Sunday, May 20, 2012

Eighty-Four Years

Last week I listened to a woman named Karen give a three-minute speech about her experiences in our leadership class. She talked about how quickly our twenty weeks together have gone by, and how fleeting life is. One minute your child is two, she said, and the next he’s grown up and gone away. Her own three children are grown and gone. I thought of my younger child, my four-year-old, and while I appreciated Karen’s sentiment, the prospect of my son going to middle school, let alone leaving home, seemed distant.

Then Karen’s eyes grew moist, and she said that during the course of our class, her uncle died. And before he died, he said, “I never thought eighty-four years would pass so fast.”

Instantly I was with him—this man I never knew—on his deathbed, feeling his incredulity, seized suddenly with the sensation that it’s inconceivable that his life has all passed by, that this is all there is. How many times I have felt this myself at various stages in my life? It’s the same sense of I-will-never-get-through-my-newborn’s-first-year-of-life or I-will-never-finish-writing-my-book or even this-leadership-class-will-never-end—that interminable stretch of time during that goes on and on—and then the stunned disbelief when it’s all over, and you don’t quite see how it all went by so fast. The stages of our life—childhood, college, children—pass this way, and, as the story of Karen’s uncle reminded me, so does our entire life. How is it paradoxically forever and fleeting? How do eighty-four years go by so fast?

Karen finished her speech. Be present, she said in closing. Be present: that simplest and most difficult task of all.

Every day a moment comes when I think, almost in a panic—what am I doing? I should be writing! Instead, I’m building a nuclear power plant out of blocks, reading Traction Man aloud for the tenth time, setting out finger paints and mopping up spills. I should be writing, I think, but instead I am doing this. And then I have to tell myself: there will be time. He is four for only a year. Soon, so soon, he will go to school. Soon, so soon, he will be gone away. There will be time. I take a breath and say it to myself again. I focus on the pumpkin seedling cupped in his hands, poised for planting in the earth. I focus on his eyes looking up at me for guidance, asking me what is to come next in his mysteriously unfolding life. There will be time. And if it turns out there isn’t, I hope at least I will have done this well—this long and tender holding of my child's hand.

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