Updated: Nov 6, 2021
Time. Oh. A slippery one, that. Bendy and elusive. Full of tricks, even.
Have you ever tripped on a tree root or rock that’s hiding under fallen leaves in the woods? When, once you’re airborne and parallel to your planet, time stretches right out? And this leisurely, if temporary, float, gives you plenty of room to decide: from which body parts will that path bear the brunt of me? (Knowing gravity is still a thing, sometime in the future.)
Okay, forearms better than head. Looks like we’re gonna skid. Possible to veer slightly away from those rocks? Nope, trajectory set. Okay, then -- prepare for impact. And as soon as you land, time snaps back to its usual pace. Plenty of time, in real-time, to survey the damage in blood, embedded dirt and stones, a sharp twig, bruises already rising, wait is that a tremor in the fingers? Hey. You did your best, during all that protracted air-time.
Happens during a car accident, too. Sometimes you can see that car making the illegal U-turn without checking to see if we green-lit cars are coming through. Yet here we come. The time-stretch of anticipation has already begun. Spare, breath-holding moments to guess the driver wears Coke-bottle glasses, he’s on his last point before they take the keys away. And time to know you don’t have road clearance to avoid him, but you, your psyche and body know: we’re gonna collide. Your foot is still moving over to the brake-pedal.
And after impact, when time finds its normal again, you discover Hey, good guess on the inch-thick glasses. Your car, totaled by his in the intersection. Your neck thrashed, senses stunned. He is opening his car door, that motherf----. So you’re both okay, considering. Someone else has called 9-1-1.
Gratefully, the county cop will understand all that happened in the intersection, in spite of the desperate driver’s wild claims. He is blaming you for having proceeded through your green light when he wanted to make a U-turn from the opposite direction; you “must have been speeding,” then “must have failed to give right-of-way.”
(You have already learned that the cops in your county are not like cops as-shown-on-TV then, early ‘90s; in your experience, they are careful and calm and compassionate. You live in a different state now, but you find the cops there are much the same. You think about how power-punishing some cops are out there, too, and they boil your blood as your culture’s time marches on, in 2021, but the ones you’ve had to interact with, even lately? Intent to protect and serve. Then you remember you are white, and female, and have always been so.)
But I digress. This cop gets out and surveys the scene, explains to the blind man that the skid marks clearly indicate she (you, the greenlit driver) had the right of way. (Then, as you sit in the back seat of his squad car, that cop asks quietly if you two had met at a party recently; you had not. Still, you pause to wonder What if we had met at a party recently? Or if I had just said, Maybe, instead? But time skips ahead with citations for the guy in the passenger seat and the offer of emergency care (both of us decline) and the planting of flares and the waiting for AAA. And as many years have passed since that collision, you can still picture the fine, unexpected breadth of the cop’s shoulders, and hear the fairness in his questions and tone. Time is a box of enduring tricks.)
Time actually does fly. Tempus fugit, as seen in the baby you knew as Joey, your 7th of 7 nieces and nephews, born just yesterday, now age 12 and taller than yourself.
It flies, as in nearly 2 years of global pandemic-time, when a month called April may have been not too long ago or eons ago, back in 2020.
Time blinks whenever you are writing like this, sprinkling little black marks onto a blank computer page. Or when dropping the tip of a Micron pen onto a 7 x 10 page of thick waterproof paper. Bringing something out of nothing. Nothing but the everything you are and might know and feel, or don’t know you know or feel. But there it is (something), outside of you now. A singularity, soon a universe. You don't make any more sense than time does.
Time blinks when you’re playing your guitar with a songbook from the late ‘70s or ‘90s or ‘30s, singing out, but not like the song did in its day, because you keep circling back to the chorus again, wailing some note longer than composed but that makes sense to you, and next thing you know it’s dark outside.
In the beginning, everything was dark nothingness, the story goes. The story, as told by poets and prophets or by scientists. Dark, and very very small.
Time is relative, as Einstein theorized, and a century since that theory has borne out its apparent truth. Time can dilate, if the relative speed of one clock/body is faster than that of another. Nothing can go faster than the speed of light – at least in our known physics, Halloween 2021 -- but light goes pretty darn fast.
They (poets, prophets and astrophysicists) all say time and space were once unified in an unimaginably dense singularity. Time, a 4th dimension to our living experience of all things spatial. All was one, “in the beginning.”
Though I’m really none-the-wiser about Physics, I’ve always loved trying to wrap my muffin around its concepts of the birth and death of everything we experience and wonder about. (A tidbit to tuck away for some Final Jeopardy answer: a Belgian, Catholic priest named Lemaître first theorized the expansion of the Universe, from a “primeval atom” to what we experience today. Another guy named Hoyle named Lemaître’s theory a “Big Bang,” intended as a slam, but the name, and in time, the theory, stuck.)
For a master’s program in the early ‘90s, I took a class called Science & Society, and heard again the general ‘timeline’ around the Big Bang. Something like ‘at 10 to the minus 42nd -power seconds, the Universe was infinitesimally tiny, and at a tiny fraction of a second later, say 10 to the positive 42nd -power seconds, it was the size of a grapefruit.’ (I paraphrase.)
Something fundamental had always stuck in my craw about those timelines, if once a singularity that then expanded.
So when our professor went through that initial bang-expansion of microseconds, minutes, hours, I raised my hand.
His forehead dropped.
(I ask a lot of questions.) (But not all the questions I want to ask.)
Anyway I asked, “If time and space were unified in that beginning, wouldn’t ‘10 to the minus 42nd power seconds’ mean something different than we understand that measure of time, now? I mean, how are we to understand that time expansion now, with space-time so … now-expanded? It seems to me that time wouldn’t be anything like our time, now, to make comparisons that way?”
(Just this morning I was reminded by Padraig O Tuama of an Irish phrase, “Why bother using one word when you can use 10?”)
Yet my professor got what I was asking. As he often responded to my pesky questions, “Have you been reading ahead?”
Was he joking? I was never sure.
“Oh. Are these answers in our textbook?” (I felt sheepish, having not read ahead.)
He laughed. “No, Mary. That textbook hasn’t been written yet. It’s a very good question.“
Okay. Then why are we still being taught in these incongruent terms? Shouldn’t the point be made, at least, as a disclaimer? 'Time now ain’t the same as time then'?
(I did not ask that. He looked tired.)
Years earlier, my 8th-grade English teacher showed us a specific film about time, as it turned out. Showing us that film seemed unusually important to her. Miss B. combined our class with another, so we watched in her crowded classroom-movie-theater. The French production of a story by American author Ambrose Bierce: “Occurrence at Owl Creek.”
We had no clue, beforehand, about this movie, only that Miss B. (who would, jarringly, over winter break, become Mrs. R.) was excited, even jazzed! that day.
The film started. A man was about to be hanged, in olden times. Like late-19th century.
Maybe he was a criminal of some kind, but we understood (from the camera’s focus) that he belonged to us, and we should care about him, not the executioners.
The noose fit over his head and around his neck. Then the bottom dropped out.
I wanted to shut my eyes. Some kids shrieked.
But -- the rope broke! It didn’t break his neck, to kill him – he was free! On the ground now.
Then a sustained sequence of chase and evasion and oh-no-will-he-make-it? scenes. Our guy, fleeing through the forest, now plunging into a creek or river, managing any number of life-threats, and we were so with him! You go now. We are all mysteriously free and alive!
(I paraphrase these visual memories. I was 12 or 13, decades ago.) Maybe 45 minutes into the film, he was going to make it home to his plot of land and little cottage, to his beloved, his long-separated and much-desired wife, and his darling children, grown bigger, whom he would greet and embrace—
Boom. The bottom dropped out, and he was hung.
He had not escaped. He was, suddenly, dead.
Whoa. (I remember that word, whispered all around the classroom, including my own mouth.) All that escapement and adventure to get back to his loves? “Just” the journey his heart and soul took, in the moments of his dying from the gallows’ rope.
Time had stretched out for him like – as I would learn later -- when we trip on a hidden tree root while hurrying through the woods.
Miss B./Mrs. R., thank you for managing to show us that French/American film when we were adolescents, when I was already so tuned-in to questions of life and living and death and dying.
(That tuning in – a brief word: since I was 8 years old, my father had tried to stop being alive, so many times, dozens of times? I wasn’t sure how many times, since most times the almost-dying was whispered or assumed, and I had no interest in keeping count. But the almost-dead of him was many, many times. So I had thought about living and dying a lot, by the time I was in 2nd-grade.)
What was time, anyway?
Who knows for sure. And that, a light-thrilling aspect of time, for this mortal.
Even now, even with Higgs-Boson, the “god particle,” measured inside a super-collider -- as if a next revelation could reveal all the answers. (But that was pretty cool, of humans, to have imagined, and then discovered, the Higgs-Boson particle in recent years. You just have to make things move really really fast.)
Like being dropped from gallows from a bridge at Owl Creek.
What might happen during the moment or moments of death? I’m in no rush to know the mysteries of that mystery. Yet it comforts me, to know that mystery will become an experience, my last experience of being alive.
Some people die very slowly, with a progressive-degenerative diagnosis. My cousin Rosie lived with MS for decades, unable to get out of bed for years before she died. My sister-in-law Page survived her first and other cancers for over 30 years, until her 5th (not mets, but different types altogether) took her life 8 years ago, almost to the day. My Uncle Vinnie was given 6 months with advanced colon cancer; he lived for 12 more months, and that “double” time felt like a gift, for all of us, and, not nearly enough. As my cousin Rebecca says, "a better man never lived."
Time, and Everything, is relative. My friend Shuster, a fellow actor in our union and frequent set-buddy (he said so very little, but he was so focused and dependable on set, and we always waved and smiled) went to the ER on a Sunday afternoon, into hospice on Monday, and died from melanoma later that night. I still wonder how much he knew beforehand, consciously or subconsciously. I still think of his parents, whom I never met, and how that 40-hour timeline, although not a “sudden death,” must have felt so.
Two weeks ago, I had the good fortune of spending a weekend with a gathered community of palliative-care folks, hospice folks, death-doula folks, unpaid caregivers, grieving survivors -- the death-care village who help a dying person, and that person’s people, navigate the end of a life, if that life has “time” at its end. The professionals and para-professionals and volunteers who help at the end of a life that always includes its denouement. (An English teacher’s way of saying ‘dying process.’)
This post will get darker very soon.
Before it fills with light, again, for us, Gentle Reader.
To take in a full breath first, maybe The Onion could help? https://www.theonion.com/world-death-rate-holding-steady-at-100-percent-1819564171
No one gets outta here alive. Of course. We all know this, however much we live with that self-knowing in mind, mindfully. I signed up late for the retreat, and took vacation days to hold my nose and jump off a deep end, knowing that I held grief, a ton of grief, not yet metabolized, however much therapeutic work I had already done in that regard.
To dedicate a long weekend with that suite of givers and grievers? Gave me the time and space and dimension to connect with a whole grief-town of my friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, classmates, who did NOT have time at their respective ends.
My beloveds who died so fast they never had a chance of palliative, hospice, death-doula or caregiving love from the likes of the wonderful people I weekended with.
No death-care team for an editor friend who died recently in a crosswalk, knocked down by a red-light-running bicyclist. She never regained consciousness.
None for the aunt or cousin who decided enough was enough, and whose suffering and ultimate decision they made to end that suffering? Decisions in the depths of suffering, I cannot judge as pathological. Nor for the cousin, with a brain seized by addiction, whose life ended, if unintentionally, from that long-standing human plague. Damn you, though, and straight to hell, the person who must have been with her, to administer the fatal dose, and then fled.
No death-care team for D-, who tied a cinder-block around his waist and jumped into the diving well in the middle of the night, at the pool where I lifeguarded between 10th and 11th grade. His grandmother had just died, and he felt no path forward for himself.
Or for 15-year-old Kelly, knocked 30 feet in the air by a drunk driver speeding around a curve, just before his brother and I drove up toward that curve, ourselves 16-17. The hospital said he would be “a vegetable,” which is how they used to talk in the late ‘70s, about humans in hospitals.
Or for Josephine (Joey), granddaughter of our family friend Kathy, just before her 7th birthday party. Shot full of AR-15 bullets in her classroom in Newtown, Connecticut. Along with her classmates, and their teacher. No possibility of reckoning sense for the young man whose mother procured his automatic weapons to kill more than Joey's one classroom-full at Sandy Hook Elementary, and f*&k you, all the system failures that made his murdering possible.
Or, years earlier, my coworker in the Charlottesville Woolco cosmetics department (we were both clueless about cosmetics, and unprepared for any advertised sale of Oil of Olay) and her best friend, hit head-on by a trucker who fell asleep.
Or the college friend who got carjacked and shot to death, a few years later, on a street in Baltimore.
Or my actor-nutritionist-yoga-teaching friend, assaulted and strangled on Christmas night in DC. For my friends who waited for her at that Christmas-night dinner, I have only hugs, no words.
Or my great good MFA-in-Writing friend, Jim Ferry, my best reader and questioner of the black marks I dropped onto a blank page; Jim, who begged me for details about my 'background' work on "Homicide: Life on the Streets," and who felt a headache coming on one morning in Montpelier, Vermont, then skipped lunch and died of a brain hemorrhage in his dorm, that same afternoon.
Or Richard, with whom I worked a temp-job (who specifically “gets” you because your band, like his own, had also just broken up, and because you both dug specific jazz albums – Richard would sneak up behind while I processed home-equity loans and place his Walkman headphones on my ears, and the surprise of his foam earpads instantly turned to joy from the sound of Ronnie Laws’ “Always There”) who got shot to death by a couple of adolescents with a pistol at a red light in DC, because he was playing music (reggae) those kids didn’t care for.
Or Jonathan, the casting associate that brought me back into film work with the NBC show called “Homicide: Life on the Streets” in the late ‘90s (“you’ve been a morgue tech before, right, Mary?” yep – thanks – need the work) himself maybe 27 years old and an avid lifelong swimmer, whose heart gave out one day at the pool, and left his new bride a widow.
Or your 27-year-old neighbor Paul, who died in his bed right across the street. From a stroke, after a short lifetime of sickle-cell disease, soon after you moved into your current neighborhood and soon after you started joking with young pharmacist Paul, about the futility of raking leaves. “You know you’ll just have to do it again tomorrow!” he’d shout. “Yeah, but there will be a little less to rake tomorrow.” You would laugh together. He would wave and keep walking to the Metro station. He died in his bed, one night.
Or your brother-in-law’s brother in a passenger seat in Iowa, thrown from an unlocked car door at a moment of impact, for whom your (7th of 7 niece or) nephew Joseph is named.
Or another brother-in-law, Pat, who boarded a DC Metro subway car to ride home after work, and never made it off that train alive; his heart-attack came a few years after the age his own father’s had, when Patrick was an infant. Your brother-in-law whose ashes, surreptitiously and after dark, his only surviving brother C. submerged into Lake Tahoe a few years ago. About which justifiable surreptitious and dark activity you shouted 'Huzzah!' when he shared that ashes part, 10 years after Pat died.
Or the daughter of dear work colleagues, so compromised up in her bedroom by smoke created by her husband (intentionally lit with strategically placed accelerant in the living room) who died with their two toddlers, who scrambled into her bed during an unexpected thunderstorm (even if her husband hadn’t planned on killing his children, too, he did, from smoke-inhalation, and then had the gall – and stupidity – to ask the emergency responders about the insurance money as soon as they arrived, before his self-made smoke had even cleared.)
The sheer tiny-ness of Gina’s kids’ coffins, at the memorial. You know you will never get over those tiny coffins, the very cells of your body will not, however they will try, even if the man will never leave prison, convicted of 3 consecutive life-terms without parole.
You know you are one of hundreds of mourners that day. And thousands of survivors who will never benefit from the lives and questions and wonders of those three who died during their sleep, overcome with carbon-monoxide, no time even to blink, get out of bed, throw open a window, or have a single chance.
No kind and compassionate death-care team exists for any of them. No one could get to them, with so little Time at hand.
You’re one of thousands of known friends who’ve also lost beloveds without warning. Without hospice or that kind of compassionate care.
One of millions of survivors of earthquakes, flash floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, mass murder, institutionalized murder/death penalties, asteroids, volcanic eruptions, landslides, mosquito-borne illnesses, other-borne illnesses, genetically predetermined short lifespans, traumatically determined shorter life.
Billions of mourners, over time on your meek yet mineral-rich planet … In a modest, expanded corner of a Universe that, story goes, once contained both space and time with all the other corners … Mourners who, in their specific time of some singular lifetime, had no time to say good-bye to a spouse who dropped to ground while hunting, with an animal horn or arrow through the chest, or who bled out after giving birth, before a surviving voyager returned ...
Or who ate the wrong mushroom in the woods, because it mimicked the edible kind.
Who had to say good-bye to an intimate who, although intubated and isolated, perished from a savvy microbial called SARS-CoV-2, alone and suffocated in a ward full of overwhelmed care-providers.
(If you're still with me, thank you, and I'm sorry. Things will lighten, with their own hopefulness, and soon.)
I sat there at this weekend retreat, among this compassionate and dedicated roomful of caring individuals, thinking more and more about the unprocessed grief I still carried in my very cells and bones. I trusted everyone in that room knew the same shock, the same no-time for someone, or many, they had known and loved.
These ways of dying, of course, aren’t binary. Shuster made it into hospice care and his pain was treated, his hand was likely held, even though his life carried him only a matter of hours further.
My step-dad stopped his cancer treatment after one round, making the decision to live a shorter life but a life awake-and-alive, able to reconnect and have conversations, at Stage 4/Grade 3. He had some time to decide to have less time, and make that time meaningful. I will admire and thank him forever, for that choice. I hope, if I have any time, I will make such a decision in time.
Gentle readers, I know this is heavy stuff. Thank you for sticking with me here. All this, the sturm und drang of remembering sudden losses, found orbits around me at the retreat.
On the final morning, we were asked to offer, if we could, the impact of the weekend’s exercises and discussions from the past few days. Several people spoke up, giving powerful testimony to the impact of thinking, directly and honestly, about life and death.
I listened, and loved them all for speaking up.
The weight of my – of anyone's - expanding history of grief can’t be measured in seconds, minutes, eons, pounds or tons. That weight might pull our planet out of its orbit, if grief had mass and acceleration.
Nope – trajectory set. Prepare for impact. No aiming away from the rocks or twigs or bullets or malignancies or existential suffering or mental illness that will puncture organic systems, mere forearms, or inspire streams of blood on a path of dirt in the woods or a tiled floor in a classroom in Connecticut, or a red light in Baltimore or DC or a suburb of Pittsburgh ...
All these time-sensitive protagonists, stars in their own movies, most of whom died young. I used to try to make sense of this.
Not any more; there’s no sense to it. There’s no big learning here. There’s just (just!) all the love and loss and longing and blown-apart hole in the hearts of anyone who loved anyone, gone without TIME. Anyone who has to learn to love the rest of a life so that life grows around that hole, and blooms in its own, time-forsaken way. Meaning all of us who are not dead yet. (And who knows, maybe all of those are dead yet, too. I'm none-the-wiser about the afterlife!)
Who knows how long a life any of us will feel and smell and see and touch and hear and sense, if we’re fortunate to experience any of that?
Time makes no sense. Stretches out and messes with your head. And, time might just bestow unexpected gifts. It also occurred to me, in the midst of all those wonderful folks, that the way Time stretches out, might just – might offer another dimension.
The possibility that "sudden death" takes its time, too, for that person dying. If the speed at which a moment of life or death might rev up – to what sci-fi calls ‘warp speed’ -- approaches the speed of light (so many consistent stories of going through a tunnel toward light, 'near-death') ...
MAYBE all these beloveds did have time to make it home, to say good-bye, to let go.
As I tried to articulate this, the Owl Creek movie popped up from its 8th-grade pouch. I had not remembered it, since that crowded classroom.
"Like the noose around the guy's neck in that French movie?" I tried to describe it all, how he'd escaped and evaded and made it to his home acre -- and then was hung.
When our speed of life – relative to any other, however far away in space or time – moves relatively MUCH MUCH faster than living beings? Maybe.
Maybe however gradual or sudden our own deaths turn out to be, maybe we all have time, because time will not be the same to us, as we experience time now.
We all, each of us, come from away. From way, way far away, in space and time, so the story goes. We can imagine feeling the everything, the everything that includes love and how love includes the everything, including the dark and the letting-be the light.
Tonight, I have encouraged the following small creatures to take multiple pieces of Costco-bagged chocolate: princess; robot; gypsy; unicorn; spiderman; captain-america; dog; cat; mouse; another unicorn; another spiderman; mystery soothsayerman; mystery cartoongirl; mystery parent of cartoongirl; mystery parent of mystery animal. Some of them point to the dia de los muertos skull on my front door. It sparkles and glitters, and all these creatures, great and small, don't look scared by it.
Here’s to the unified Time and Space we might yet have together on this tilted planet, dear Readers, and to the time we might have after we go really really fast, someday, into light,
and if you aren't familiar with Ronnie Laws and his seminal "Always There" just dig if you will this live performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImWHXk72EIo