An Epiphany on Time, and Loss

Prologue

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.

Peace.

Random Thoughts on Time -or- Damnit, I’m Not Done Yet!

I have another birthday coming up. They seem to come closer together as I get older. And I can’t help but reflect more on what age has brought, beyond the obvious grey hairs (where I still have hair). I’m not even 60 yet, but I feel … old. Events going on around me add to that. The historians at the Charles Babbage Institute decided I was old enough to have my oral history collected, along with computing pioneers who have retired and died. And several organizations have — with good intent — recognized me with “Lifetime Achievement” awards. I protest that I don’t think I’m finished yet…there is more I hope to do. But it does not change the feeling that so many people think I am nearing the end. And that rubs off a bit.

With age, things change. Where once there were visions of unlimited potential, time brings a sense of limitations and finiteness. Where youth provided a sense of unlimited potential for friends and love, age brings a sense of friends lost and limits on who would want to start any non-trivial relationship with someone no longer young. Many, many things no longer seem feasible. Where did all that potential go?

Books I knew I wanted to read “someday” pile up, and I have no time to read. Places I wanted to visit remain unvisited amidst a hectic schedule and a world that seems somehow less safe for travel. Skills I wanted to master, great deeds I wanted to accomplish…all now seem beyond my reach. Some days, the biggest goal I have is getting through a day with matching socks and no compulsion to take a nap!

Age and experience often bring wisdom and insight (but obviously, not always). Youth is brash, but age can temper action. Sometimes, that’s viewed as conservatism and undue caution, and sometimes it may be…but that is often judged through the filter of impatient youth. And that sometimes creates a gulf that isn’t easily bridged, if even recognized. Some of my students listen politely at things I say, then promptly ignore them; my daughter doesn’t even listen politely. If any of those young people remember what was said, decades from now, they may get that funny déjà vu sensation. A few may suddenly realize that the old guy had some idea what he was talking about. Trying to bridge the gap of years and perspective to pass along hard-fought wisdom isn’t easy…but it almost always takes years to realize its value.

There is an ongoing sense of discovery in all this. Over the last few weeks, I have noted many of my students grousing about the weather — about how it has never been so bad. I recall bad weather 20, 30, 40 years back that was as bad — or worse — than this. To me, it is unusual but not unprecedented. Most of them were not even born yet. Comments about geopolitical issues, people around us, even “new” trendy items all don’t seem so new or surprising to me because of the benefit of a long perspective. Perhaps that difference in perceived surprise is valuable. Perhaps not. Sometimes, having a sense of newness is a good thing.

As a professor, I see more of this in a somewhat odd way. Every year, the new students are the same age, but I find the stairs a little steeper. The men look like the ones I used to study with as a student, and the woman look like the ones (I wished) I dated but never had the courage to ask. None of them seem to be aware of things I think are fundamental: they know little of history, of literature, of Monty Python routines. They have not seen the movies that moved me, nor know the lyrics of the anthems of my youth. Some of my peers view this phenomenon as callow ignorance; I recognize it simply as a different set of choices executed over their finite time to date. Still, it is a struggle to avoid a sense of judgement about those choices — I clearly never had such banal and trite pursuits when I was their age! 🙂

Sigh. They are all so young. It is difficult to conceive of how the time passes, especially as I continue to age while most around me do not. However, my profession also provides a means of touching a future I know I won’t see, because my influence here as a professor will extend for many years after I am no longer around to exert it.

Ultimately, aging occurs, and I simply hope I can maintain my capacity to reason. Memory sometimes fades, but oddly, some of the most painful memories never completely recede. Thankfully, neither do some of the most joyous. Another birthday? Bring it on. It means another year of experience that few will value, but that does not mean I will stop valuing it, for me. And what I will celebrate is not another year for me, but the friends I had, the friends I have, and the friends I might possibly still make.

A few of the many apropos quotes found online:


“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring


“It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”

George Harrison


“They say time heals all wounds, but that presumes the source of the grief is finite”

Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Prince


“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince


“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”

― Dr. Seuss


“Time takes it all, whether you want it to or not.”

Stephen King, The Green Mile


And from one of my favorite songwriters and a great song about getting older:

“Can’t pretend that growing older never hurts!”

Pete Townshend lyrics in the song “Slit Skirts

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