Time is an illusion. That was my thought as I hung up the phone. Which was strange considering the conversation. But before I went to bed, there was some scientist on TV trying to explain theoretical physics for the lay person, and maybe my mind was in shock after what I’d just heard.
I threw the covers off and went to my closet, thinking about that physicist. He said you could stand in front of a grandfather clock all day and watch the minutes slip by, but it wouldn’t be real. He said that time is a mechanism created by our minds to help us cope with reality. No doubt he was a brilliant man, but I had no clue as to what he was talking about.
I pulled on my pants, rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, and stumbled down the stairs. Then I remembered that other people had said that there is no future and no past, that the present is all that exists, it’s all that has ever existed. There was even a silly quote that went along with that thought. It was something like: The past is gone, the future is uncertain, so enjoy the moment. It’s a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.
One thing I’ve learned is that time is precious, valuable. As I grabbed my keys and my coat, it hit me that it might be the most valuable thing on Earth because you never know how much of it you’ll get.
I started my car and turned onto the still dark streets. Then I yawned and rubbed the stubble along my jaw. I almost didn’t recognize the face staring back at me in the rearview mirror. Suddenly, I found myself more than halfway through my life. I was no longer a young man. When did I get this grey hair? When did I gain this weight? How long have I had these wrinkles?
Thinking about my age reminded me that my aunt Dolores turned ninety eight in March. A few years ago I spoke with her about how fast time had vanished. She gave me an evil grin.
“Just wait, it gets worse.” She said. “Wait until you’re my age. Then it’s not years that sneak past you, it’s entire decades. Grandchildren grow up in less than half the time they should, and soon they have children of their own.”
“But why? Why does it go so fast?”
“Think of it this way, when you were four years old, summer was one sixteenth of your life. Once you turn forty, summer is one one hundred and sixtieth of your life. It’s the same amount of time. You can see it, mark it on the calendar, but it doesn’t feel the same does it?”
“No, it doesn’t.” I said with a frown.
She grinned again. “It’s the memories that fool you. They show you the past, the time you’ve spent, the time you’ve lost, the time you’ve wasted. They keep pushing you forward. And as you gain more, you pick up speed until life is whizzing by you like a blur.”
I turned off the car’s stereo. I wasn’t ready to listen to music or some talk radio blowhard. My thoughts were with my aunt and her thoughts about memory. It was easier than thinking about the memories I’d have at the end of the drive.
I always remembered the big things in life: birthdays, weddings, anniversaries. They came along at regular intervals and I stopped what I was doing and paid attention. It was easy, those things were important. Death was the other thing I remembered. The pain, the sense of loss, the funerals, they were seared into my mind with the intensity of a branding iron.
Shortly after I spoke with my aunt, I learned that it was the memories I couldn’t hold onto that were important. But they stayed just out of reach. I could almost grab them, touch them with my fingertips, but then they would slip through my grasp, and somehow, that seemed like a sin.
I wiped tears from my eyes and realized that so many little things had slipped through the holes in my memory. Did my wife smile at me on the second Tuesday in July? She probably did, she smiled a lot, but I can’t recall. Did I hold her hand? Did I kiss her cheek? If I did, the memories are long gone.
As I pondered these things on my way to the hospital, I passed an elderly couple driving an old Buick. I zoomed by them as they must have been going ten miles per hour under the speed limit. It was funny how I never got upset when old people drove slowly. I just sort of accepted it as life went on. I never really gave it much thought. I never understood.
With a sense of dread, I flipped on my turn signal and approached my exit. Then my mind drifted back to the elderly couple. I had always thought that old people would drive faster. I rationalized that they didn’t have much time left, so they should drive like maniacs right? But they never did. They just cruised along, never in a hurry.
The sun was just coming over the horizon as I reached the bottom of the off ramp. Kids were different, I thought. They had all the time in the world, their whole lives stretched out before them, yet they raced like bats out of hell. It made no sense. I suppose I was the same when I was young. I didn’t understand until I was older, not until I lived through a thousand boring Tuesdays. Then I started to appreciate the little things more. Then I realized that I didn’t need to go so fast, that wherever I was going would still be there if I was five minutes late. Then I learned about the value of patience.
I turned off my car in the visitor’s parking lot. I was terrified of what waited for me, so I took a moment to get control of my emotions, to pull myself together, and I thought once again about time. As I’ve aged, I’ve realized there’s no need to rush. What was important today won’t be important next week, next month, next year. Old people have perspective. They’ve learned how the little things matter. They’ve found that it’s the quiet moments in between life’s big events that are truly important. The big events are coming. Weddings, birthdays, and deaths will all come when they come. No one can stop them. The elderly understand that everyday can’t be your wedding day, but any day can be just as important. And often it’s the little days you didn’t see coming that bring a tidal wave of change into your life.
I walked up to the emergency room front desk and the nurses looked miserable after I told them my name, told them about the phone call. A minute later, an old security guard came over and asked me to follow him. As I stared at the back of his white hair, I wondered if the elderly could pass along their wisdom. I wondered if the young would listen. Maybe I would remember if my wife smiled on that Tuesday. I would have smiled back. Maybe I would have taken her hand and kissed her, told her I loved her. Maybe I wouldn’t have missed the chance to make that moment matter, before cancer took her from me three years ago.
I followed the old man into the basement. Before we reached our destination, my emotions overwhelmed me and I leaned against the wall while sobbing into my shirt. The security guard, having made this trip more times than he’d care to remember, waited patiently for me to finish. Once I was ready, he gave me a sympathetic nod and we continued.
Maybe the elderly could make young people understand that they didn’t need to drive so fast. They didn’t need to drive while talking on the phone, their friends would wait. They didn’t need to drive while crying, in the rain, because they broke up with their boyfriend. Maybe time could turn on itself and the elderly could explain all that to my daughter. Maybe they could make her see just how unimportant those things truly were. If there was any justice, any God at all, time would bend and grant my wish, my desperate plea.
As I stood in the hospital morgue, they told me she cut across four lanes of traffic, trying to exit. They said she had been texting. They estimated she was going more than thirty miles an hour over the speed limit when she hit the guard rail. They told me she wasn’t wearing her seat belt.
They said it was my baby underneath that sheet. Her body was broken, her face unrecognizable. If they hadn’t shown me her driver’s license, I wouldn’t have believed it was her. I nodded to the coroner and turned to leave, with more tears falling, and a desperate wish that it could be me on that cold metal table instead of my little girl.
Time is an illusion. And God is a stage show magician with one lousy trick. For my daughter, for my wife, there will be no future, there will be no present. They won’t exist except in the past, in the dusty corridors of my mind, in the shadows of my fading memories.
Time was valuable, precious even, because I never knew how much of it I would have with them. Then death snuck in like a thief in the night and took everything from me, everything that mattered anyway. It left me with one hope: that the weight of my memories moves me faster and faster until life becomes the blur my aunt promised. Because I learned one thing today, from this point forward, I have too much time.
Jason Dextradeur lives in Virginia Beach and works as a courier to pay the bills. He likes to spend his free tie with friends or a good story.
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