An Epiphany on Time, and Loss


15-20 years ago, I wrote a regular series of essays, mostly on my travels, but occasionally on other items. These were shared via a mailing list — this was waaay before blogs came on the scene. I have them buried on my WWW site, but not many people search them out. I may repost a few here over the next few months.

Most of those essays were intended to be humorous, and a few might actually have been so. One in particular was not. I haven’t slept well the last few nights, and for some reason, I remembered this particular post last night as I lay awake around 3:30. Perhaps it was because my sister’s birthday was this weekend. I don’t get to see her very often, which is unfortunate, because she’s a wonderful person. I didn’t appreciate her that much when we were growing up, but time gives new perspectives. That is what this essay was about, written in early 2000, about something that happened in 1978.

The Story

I used a word last night in some email I don’t use very often: epiphany. One dictionary definition of the word is “A comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.” Yeah, that is a good definition. There are times in our lives where some encounter or experience gives us a realization of something that forever alters our view of reality. Sometimes they are sad moments, as when you realize that your parents may be fallible, or you really comprehend that death occurs to everyone — even those you love. Sometimes it is exciting and opens new vistas: the first time I really recognized that girls were different in a nice kind of way, for instance, or the first time I rode my bike without training wheels (I’m not sure which occurred first :-). The moments don’t have to include huge events or grand revelations, so long as they reveal something of reality.

I had the strangest flashback today. I have absolutely no idea what triggered it, but it was of an epiphany of mine back in about 1978. And it has enduring influence today, more than 20 years later.

I had this friend named Mark. I haven’t heard from him in almost a decade — he stopped responding to my email and letters at some point. Not that I blame him for that, because we haven’t seen each other in maybe 15 years, and there is little in common there now but memories of a time when we were much younger and saw each other regularly. Life manages to be full as it is, and the days pass.

Mark was in my classes from at least 4th grade on. We found we had the same birthday, so that gave us an immediate bond of sorts. And we also discovered that we had offbeat senses of humor, and were a little quicker on the uptake than most of the other kids in our classes. So we hit it off. I have a picture of Mark and me in the playground in 4th grade with our arms around each other. Buddies.

So, as the years went by, Mark and I found ourselves in many of the same classes. We were in Cub Scouts together, then Boy Scouts. We shared some of the same clubs and interests. And in our senior year in high school, we ended up as two of the five officers of the student council. We weren’t the best of friends (I was too much of the nerd for anybody reasonable to want that), but we were friends, and often hung out together. After graduation, Mark and I sometimes went out to bars together, or ran into each other at parties. (To make things especially interesting, Mark’s brother-in-law became my academic advisor years later when I was an undergrad at SUNY Brockport, and I still keep in touch with him!) Mark and I kept up our casual ties even after I left for grad school — we’d visit when I returned home, and together we planned our high school class’s 10th year reunion. After that, the time and distance gradually eroded the ties that had bound us together.

Anyhow, Mark came from a family with several brothers and sisters. They were all smart, funny people (as were their parents). Almost all the kids in the family had red hair, which was especially amusing and opened them all up for teasing. I didn’t often visit their house, but a few times when I did, I recall that we often were shadowed by his younger sister, Beth (something little brothers and sisters often do). Beth was several years younger than Mark, and had freckles. I remember her as a little kid who was skinny and a bit of a tomboy. I vaguely recall that we would tease her about her freckles, or being skinny, or sometimes simply tease her about her blonde hair (the other kids in her family had red hair, as I noted above). Our teasing wasn’t really mean — we liked her, but it was our job to tease her (I was a big brother, too, so I understood the role). It was clear she was disappointed and maybe a little hurt, but I don’t think it really made a big impression on us; every elder sibling probably knows the scenario.

As time went on, and as Mark and I were finishing high school, we all had different social groups and I am certain several years went by before I saw Beth next. In fact, I think it was several years later after Mark and I had graduated from high school. We were both attending college in the area, and I recall stopping by to see him one weekend.

The small moments when life changes occur often seem innocuous at the time, but are preternaturally clear in memory. I recall being somewhat preoccupied as I walked to the door and rang the bell. The person who answered the door took me completely by surprise. She was tall, with beautiful blonde hair. An awesome smile. Such cute freckles and a lovely complexion. And at about 19 years of age, she was lithe and extremely lovely to behold — and in her halter top and shorts, I definitely beheld. I am sure I was awestruck, and a little embarrassed as I realized — this was Beth, the “little” girl we used to tease and ignore. Now, she was absolutely stunning. I now knew what I wanted Santa to bring me for Christmas. 🙂

I croaked something inane like “Hello. I haven’t seen you in a long while.” She said something nice in return, laughed gently at some lame joke of mine, and called Mark. I’m sure she could tell how flustered I was (I didn’t hide it well), and I hope she found it amusing — and a little payback for some of the teasing she had endured in previous years. I don’t remember now why I was visiting Mark, but I do recall saying something like “Beth has really grown up.” His response: “I guess so. I haven’t noticed.”

The encounter gave me several things to think about in a new way, and I actually remember spending time mulling them over. I was initially incredulous that he didn’t notice the transformation. Then I looked around me and I was transformed, too.

The event was an epiphany on several levels. First, although I had frequently seen caterpillars turn into butterflies, it had never really sunk in — viscerally — that it could apply elsewhere. (Of course, sometimes the change is not in the caterpillar but in the observer!) I have had it reinforced time and again that judgements based on surface impressions sometimes miss the changes that time can make. I have tried ever since to not fall victim to those first impressions. How much different our lives would have been as children had we all known that at an early age! And how different the world could be if we all understood that now as adults…..

The second was the awareness that sometimes you get so close to a person or situation for so long, you don’t notice the slow changes that occur because they are so subtle. In the same time that Beth had blossomed, my own sister had gone from a little kid to a lovely, mature woman and I had barely noticed the change. My parents had grown older and developed grey hair and I didn’t really see the differences. I remember spending several days thereafter looking at the familiar things around me, and trying to see them with “new eyes.” It is something I try to do periodically to this day. We should never get so comfortable with the world around us that we cease to really notice the changes that are occurring.

I’ve had some of the same sense of revelation since then. I especially used to notice it when I would return to the house where I grew up, when my parents still lived there (my father sold the house and moved in 1997 after my mother died). I would notice the trees. They had the same placement as in my memory, but I remembered them as trees from 20 years before when I would see them each day and not really notice them. Now, they are taller and fuller. In my later visits, there was a visual dissonance that made me understand that I was not quite “home” as I recalled it.

In particular, I remember while growing up that every day I would sit at the kitchen table and eat meals while looking out the window. Several houses away were some tall trees with a notable fan shape to the branches at the top. I would watch them sway in spring winds, birds nest in them in the summer, leaves turn golden and drop in autumn, and snow encase them in winter. They were as familiar to me as the faces of my family.

In 1997, when I helped my father pack to move, I remember sitting in the kitchen and looking at those trees. They had grown so much taller (as had I) that I could no longer see the tops from where I sat. And when I went to the window to look out, I noticed some branches missing from what I remembered, where maybe age and ice had taken a toll (on the branches — not on my memory). I sometimes still see those trees in my dreams, as I sit at the table with my parents and sister, a young boy of 8 or so unaware of what time could — and would — do to us all.

The lesson of time is one that we seem loathe to learn, but is fundamental to understanding our lives. I see my daughter at 7 and wish I could hold her again at 5, and 3 and the day she was born. It is the magic of time that is slowing turning her from fuzzy duckling into swan, and all too soon she will be writing of her realization that her dotty old dad is getting on in years. How I wish I could stop the clock for even a few days!

Postscript, 2000

I don’t recall that I ever saw Beth again. Sadly, she died several years ago from aggressive breast cancer — a tragic loss. But I recall that small, revelatory role she played in my life, and although I haven’t remembered that moment in over a decade, it certainly had a major effect on me. I wish she were around now so I could tell her….I think she would find it amusing. (And if the mood strikes you, you can make a donation to fight breast cancer at the American Cancer Society site.)

By setting down this story, maybe it can play a role in your life. Embrace the moment, and embrace those around you. Time moves with stealth, and the present becomes the past, often without our notice. Our memories are the only way for us to travel in time, so ensure yours are full of happy times with those you care about.

Postscript, 2014

My dream last night was of those trees outside the kitchen window. In that dream, I returned to visit, and the trees were gone. I wonder what that meant?

In the time since 2000, I have lost my father and my uncle, and I am one of the last of my generation in the family. I wish I could return to a time to see them again, and listen to some of their stories, especially the ones I can’t quite remember now.

I wrote about how I wish I could hold my daughter at 7, and at 5; now she is nearly 21, and has transformed beautifully as did her aunt. I still wish I could embrace that 5 year-old at times, though.

And as I look in the mirror, I seem the same as I have every day, but to look in a picture from 2000, or 1987, or when I graduated from high school in 1974, and time has definitely taken its toll.

Embrace those around you. Time is fleeting, but memories are a great treasure.


Remembering Spaf

With a birthday coming up, and several friends having recently passed on (e.g., been dereferenced), I thought maybe I should write up my obituary for future use. After all, I know my story better than anyone else! So, feel free to use this when the need arises.

And if you have any missing bits to fill in, send them to me — I’ll update this in place.

This is not quite to this level of awesome or to this or to this but I may have a few weeks yet to get there.

Original post 3/14/12; Last update 2016-08-28.

Eugene H. Spafford, noted curmudgeon, died on <date>. If Spafford’s last wishes were honored the medical examiner will officially list the cause of death as “Jello, while interacting with Bambi and Trixie, two performers with Cirque de Soleil, and their pet llama, Julio” — not because it bears even a remote resemblance to the truth, but because it will provide more lulz on Wikipedia.

Although many people believed he was an alien being (after all, the definition of “human” can only stretch so far), Spafford was born in western New York State to poor but proud parents. His birth changed their lives: they continued to be poor, but were never proud again. Two years later, his sister was born, thereafter affectionately referred to by their parents as “our only child.”

Spafford had a largely unremarkable childhood, frequently spending time as the neighbors’ imaginary friend. His parents took him and his sister to many notable and historic places around the country, but unwary strangers would invariably untie him and he would find his way home. In later years he was known to recount some of the happiest moments of his childhood such as having other children finally talk to him (5th grade), and first being allowed to play in the yard without his leash (7th grade).

By the time he had reached high school, he had shown unusual talent for math, science, composition, and getting beaten up for having unusual talent for math, science, and composition. Nonetheless, he was named as “school mascot” by acclamation for several years running — until the other students found that despite this status, they could not get him thrown on the bonfire at other schools before football games. It was in high school that he got the nickname “Spaf,” in part because no one bothered to learn his first name.

It was in high school that Spaf discovered girls. Actually, he had known about them for some time, but it was at this time that he first discovered that the majority of them did not actually have cooties. His attempts to be noticed by the women around him usually succeeded, but only accompanied by finger-pointing and derisive laughter…a pattern that continued through the rest of his life. He fell in love at least twice, but the objects of his interest generally did not return his affections because they had taste and standards and nearly normal vision…another long-standing pattern.

Upon graduation from high school, Spafford took a few years off school to work to support his family. At least, that is what he always claimed, and the court records are sealed.

Then, Spafford returned to school and completed his undergraduate degrees at SUNY Brockport in 3 years of classes, probably because the faculty voted to resign if he stayed for 4. He awoke in another state after his graduation party, with a note from his family pinned to his clothing, written in crayon, wishing him luck in Atlanta, where they had arranged for him to be admitted. Much to their dismay, “The Ramblin Wreck” was a university and not a psychiatric hospital (although, frankly, that wasn’t always obvious). Thus, he attended grad school at Georgia Tech, where he again showed an unusual talent for math and science, as well as amazingly poor luck with females of any species, living or dead. After outlasting a department head, dean, two presidents of the university, and several roommates, a clerical error resulted in him getting a Ph.D. despite no faculty member actually serving as his advisor (NB. almost true!).

As a condition of his immediate and permanent departure, local officials used a rumor of a large trust fund and vast quantities of tequila to introduce a young woman to Spaf, despite her reluctance to date outside her species. After a period of deception, and prolonged hypnotherapy, they were married.  (This artifice lasted for nearly 3 decades, but the hypnotherapy finally wore off, she discovered there was no trust fund, and they divorced. Their union did result in one outstanding child; his wife insisted there would be no more, however, because she did not want to endure the trauma and the shame a second time.  She, of course, was referring not to childbirth, but to the conception.)

After a short post doc while his thesis committee waited to ensure that the checks cleared, Spafford moved out of state and was hired by Purdue University in 1987 before the stories (and authorities) caught up with him. He spent the remainder of his career there, trying (in vain) to get people to behave nicely online, be kind to each other, and to adopt wearing of bow ties. When informed of his passing, his Purdue colleagues (those who didn’t respond “Who?”) began to chuckle — no doubt from fond and amusing memories, although the mutterings of “At last!” did seem a little fervent.

Noted for his work in security (primarily as a risk), Spafford was frequently asked to travel long distances to speak — usually requested by whomever was in his near vicinity at the time. A talented programmer as well as researcher, he wrote many large software systems that, (perhaps) regrettably, are in languages for which no compiler or manual exists. This matched his propensity for giving presentations that were in languages unfamiliar to his audiences…and humans, in general. He helped scores of students get their Ph.Ds. — usually by serving as an example of what not to do. He received several “lifetime achievement” awards from professional societies in not so subtle attempts to get him to retire immediately and go away.

It was often observed that Spafford didn’t pay attention to boundaries and frequently crossed them…this was usually noted by others when talking about the fine line between genius and insanity, although it was usually vague on which side he was being placed.

In later years, he had medical issues that interfered with his work. Doctors, when not performing unsanctioned experiments on him, conjectured that it was all side-effects of the frequent alien abductions (performed on him, not by him). Consulting veterinarians were similarly puzzled, both by etiology and his species. The diagnoses were all different, but the recommended treatment was always the same: lobotomy. This was never done, because the insurance company refused to cover it, despite the frequent and generous offers of family and colleagues to take up a collection.

Spafford had a near encyclopedic knowledge of useless trivia, bad jokes, and stupid movie plot lines that he often shared spontaneously — this led to him spending a great deal of “alone time.” Besides his hobbies online, he enjoyed gardening, good whiskey, and target shooting — which might explain many missing neighborhood pets and the vigorous growth of the tulips in the back yard. As a lover, he was known to make women swoon…or would have been known, had any of them overcome the nausea at the thought so as to assent. And, he is memorialized in several dictionaries: the words “athlete” and “Spafford” are found together… usually in a sentence under “cognitive dissonance.”

In his final years, Spafford spent a lot of time reminiscing about his childhood as an imaginary friend, and wondering what his life would have been like had be been born human.

In accordance with his wishes, his remains have been freeze-dried, adorned with a bow tie, and mailed to a random address as one last bad joke. He is survived by a daughter, sister, niece, nephews, the contents of several petri dishes with biohazard labels on board some UFOs, and basically everyone who is reading this. I mean, you can’t read this if you didn’t survive, right?

Donations can be made … oh, who are we fooling? Just go blow the money on chocolate and a good whisky.

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