Monday, October 27, 2014

Time Lapses

After my mother died, I kept thinking about time. When she was sick, there were predictable thoughts -- precious time, wasted time, good times & bad, being cheated of time, how much time she lived and how long she suffered in illness.

But after she died, I more often thought about time as it works as a dimension. Time, sometimes called the 4th dimension, locates a specific event as it occurs in a specific location.  After she died, that's the time I wanted to understand.

I've long tracked my own history by location, e.g, if it was when I lived in New Mexico the first time, it must have been 2006.  Because of my many moves, my timeline is easily tied to longitude and latitude. Many of those locations I have repeated.

In The Moviegoer, Walker Percy writes about the pleasure of repetitions separated by time.  In his character's formula, a repetition is "the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle." When I moved back to a location, it was often with the (mistaken) belief that the peanuts would be gone this time.  And, of course, it was never like that -- life is always throwing peanuts at you, no matter how many times you leave and return, a point that I'd been rather slow to learn.

During my mother's illness, time's looming presence for all our family was largely tracked by her life, with markers for key moments such as diagnosis, first surgery, chemos, remission, recurrence, emergency surgeries, hospice, death.  And we chronicled the first of every event after her death, as in, all the things she missed, all the times and places when and where we missed her.

But if time is just a portion of the equation of locating a person in a spacetime, I reasoned that it seemed like just one measly layer, one that if you could just peel through it a bit, you could see everything and everyone that had ever been there in that location throughout time, and see them clearly. Think time-lapse films, where the plant germinates, grows, blossoms, withers and dies.  Everything is there on the film, all happening all at once; it's just where you choose to play the film that gives you what you want to see.  

In the refashioning of history and relationships that happens when one party is no longer there to refute them, I found my mother everywhere. There were remnants of her in the places she frequented, in every object she touched, even in the way she appeared in dreams, as dream time seems the most permeable to changing the physics of time, a loophole or wormhole or what-have-you.

In Bill Bryson's book A Short History of Nearly Everything, he talks about the dispersal of durable atoms over time and points out that we all may have a little bit of Shakespeare in us (o happy writers!), as those freewheeling atoms have been circling about for long enough that some may have found their way into your pinkie finger  But if you're hoping that you have some Elvis atoms in you - sorry. There hasn't been enough time since his passing to have dispersed the atoms far enough through the universe for you have incorporated his atoms. I thought about Mom's atoms when I walked on the beach, splashing feet in the water, as up in Maine, some of her ashes went into that water. Who doesn't want the whole ocean, all oceans, as their mother?

People talk about ghosts, but what if it's just you can sense evidence of where they were, like perfume that lingers in a room someone has just left?  And what if everything is drowned in that smell, and peels layers of time away like turpentine on paint?

Or what if you just miss your mom - and you want to bend your limited scientific knowledge to keep her around for a while longer, even if only is in some great cosmic metaphysical time travel kind of way?

Joan Didion describes in The Year of Magical Thinking how after the death of her husband, when she was clearing out his closet, she kept some of his shoes because he would need them when he came back.  It was around then that she realized she was not, perhaps, holding things together quite as well as she had hoped. She writes:

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes."

I remembered that comment with particular relief when, after my mother died, I realized some part of me believed Mom was sending me messages in the lyrics of pop songs.

Immediately after she died, I moved to Florida.  Coincidentally, Phillip Phillip's song "Home" was playing incessantly everywhere, the song with the refrain, "Just know you're not alone / Cause I'm going to make this place your home."  If, for instance, you are afraid you're going to start to cry for no reason standing in the towels aisle of Target, and that song comes lilting on the piped-in music, it feels like a benediction - or it did for me.

And then I spent some time pondering how it must be for those people with schizophrenia or psychotic breaks of some kind who believe they are receiving coded messages from the TV, and I got a little uncomfortable with finding comfort in pop songs and feared I was just a short time hop away from wearing a tinfoil hat to keep the aliens at bay. But even with that, I took the comfort anyway, that moment at Target and those that came after, moments where the music felt like what I needed to hear just then -- a coincidence, a serendipity, a sign, grace, good vibes, self-nurturance or my mom looking out for me, whatever it was, I took that comfort. I let it be, which I suppose is my own version of faith.

So when an ABBA tune played while I was in the rug section in IKEA, I got teary because I figured it was A Sign that buying furnishings was a good plan, tending to my new home.  Mom and I listened to ABBA in the car on the way to chemo a couple of times.  She came to ABBA late in life, having spent most of her life listening to classical music and occasionally musicals, but somewhere in there, Mamma Mia picked up the relentless happy beats of ABBA.

After Mom died, I turned to time, wanting more of it, wanting to redo it, wanting to relive the good parts and fix the bad parts, and I wanted her to still exist in a fashion, to be literally living and breathing.  And in the timeline, she is.  I can't fold time over like a Star Trek episode, but then again, I live on a planet that is still receiving light from stars that could have winked out of existence hundreds of years ago.  If all things are simultaneously happening in all timelines, then in some tiny portion of those instances, there is Mom humming along to store music as she did sometimes.  Why shouldn't I find parts of her in pop songs -- or wherever else she pops up?

Graffiti seen in a park, Bangor, ME


  1. I didn't know that you were a painter. And I didn't know that you were such a good writer. And I didn't know that you were a philosopher. And I didn't know that you are so deep. I am grateful to social media for letting me get to know the you that I did not know... Even if just a little bit. And I am grateful to you for putting yourself out there so that I could discover you. Rodney

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words - incredibly sweet of you.

  2. Cynthia, this is such a lovely elegy to your mother, and it underscores, for me, the myriad ways in which we grieve. More than anything else, my father visits me in dreams. Since he died last April, he has appeared in dozens, if not hundreds of dreams. They are a regular reminder of how his spirit lives with me. E. E. Cummings wrote a line (with which I am sure you are familiar) that declares: "i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart). I might amend that to read: "i carry your spirit (i carry it in my spirit). Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Mike. I agree, dreams aren't weighed down with logic and rules, but only with heart and spirit. I'm so glad you get to visit with your father in that dream space.