Time can do all sorts of things. It’s almost like a magician. It can turn autumn into spring and babies into children, seeds into flowers and tadpoles into frogs, caterpillars into cocoons and cocoons into butterflies. And life into death. There’s nothing that time can’t do. Except run backwards. That’s its trouble really, it can only go one way. Alex Shearer, The Stolen
Senior year of high school. No boyfriend. College beckoning. A tight-knit group of seven friends – two couples, three singles. A mediocre high school replete with bored teachers. Time creeps. Days blending together, hard to distinguish from the one before. Eager, desperate even, to launch into the world, you spend too many nights at home reading and listening Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty on replay. “Another year and then you’d be happy. Just one more year and then you’d be happy …”
College. Four glorious years full of triumphs and tragedies. Falling in love and right back out again. Forging life-long bonds and indelible memories. Time passes determinedly. Because your stay here is finite, you live intensely, trading sleep and grades (sometimes) for dates, parties, late night talks, knowing these magical days will never come again.
Adulthood. First job. Marriage. More jobs. A baby boy. A consulting practice. A baby girl. A puppy who chews your favorite pair of clogs and poops behind the couch when you take your eye off him. Volunteering in the kids’ preschools and classrooms. Serving on nonprofit boards. Weekly Toastmasters and then Rotary Club meetings. Time compresses, races. Forever in short supply, you sacrifice sleep, exercise, time with friends to keep up with your calendar, to keep doing it all.
The diagnosis. The words “Your son has a brain tumor” stops time. The world upends and a parallel universe of “Families Whose Children Have Cancer” appears. A place where where kids get sick, endure horrific treatments, suffer side effects and long term damage, spend weeks in the hospital and sometimes die. Somewhere you never, ever wanted to go and have no idea how to navigate. What seemed important the week before falls away. Now there are only your essential people, time with them and finding the next treatment option. Living intensely between three-month scans. Sucking every bit of juice out of life. You learn to love the ordinary days, as you mourn what is lost and savor what remains.
The final weeks. Time crawls. Everyone on Jimmy’s list either comes to the house or connects on FaceTime. The hours he’s awake sparkle with intensity now that you know his days are numbered. You try to slow the minutes down even more, desperately hoping to fend off the inevitable. Friends bring food, run errands, walk the dog, pick up your Mom at the train station. Like college, you sleep as little as possible, not wanting to miss anything, held up by the fierce love of people who refuse to lean out or look away.
The aftermath. Endless gray winter days. Driving Molly to and from school and softball practice impose the only routine you and your husband Dan have. You become Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth – no matter where you are, you long to be somewhere else. Running into someone in the grocery story who knows Jimmy has died is like walking into a razor. Everything they say, no matter how well-meaning, cuts deeply. You’re grateful for the ones who blurt out “I’m so sorry” and change the subject and the ones who avoid you altogether. Time ticks by. You don’t care.
The easing. As the months and years march on, the color returns. Time moves more freely, fluidly. You learn to navigate the worst moments when a song, a photo, the scene from a movie still paralyze you with grief. You will forever be greedy for more days, more hours with your sweet son. Yet, as Anne Lamott says, all truth is paradox. Jimmy’s death has shattered you, and you would do it all over again just to have the 21 years you had with him. Despite not being able to go backwards, as it moves forward, time is giving you back more and more memories. Nursing Jimmy in the rocking chair in the middle of the night. Finding him jumping up and down in his crib after a nap. Watching him race off to play with his friends at all ages. Reading Goodnight Moon, A Cricket in Times Square, Harry Potter by the light of his Paddington lamp. Smelling the “Phoenix” AXE body wash he wore as a teenager or the Bath & Body Works orange+ginger hand lotion he began using after the chemotherapy made his skin dry. Hearing him say “I love you. Hugs and kisses and high fives.” The beauty of this time is yours forever. You need only pause, close your eyes and invite it in.