What if this is the last time?

Some milestones in life are marked with celebration, others with sadness. But what if something significant happens for the last time – and you don’t even realise it? Eleanor Tucker explores the importance of these unknown endings


What if this is the last time?

There’s a taxi waiting outside. I can’t find my purse so I’m running from room to room looking for it. My mother is standing in the front porch, flapping her arms to signal to the driver that I’m on my way. Finally, I find my purse and have one more quick trip to the loo – I’ve got a long train journey ahead, after all. A glance around to check I haven’t forgotten anything else, a kiss on the cheek of each parent and I’m gone – a wave from the cab window, then barely a backward glance. Behind me, the house gets smaller and smaller, then fades into the distance, but I don’t notice. I’m already texting my husband, telling him I’m on my way.

That was the last time I saw my childhood home: the house where I grew up, played with my sister, listened to the Top 40 on a Sunday evening, cried over boyfriends, studied for exams, opened my results letters…

I didn’t know that just a few weeks after I left that day, I would find out I was pregnant and that not long after that, my sister would too. I didn’t know that my parents would then decide to move closer to both of us, and put their house up for sale. I didn’t know that within a few short months, other people would live there – another family, making memories of their own. That I would never again have the chance to take that tarnished metal key, hidden in a little crevice by the garage, and open the front door – the door where my mother stood waving me off that morning.

If I had known all this, I would have taken more time and walked from room to room before I left. I would have picked a glow-star sticker off my old bedroom ceiling, and kept it in my purse. I would have stroked a finger over the faded biro marks on the kitchen doorframe that charted the heights of my sister and me as we grew. I would have stood, silently, just for a minute, breathing in the past, so I could take it away with me. But I didn’t, because I didn’t know.

Missing the last time

Thinking about this, I realise that there are points in our lives when we get to celebrate – or mourn – an ending. But there are also times when we don’t have that opportunity, that privilege. Instead, we are left with the feeling that if we could go back, we would have savoured a moment, and made it into a memory, instead of having an empty space where it should be in our minds.

Another missing ‘last time’ for me happened with my daughter, Phoebe. After struggling, but just managing, to breastfeed my son Jake, I tried again with Phoebe and it worked perfectly. We were truly in sync – my body seemed to know exactly what she wanted and it felt like we were one person, just like when she was growing inside me. I fed her until she was just under a year old. The times we spent together when she was nursing were truly precious: the connection and synergy have been the foundation of our relationship.

At around 11 months old, Phoebe became less interested in my milk and more interested in the food on her highchair tray. Little teeth appeared, and the breastfeeds became shorter. One day, at the time of her usual feed, she turned her head away. I squeezed my breast, and there was hardly any milk in it – it was as if Phoebe and my body had decided together. But with sadness, I realised she had already had that last feed, and I had not known it. The moment was gone. I had wanted to look down one final time and see those eyes, contentedly closed, feel her softness against my chest, breathe in the milky scent from my baby’s downy head, and package up a memory. But I didn’t get the chance.

Not long after this, Phoebe came to my father’s funeral. She was the perfect guest – an antidote to the sadness with her gurgles and chuckles, blissfully unaware of the gravity of the occasion and a perfect reminder to all of us that life is replaced by more life. I know my father would have thoroughly approved of her presence. They seemed to share something, from the matching, quirky side partings in their hair to an expression that suggested they hadn’t both just been here on this earth before, they were on their third or fourth visit.

In the last picture taken of my father, he is cuddling Phoebe. I treasure it, but I wish I could treasure the memory of the last time he cuddled me. I don’t remember it. I don’t recall when he last managed to lift up his feeble, failing arms and hold me. If I’d known at the time, I would have lingered in that embrace, stored up his warmth, so that I could still feel it now when I miss him. Which I do, so often, and so much.

But maybe, just maybe, these last times are made more precious by not remembering them – given a poignancy that they wouldn’t have had if we had been aware of them at the time. My sister thinks so. I asked her about her ‘last time’ and she told me about her son, my nephew. He’s nearly 12 and holding his mum’s hand as they walk down the street is no longer the done thing.

My sister told me how she used to wish she had known the last time they had held hands as they walked along. But thinking about it, she’s realised that this ‘missing’ memory is even sweeter for being absent. Because now she can just imagine the last time: a warm, grubby hand in hers as, oblivious, her son chatters away. What if, on the actual last time, she asked me, they had been bickering about homework, and racing to get to a swimming class? At least in her mind, the last time was perfect.

Living mindfully

I like her thinking, but I’m not convinced – so I’m trying something new instead. I’m not advocating we all live each day as if it was our last (gin, anyone?). But in all my interactions, with friends, partners, children, even places, I am choosing to be mindful of how fleeting they are. I am taking nothing for granted, and trying to appreciate the transitory nature of all these connections. Because today, something will change, and move on. There will be a last time, even if I don’t yet know what it is. So I will take in all of today, and tomorrow, soak it up and store it, endings and all. And then I will know that I will not miss another, single last time, however small.

Photograph: Imagesource

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