95: The Hourglass

95: The Hourglass

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

The Hourglass

You must have been warned against letting the golden hours slip by; but some of them are golden only because we let them slip by.

~J.M. Barrie

I was raised in New York, but I was a child out of sync with a city that moved at manic speed. “Hurry up, Deirdre” might have been my name. I was not slow, indeed I was one of the fastest on the track team, but I was easily distracted by life’s incidental moments. The cooing of pigeons would draw me away from tying my shoe and toward the preening birds on my window ledge. On my way to school, I’d get so wrapped up in a conversation I was overhearing on the crowded L train that I’d miss my stop. I could sit on my building stoop and find a hundred things to absorb me: the line of ants making their way across the cement; an old, stooped woman pushing a cart with her scruffy dog at her side. People thought my head was in the clouds; I was considered spacey, but actually my mind was preoccupied — not by dreams or clouds — but by the minute details of ordinary life.

And then I grew up. At twenty-two I learned a lesson: “Time is money” said one of my first bosses. Time could not be wasted on gazing at patterns of light on the ceiling, or idle chitchat in the employee kitchen. I could no longer linger on my way to work to watch the shrieking kids run through the sprinklers, nor stop to converse with Mrs. Timoney on her way to church. Time is money and money pays the bills.

I was forced to conform to the rules of the land of responsible adults. Focus on your goals; make lists; get things accomplished. Subway rides were now opportunities to regroup and make to-do lists: “pay gas bill ASAP,” “fax Mr. Gruen.”

Getting married meant lists for me — and lists for him. I devised a system (thanks to yellow sticky notes) to keep order in my household. “I love you,” I posted on the bathroom mirror smack in the center for my husband to see as he shaved, “and please remember to take the cat to the vet.” Nothing would ever be forgotten.

Children came along and then technology. My lists that had once been on colorful Post-its all over the house could now be organized in my computer and phone. A “bing” would alert me to a parent-teacher conference, an orthodontist appointment, or a deadline at work.

When my father got sick, the list became three-tiered as “Parents” were added. Bing! “Bring Dad to the VA hospital for blood work.” Bing! “Hire a housekeeper.” Flying back and forth from Los Angeles to New York took more structuring of time. And dragging a toddler around with an elderly man in a wheelchair took some maneuvering on the streets of Manhattan.

When my dad died suddenly after a perfectly non-eventful hip surgery, life could not slow down. Mourning a father I loved so dearly and yet having children to look after and a mother who was beyond sad left me putting aside my own grief for a more convenient time. More lists were made. I felt satisfaction in getting my son to the asthma specialist, writing and mailing thank you cards, paying the hospital bills, picking up Mom’s medication and burying my father, all in a timely manner.

The day before I was to return home to Los Angles and my neatly scheduled life, I awoke at 4 a.m. to hear my mother mumbling in the living room.

“Mom? What are you doing?”

She was sitting on the couch holding two remotes in her hand, confused.

“I can’t seem to turn off the DVD player. See, the little light is still on.”

“It’s 4 a.m.”

“Your father always turned it off before going to bed. He always did.”

“It doesn’t matter, Mom.”

I did not recognize at the time that her respect for my father’s rules — however insignificant to me — was a way to keep things the way they’d always been, a way to deny that my dad was dead.

She sighed and put the remotes down. Life and DVD remotes were too much for her now.

“Sit down, Deirdre.” She lifted her hand to mine.

“Mom, I’m so tired.”

“How about if I make us some tea?” she suggested.

When I was a child, my mother would make us tea. It tasted so good because of all the milk and sugar, combined with the feeling of being taken care of. I wanted that now; I wanted a mom who could make all the decisions. But I could not allow myself to say yes, because in two and a half hours my toddler son would be up and the day would be long and — as I quickly calculated in my head — the shuttle to the airport would be coming at nine, I’d have to take him out to run in the playground beforehand, and there was a layover in Chicago. Could I finish my work and entertain a two-year-old at O’Hare?

“Tomorrow Mom, I promise.”

I went to bed, but she did not. She sat on the couch, the remotes again in her hands.

The time for me to sit down with my mom did not come. The next day, my mother did not get up. What had gone unnoticed while my father was dying was my mother’s weakening lungs from a prior illness. I pushed her in the same wheelchair my father had used, with my son toddling beside me, to the hospital, where the doctor whispered not unkindly in my ear, “I don’t think your mother will be leaving the hospital.”

“Not ever?” I asked, not comprehending.

My mother died three weeks after my father.

Now, almost six years later I am haunted by her words, “Sit down, Deirdre.”

I regret not sitting down on the lumpy couch beside my mom, I regret not taking her slim, fragile hand in my own, I regret not waiting with her and watching the darkness move into the pale of the morning. And I regret not asking her all the questions I’d been saving to ask when time permitted. For time is elusive. And moments only come and go and then… they’re gone forever.

The days are still hectic. I still make my lists, but now I take time to examine the tide pools at the beach, to pause from my work and listen to my daughter’s story for the umpteenth time, to try and understand what my son is speaking about when he talks about Avatar and the difference between an Earthbender and a Waterbender, and to spend time in the garden… simply watching the butterflies dance. Time is not money. Time is life itself.

~Deirdre Higgins

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