. The joy of seeing him in new outfits peppered with the sadness of folding away his tiny clothes into boxes.
There was the joy of seeing him walk for the first time, before the sinking realisation that I’d never see the funny commando crawl he’d mastered again.
And even now – five years later – there’s the one single word he mispronounces every single time, which I have no intention of correcting. Because once he’s mastered his entire vocabulary without any sweet little slips, he somehow seems less of my baby.
Life passes at such a fast pace that I find it hard to soak everything up sometimes. I find it hard to pause and think ‘I really should commit this to memory’. In fact, some moments I don’t want to remember – whether it’s a difficult day, or a tricky night with a grouchy baby – and it’s only with the benefit of hindsight, probably years down the line from now, that I’ll stop and think to myself ‘those moments were pretty special after all, I guess’.
So in many ways, I was right on that autumn day back in 1999. You can’t go back in time – and you often don’t appreciate something until it’s long gone, out of your reach.
But I was missing something too, because now I am a mother I get to see it all again through their eyes.
Complete with the TV after school, the orange squash, and the biscuits.
And this time, I’m going to try – really try – to not let it slip away too quickly.