(An essay reflecting on the losses of things through time.)
There are no machines hooked up; no devices beeping in a periodic rhythm sustaining life. The room is sterile, as in “not productive of youth,” but the collection of dirt built up in the corners of the room do not suggest sterility, as in “germ free and clean.” I crinkle my nose slightly, in disgust, at the run-down, very aged hospital room.
“What’s a matter?”
My nose uncrinkles at the run-down, very aged looking countenance of my fifty-two year old dad staking claim on the only bed in this tiny room. A smile is my response to his question, not quite reaching my eyes, and a slight shake of my head accompanies the half-hearted smile. I haven’t cried yet, and I’m not going to, because crying would mean admitting- would mean accepting- and I much prefer burying my head in the sand; “If I can’t see you, then you can’t see me” kind of approach to unpleasant things I don’t want to deal with.
“Am I dying?” He asks this question, but there is no fear in the question, no quake to his voice, in spite of knowing the answer already. Fearless.
I huff, rolling my eyes to stunt the growing, burning pain of the buildup of tears pricking the corners of my eyes. With a shake of my head I swallow the lump of bile that feels like it’s blocking my airflow, and keeping my eyes averted from him, I stare blankly at an “unsterile” spot on the wall. Dad’s eyes are closed, but I know he is not asleep. We listen to each others’ breaths for several minutes.
“I just…” I break the lullaby of our mixed breathing. “I just wish there was more time.”
Dad’s eyes stay closed, but he responds with strained words. “The more time there is,” he takes a slow, strained breath, “the more things are stolen from us.”
I don’t have anything productive to add to the conversation, so I just don’t. After a few minutes more, the side of his face relaxes against his shoulder, his breathing evens out, and I know he has fallen asleep. Sitting virtually alone, my thoughts become screams and echo in the silence of the room as I consider the things that time steals.
“Look,” my dad had said on a long, low sigh, trying not to let his frustration with my teenage irrationality get the best of his compassion for my situation. “I know this is rough on ya, kid, but it’s only for six months, then you’ll turn eighteen and can go your own way if ya want, but for right now, I am still responsible for you, so where I go, you go.”
I sniffled, snorted through my nose, and swiped at my tear-stained cheeks with the back of my hand, never daring to turn my eyes from the nothing out the window I stared at as he drove. I had been petitioning for weeks to be left behind while the rest of my family moved across the country, but all I kept being told was some rendition of, “You’re my kid. Where I go, you go.” I was sick to death of hearing it.
“If he loves you, he’ll surely wait six months for you to come back,” my dad spoke of my high school sweetheart. “And if you don’t come back, then he’ll fight for ya. And if he don’t, and you don’t, well, then… there’s that,” and he shrugged, as though that was just the cut-and-dried of it.
I was angry, and I resented my parents for having so much dictation over my life; to have the power to completely uproot my existence when I was within months of being legally my own person. All I needed was time… six months of time, to be precise.
I got those six months, but I did not get them in the space of the place I thought I should get them in, and when those six months turned into a year with new responsibilities, new people, and new experiences, I never quite made it back to the place I started from. I didn’t make it back, he didn’t wait, nor did he fight for me, and that was just that.
“This is life,” my dad had said; a reminder that it was quite the norm for nothing to end as expected. An unavoidable matter-of-fact that Time steals expectations, mangling our hopes, remolding them into other dreams, and instilling within us an infinite supply of out-of-the-blue guilt, wonder-ifs, and remorse. A reminder that, just when we think we can make our way back, we can never go back.
“Remember when you wore that shirt to school that had a rainbow on it, and you came home from school that afternoon mad as an ole hornet because some girl teased you about being a lesbian even though you aren’t a lesbian, but the part you were so mad about was because if you had been a lesbian they’d have been bullying you and that was just not acceptable?”
I had remembered, so I said so. “Yeah, and you told me, ‘Never let ‘em see ya cry.’”
On the other end of the phone I couldn’t see my dad nod his head, but I knew by the pause in his response that that was exactly what he was doing. Then he chuckled. “Yeah, I said that. Your ole dad’s pretty smart, ya know,” he congratulated himself.
I grinned into the phone, “Yeah, you are, I guess. What’s that have to do with the price of eggs?”
At being reminded about the start of the conversation, he had continued. “Oh yeah! Well,” I heard the crinkling of a package. “I was just going to say,” the phone clattered across the floor followed by muffled muttered words before his voice is back, ‘Sorry. Dropped the damn phone… When I was headed into the store this afternoon, that girl handed me a flyer asking me to vote for marriage equality.” Dad’s words had been mumbled, mixed with chewing sounds. “Ain’t that somethin’?” he had mused.
“That is.” I had agreed, then it had been my turn to nod at my end of the phone. “That is something,” and I had marveled how Time is the uncovering of valid truths and invalid untruths; how it is the force that drives the progression of the ever-evolving human, and how sometimes, just sometimes, it surprises us all with something worthwhile.
“I just…” I had sighed at the start of this melancholy recap of an impromptu visit with one of my oldest friends who I hadn’t seen in several years. “It just felt like I didn’t even know who she was anymore. Like,” I pause, searching the right words to describe the new void in the pit of my being. “…like we had never really even been friends at all. Like it was something we’d made up in our minds, but had never actually ever existed.”
“Welcome to the real world,” Dad had said, matter-of-factly. He had offered no words of comfort, no softening of harsh edges, nothing more than a blatant, concise statement of truth. There had been the unmistakable tinge of regret in his tone, but being no amateur to the things that Time steals, it had been nothing more than a brief interloper piggybacking those five words.
The funny thing with Time is that it changes the people we are, the people we knew “back when,” and the places that nostalgia insists on not losing grasp of. Time steals those things, and it replaces them with new perspectives for ourselves, and new people which Time will steal from us later.
“What hurts worse? That? Or, sliding down a hill of razors on your knees and landing in a pool of alcohol?”
True, it hurt worse in my mind than it actually hurt physically, but I had hated to admit as much. For as long as I can remember, Dad had been asking that question. When I was younger, I heard it as words of indifference- uncaring, and callous, but as I got older I had begun to hear the realism. Dad used those words to put things into perspective when I could not see for myself. Eerily enough, what dear old Dad’s reminder of perspective could not heal, Time most certainly would.
“So…,” I had trailed my word, disbelieving that all there was to the story was that Dad “might have had a mini stroke.” “So,” I had repeated. “You don’t know, know? Or… like, what?”
Dad was irritated, and though he growled his response, I knew his frustration wasn’t intentionally directed at me. “I don’t know, honey! I’m not a doctor, and I don’t play one on TV!”
I pinch the space between my eyebrows with my thumb and my middle finger, trying to mini-massage away my own frustrations. For every question I had ever asked my dad, whether he knew the answer or not, if he didn’t want to answer, that was how he had always responded: “I’m not a [insert professional related to field of question], and I don’t play one on TV.” As Time would tell, it hadn’t mattered what the circumstance had been, only that it had occurred, and Time had stolen from my dad, from right underneath our noses.
“Ya know,” my dad had paused in speaking his thoughts. He had pursed his lips, slowly nodding his head, encouraging himself to continue sharing with me what he had begun to. “The older I get, and the further I get along in my life, the more I’ve about decided that maybe we don’t have it all figured out.”
I had known exactly what he had been referring to, and while I absolutely agreed with his sentiment, and he knew my thoughts on “God,” it had saddened, and almost frightened me, to hear him denouncing his beliefs. For all of my life, he had been a “literal heaven,” a “hell-fire-and-brimstone,” a “ten-percent tithe,” and a “rapture-like-a-thief-in-the-night” kind of guy. Eighteen years of my life were subjected to religious teachings, moral training, and then here he had told me: “I’ve lost my faith. I just don’t believe God actually cares. I just don’t think we are significant enough in the grand scheme of things.” He had then pursed his lips again, and shook his head slightly, and we had sat in silence, watching the traffic pass by on Main Street, like ants passing busily on a mound of dirt.
I am brought back to current awareness by the doctor’s intrusion into the tiny, unsterile, but private room hospitalizing my dad. Dr. What’s-His-Name smiles at me and lifts his hand slightly in acknowledgement as he moves to stand beside Dad’s bed.
“So what do we know?” I ask, wanting answers now, not in a minute, after he exchanges faux pleasantries with my dad who would not be pleasant after having his nap interrupted anyway.
“Well, we know his kidneys are failing. We know that, often, what happens when a person suffers a major stroke, it takes years before the effects are seen in many of the organs. Unfortunately, the kidney loss, as well as – there are some other issues going on too – are all the result of the major stroke he suffered years ago. It’s just…” the doctor looks from Dad, to me. “It’s just taking its toll now. I think,” Doctor pauses, considering his words carefully before continuing. “There’s nothing else we can do for him here. It is my recommendation that he be moved to hospice. I’ll put the paper work in for a transfer,” and he leaves the room just as he entered it, with a fake smile and a slight lift of long fingers in acknowledgement.
“So that sucks,” I break the spell of contemplation the doctor left us in by stating the obvious.
Dad closes his eyes again, nodding as he responds. “There it is,” speaking of the elephant in the room. “Just never enough time, is there?”
“Time is a thieving bastard,” I say angrily, perpetuating the past hour of private reminiscing, and picking up our conversation where it had left off from earlier.
Dad smiles, eyes still closed. “Maybe it is,” he concurs. “Maybe it is…, but it can’t steal what you don’t have, and more time is something I don’t have. It can’t take it from me if I don’t have it to start with.”
I breathe out a heavy sigh on a huff. Contemplating this, I swallow another lump of anxiety built up in my throat, but I don’t say anything in response for fear that the dam of tears I’m holding back will break, giving away my place of vulnerability and disbelief.
“I go on my own time,” Dad mutters, turning his head to go back to sleep. “I go on my own.”
I was sitting in the back seat of my grandmother’s car a day later. She occupied the passenger’s seat while my husband drove us across town to find “real” food to fill our bellies with for the first time in days. We were all exhausted, worn out and weary from the days spent in the hospital and hospice with Dad. Being out and about, breathing the fresh air of outside felt more “sterile” than the medicated air of hospice house, and we tried to keep our conversation light and on anything other than Dad’s failing condition.
“Hello?” My husband answered the cell phone that had begun to ring in his back pocket. “Oh. I see. Yes.” His voice was even, untelling; giving nothing away. “They’re with me right here. I’ll let them know.” Pressing “end call,” he returned his eyes to stare straight ahead at the road. In all of twenty seconds, I watched his eyes crease in the corners as I studied them in the mirror; I watched his throat work as he swallowed the first batch of words almost formed on his tongue before settling on, “He’s gone.”
An involuntary gasp sucked into my lungs swiftly at the shock of the realization of the horrible truth I had refused to believe was coming. That gasp, ferociously deafening, inflated my lungs with what felt like the last bit of precious air I would ever inhale. For a fraction of a fraction of a second in Time, my eyes blinded, and my mind blackened. The muscle of my heart froze mid-beat in the pumping of my pulse, and every ounce of life in my veins receded into some unseen recess. An immediate numbness, the involuntary coping mechanism of my nervous system, swept my body in its clutches before slowly surrendering to the inevitable creep of pain, and as I wept heavy, leaden tears trailing down my scorching cheeks, I resented Time for being the thieving bastard it was, while the daily traffic whizzed around and passed us as though the world had never stopped spinning in that moment.