“And we will be ready, at the end of every day will be ready, will not say no to anything, will try to stay awake while everyone is sleeping, will not sleep, will make the shoes with the elves, will breathe deeply all the time, breathe in all the air full of glass and nails and blood, will breathe it and drink it, so rich, so when it comes we will not be angry, will be content, tired enough to go, gratefully, will shake hands with everyone, bye, bye, and then pack a bag, some snacks, and go to the volcano.” –Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
There is a moment before you find out something awful. We’ve all known this time. A moment of pause, clarity, and serenity. Things are as they should be. Things are as they’ve always been. It’s almost as if you’re watching an old family film, slow motion, no sound. People are smiling, laughing, talking. You see yourself, younger, healthier, and brighter. The camera is shaky, but the intention is real, the love seen on film is raw and endless. There’s that moment of what was, before what is to come.
Of course, you don’t know this, and no one in the old film knows it either. The reel continues and everyone is oblivious, ignorant, and better off for it. You don’t know to appreciate that moment, to hug the person next to you, smile til your cheeks hurt, zoom in our your mom, dad, grandma, and capture a few still images in your memory. You don’t know that at any minute someone will walk into the room, utter a few meaningless words, and crush you.
I’ve felt this two times before in my life. Once in February of 2002 someone said those words to me, and once in May of 2010, I said those words to a group of friends of mine. After the words, there’s the silence. The suspended noise. And then there it is: the new reality, the nonsense of the present, the confusion and disbelief. There is death.
There is a delicacy of life and relationships that you’d think I’d have learned by now. I know there’s a fragility of what one holds as truth, of what one thinks they know, of the reliance on others. Today, a friend of ours learned that her mother unexpectedly died, and I can remember perfectly, and with unfortunate detail, exactly what the moment after hearing those words feels like.
I’ve thought lately of the idea of how as we grow, we become older versions of ourselves, and how sometimes, this older version of me, I don’t quite recognize. I’ve always had this love/hate relationship with birthdays. Each passing year I get further and further away from that younger me, the one who had no idea about any of this. Somewhere in the passage of time, we lose people– both through death uncontrollable, and through negligence, and of our own choosing. We don’t return a phone call, we don’t swallow our pride, our stubborn natures refuse to apologize.
A few months ago I ran into one of my best friends from high school at the Northside Tavern. There was an awkward stare, a smile, and then we shared a drink. I joked, “You’ve got five minutes to tell me what you’ve been doing for the past seven years! Go!” And he did; the abbreviated, edited version, of course.
The older version of Phil met the older version of Candice that night. And fast forward a few months of hanging out again, calling, and reconnecting, it feels like no time at all has passed in our friendship. It has, of course. We don’t spend our Friday nights at Bogart’s listening to bad music from high school Battle of the Band Challenges. We don’t drive around aimlessly in the city laughing. We might, if gas were still $1.75/gallon. We didn’t know a lot then, but we were invincible, purely indestructible, as all seventeen year olds are.
The funny thing is, I don’t even remember why we stopped talking to begin with. But, we know better now. And we know a lot more now that seven or eight years has aged us into people who talk about health insurance, taxes, and get excited about home renovations. We know now about marriage and the difficulty and wondrous power of relationships, he knows about raising children, and we know now that our mothers in fact weren’t crazy then, and we appreciate them more than our seventeen year old self ever would.
There’s no way to get the moment before destruction back. The continuation of time serves one comforting purpose though, as the days go by, so does the pain, it distances itself, slowly moving out of your chest, bones, eyes. And miraculously,
one day, you laugh, smile through tears. And you don’t feel guilty for doing it.