I read this piece about time. It was by a girl who has cancer.
She writes about her new relationship with time, since her diagnoses, and as she waits for the bone marrow transplant that will either begin her life again or begin the process of her death.
There is a lot of attention reserved for children with cancer, and adults with cancer have documented their experiences extensively, but there isn’t too much about twenty-somethings with cancer; people who are already at a crossroads in their lives, and are now faced with a much larger one. People who are supposed to make something of themselves, and find a job and keep a job, and find a career, and date until they know what they want in a partner, and go to dive bars deep in Brooklyn, and try to piece together who they are and what they want from life. People who get cancer at much lower rates. People who are supposed to have so much time.
I have a shaky relationship with time. We’ve never really sat down and talked, I guess, but I get the feeling we wouldn’t get along. I’m too pushy and vulnerable, and time—time is relentless.
When I was a kid, I climbed everything that would take me high up, even when the branches got thin and bendy. I wanted to see the distance. I thought I had forever. When I got married, suddenly, everything felt shorter, and more dangerous. My own mortality was brought into sharper focus by this sickeningly strong love for another person made out of fragile skin and just the right amount of blood, and millions of cells that were all trying to do the right thing. His cells were not all doing the right thing. Some of them were broken. And he carried his life around in a little black kit, with a vial of clear liquid that needed to be constantly injected, otherwise the balance tipped, and he would plummet.
Sometimes, something would go wrong—just a little accident—and there he would be, ghost white, shivering, confused, helpless, his brain unable to make sense anymore. And I’d see in his pale lips and hair matted with sweat how quickly things can swing towards chaos.
But most of the time, despite all of the syringes and the vials of insulin, and the tiny blue test strips with dots of dried blood that litter the floor and need to be picked up manually because the vacuum is too confused by them, I am more concerned about making something of myself than I am about anything else. I am often more concerned with trying to figure out what I should be doing now, and what I should be doing next, and if I have come even nearly far enough so far.
Because even a chronically ill husband becomes quickly normal. And even overwhelming love is ordinary.
So I am back to worrying if my career is on the right track, and what about babies, and when when when, and am I supposed to stay in New York City forever, or should I fight harder for the mountains I’ve always dreamed of? I’m back to worrying about my arms. I open my eyes in the morning, and the first thing I see is my arm, which I am leaning my head on, and I am surprised by the generous shape the fat makes. Oh no, is my waking thought. My arm is too fat. Why is it so fat?
Good morning, world! Here I am! Arm fat and all!
The thing that I’m usually doing to time is rudely trying to cram everything into a short amount of it. Because I learned at some point that it is important to be precocious, and being precocious is all about doing things fast and early. For some reason, that one tossed-off, poorly thought-out lesson really stuck with me. (The one about going to the dentist once a year got lost to posterity.)
So time is always running out on my precociousness. Because that’s how precociousness is built. (Very shoddily.)
And while it’s running out, I am delaying. I can’t do this other life thing, until I am really successful! I don’t know exactly what really successful looks like, but I am relatively certain it comes with the ability to write your own movie, which James Cameron will be directing.
Time is always being a jerk to me, because I am never precocious enough. Time is laughing and running ahead, and I am panting, with the taste of blood and inexperience in my mouth, my hands on my knees on the side of the path, wishing I had better athletic shoes. Wishing I’d gone jogging more than once every year or so.
I am very busy thinking about how mean time is being. And how much I might be falling behind.
And then I read this piece by a twenty-three-year-old girl writer with cancer, for whom time is suddenly an optical illusion which shrinks to the size of a tiny island in the middle of a vast sea of nothingness, or expands in a thin path made out of chipping stepping stones that go until they are swallowed into a misty, indistinct distance. For whom time goes backwards into memories, instead of forward into the possibility of forever. For whom there may not be time to worry about whether she has done things exactly right, or if she is successful enough at twenty-six, or if her arms are the right shape.
And, strangely, it occurs to me that time is not so mean after all. Maybe I have been playing the victim. Maybe time well-spent has nothing to do with precociousness, and getting there early, and everything to do with slow, small moments of appreciation. Maybe the most important part of my dreams are the mountains, not the James Cameron movie. And all the rest—arm fat included—could it be a luxury?
The luxury of time.
That’s a good expression.
I guess I never thought about it that way before.
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How do you feel about time? Do you have enough of it? How has your relationship with time changed, as you got older?
Unroast: Today I love the way my lips look a couple hours after I put on bright lipstick.
Other writing stuff: Here’s a piece I wrote for the Frisky about how my younger brothers are cooler than me.
Reader cake pics (it’s there, buried under lots of ice cream)! Maybe we should all spend some more time like this:
Send me yours!