When was the last time you did something for the last time?

In my last column, I challenged you to try something for the first time, and I have loved hearing from some of you who took it to heart. New adventures were shared and my challenge goal was met!

Leading by example, I presented my friend Kristie with the opportunity to join me for a Coosa River Basin Initiative (CRBI) guided trip on a river she’d never paddled before. Kristie started paddling a year ago and has taken to it well. She had done about six trips on our local Etowah stretches, so I considered her ready to try a favorite six-mile stretch of “Georgia’s Other Chattooga River”—the one that flows through Chattooga County on its way to Weiss Lake.

Gena Agnew introduced me to the Chattooga some decades back and I have spent countless unforgettable days there with Gena and friends. Perhaps my fondness for the river caused me to oversell it to Kristie a little bit.

Because it is so small, the Chattooga is a different paddling experience from our urban Etowah. It is much smaller, with frequent shallow spots and shoals. Trees that fall from the bank will reach all the way across it. While beautiful, this is not a river you can relax on. Shallows must be scooted over, obstacles paddled around, and attention paid at all times.

About twenty minutes into the trip, Kristie was not a happy paddler. Negotiating a kayak around a fallen tree was a skill I had neglected to teach her. She found the shallow spots disconcerting and the twists, turns and trees, terrifying. From a couple of boat-lengths ahead of me she called out, “Hey Nina, you know how you wrote about first times? Well, this is a LAST TIME!”

I was so mad at myself! I hate for anyone to have a bad experience on a river, especially when I’m the one who caused it. Kristie’s apprehension was making me uneasy; the whole day was headed south in a handbasket.

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To her credit, Kristie learned quickly and gained confidence, and the day ended with the best possible outcome: she actually mentioned doing it again, “…but not until next year.” This last time was averted, but it was a very close call.

Last times are a mixed bag. They can be happily anticipated, like the last time you hit “send” on a company email, shut down your workstation and head happily into a well-planned retirement. Or they can be heartbreaking moments, holding the hand of a loved one when you know their time is short. Many last times are bittersweet, with poignant memories that briefly gather before rolling into a hopeful future. Graduations are of this stripe, generating “happy-tears” over changing relationships tempered with hope for the future.

Like a kid looking for hidden Christmas presents (which I may or may not have ever done), I long for a peek at things to come. There’s an imaginary window that opens to my future, and sometimes I stand on my tiptoes and peer through it, hoping to glimpse at what lies ahead. I can see some sunshine, but my future first and last times are just out there in the fog.

What’s to be done?

This question is well asked (and answered below) by my most favorite of all writers, Frederick Buechner:
“It is the first day because it has never been before and the last day because it will never be again. Be alive if you can all through this day today of your life. What’s to be done?”

– The Alphabet of Grace

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One thing to do is know that there are many life windows that we can see through. When we waste energy gazing into the foggy future, we neglect the ones we have today. Our very best lives can only be lived by embracing the windows of today. Here’s the story of my perfect summer window.

My summer vacation was perfect this year because the window of time was right for it to happen just the way it did.

When the Lovel kids were young, we enjoyed cruise vacations with family friends Randy, Sandy, Matthew and Beth Davis. Happy memories still abound, to the extent that my daughter Jessica promised my precious granddaughter Maddie that we would take her on a family cruise as soon as she outgrew summer camp. It’s amazing how quickly an eleven-year-old can mature when presented with that kind of option; we booked the cruise in March. My son Jedd and his family-to-be agreed to come along, and in July, this matriarch boarded the Carnival Fantasy accompanied by the most beloved people in my life: three young adults and two little girls, ages 7 and 11.

The timing was perfect. The girls got along famously, as did the rest of us, and we relaxed into five days of deck pools, beaches, stingray excursions and, of course, food. The youngest was a trooper, hanging in for all the activities and responsibly handling the modicum of freedom that children may enjoy on a boat. We all agreed that a child younger than seven would have required more maintenance, and we talked of taking another cruise someday.

Then, along came Tropical Storm Barry.

To the captain’s credit, we were steered away from most of the wind and rain, but Barry had the whole Gulf of Mexico in a tizzy. Our last day at sea was spent plowing through three-foot whitecap swells; many shipmates retired to their rooms. The bistros and pools were no longer crowded. Thanks to being “medically prepared,” we were among the ones still standing, but we (along with our remaining ambulatory shipmates) walked like we’d spent the whole day at the Red Frog Rum Bar. Late that night, the captain announced that we would not be able to dock as planned; the Port of Mobile had closed due to the storm surge.

After we enjoyed thirty extra hours of circling in the frisky Gulf, the port reopened, the boat docked, we strode happily onto terra firma and the Lovel Family Cruise Window slammed shut for the next seven years. It was our last time as the family that had started the cruise, but not for any sad reason. It’s because (drum roll) …we’re expecting little Baby Boy Lovel in December! By the time BBL reaches the agreed-upon-cruise-maturity age of seven, Maddie will be in college. We’ll never be the same family. Life marches on. Babies are born. Children grow up. Tomorrow is not promised, and we’ll never see into that fog.

I am grateful for this summer’s window. I am grateful for the love and health of my family, and for the anticipation of new life. I am grateful that I may share these thoughts with you as a reminder to watch for our windows and fling them open when we can.

What’s to be done? Continued from above, Buechner answers his own question:

“Follow your feet. Put on the coffee. Start the orange juice, the bacon, the toast. Then go wake up your children and your wife. Think about the work of your hands. Live in the needs of the day.”—Frederick Buechner