Life happens fast. The irony is noteworthy: while a given moment is utterly still (when you’re really there), the succession of lived nows, when the mind revisits a stretch of time, appears to have occurred with lightning speed. Just ask anybody who’s old — most poignantly, one on their death bed. The impression of speed grows with the accumulation of years: for a single one is but an ever-shrinking proportion of the entirety.
Where did it all go?
I sit facing my brother. I drink in his lovely old face, the dear voice, everything about him its same familiar self, however the years pile on. Some things don’t change. We have been close all our lives, sharing deeply about music, about what it is to live with integrity, about the nature of the vastness beyond this existence. My brother and I have said things to one another we’ve shared with not another soul. I listen to his halting portrayal of how life feels now. When he reaches for his cup of coffee, I watch his hand tremble. At moments it’s apparent he’s lost his train of thought.
Where did it all go?
Both of us, now, are old. Over the era of our grown-up encounters, his being six years my senior has been irrelevant, not apparent. But over these recent days together, my brother seems, again, to be my elder. Now I am looking out for he who once looked out for the youthful me: for my beloved brother is diminished, physically and mentally. Even as my mind registers the change, I happily accommodate his needs of the moment, adapting with ease as the moment asks. Just the same, I’m aware, as we sit companionably, that once he has returned home, there will be a good deal for me to take account of.
Now, blessed now, what’s primary is that he is here. We are together, in this cherished now.
* * *
Life itself occurs much more quickly (now, now, now) than the processing of it. Were I to attempt fully to register the significance of an encounter while it’s under way, I would simply not be there for the next said thing.
Processing wants the generosity of a stretch of time. I learned to gently postpone that secondary experience until the aftermath of a significant encounter. I did not want to miss a single moment of the sweetness of the time together with a loved one. The cost of attempting to do both at once is dear. It is not kind to myself — or to my beloved brother — to do anything but purely attend.
The sort of processing I refer to here occurs in the foreground of conscious awareness. A moment of reckoning, as with my brother, asks a good deal of space. It is to take an account of a change. It is to feel, to look away from nothing. It’s to tune in to any impulse to protect oneself — to set aside this unwelcome new reality, preferring to rush ahead to whatever-is-next. There may be the seeking of refuge in how it was before — until now. A person may be desperate to avoid the discomfort of a fully-reckoning heart. (Once, that person would have been me.) To allow in this newness is to let it become a part of oneself, enabling a moving ahead, as life carries on. So that the nowadays “image” of a loved one, a relationship, is fully incorporated. To do this is to play, always, with a full deck.
* * *
Surprisingly, it is only a blessing when the lifelong inclination to avert the eyes from a painful truth — a thing unwanted, unanticipated — has disappeared. The strongest impulse, ever after, is to look a thing squarely in the face. All our lives (my own included) we have ached for stability. While we’ve done it to spare ourselves acute discomfort, the persistent habit of looking away from evidence to the contrary has in fact only intensified the underlying strain of living. For on some level, we’ve long silently suspected that we have been lying to ourselves. At long last, the actual truth — even when it’s difficult — is a peaceful place to come to rest.
It took a while for me to learn not to attempt to process, mid-life-experience, all I was feeling. What I came to understand was that I was actually attempting to multitask: to experience and to process concurrently. Once I realized that, and saw the cost of not being fully present with what was happening in the now, I tenderly gave myself permission to wait until the solitude and the silence of after, to allow all the necessary space asked by the savoring heart.
Part of what it is to live is to feel how everything changes, moment to fleeting moment. In an encounter that deeply matters, to live is to really be here, while the experience is unfolding. Each now is breathtakingly brief, asking a purity of attunement.
* * *
During our precious days together, had I been fully integrating my brother’s evident changes, I would not have really been with him. I was aware that a generous space would be needed, in the aftermath, to allow the fullness of it all to register.
What if this time together were to turn out to be our last? One day it will be. Though seldom is such an encounter seen for what it is, while it’s under way. For it tends to be realized only in wistful (often regretful) retrospect. If only, we lament.
We owe it to ourselves to hold still for a thing that deeply matters, whether it shimmers with pain or joy, or with some of each. This is what it is to have a human life, to be endowed with a heart. Sometimes the tender heart simply needs to break. Tears long to be allowed to breach their tight doors.
I am done with lamenting. Let us all be done! There is nothing to do but fully be in the now. Let after take care of itself.
And mortal life is its fleeting self. In the realm of embodied existence, time is indeed “real” — and short.
[From a forthcoming book by Jan Frazier]