All the Years Are the Good Years: On Making Peace With Time
Learning acceptance after tragedy, and adopting a new way to think about time
Shortly after my younger sister’s double-lung transplant, I’d watch my mom flip through family photo albums with my kids and think, how could she stand to do that? How could she stand looking at photos of what I’d begun thinking of as “the before time” — before cystic fibrosis (CF) upended our lives, before my younger sister went into sudden respiratory failure, before she needed a bilateral lung transplant, before the lung transplant caused post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder, a rare form of cancer? How?
Maybe the photos brought my mom solace, but they made me angry. I felt my family had somehow been shifted to a parallel version of our lives. We could look at the life that had recently been taken from us, like people watching from behind a glass mirror, but we couldn’t go there anymore. We didn’t live there anymore. We were too changed to traverse that space.
Not being a conventionally religious person, I blamed the universe. I remember saying aloud to my husband and myself, repeatedly, that “we were supposed to have more good years.” We’d been cheated by the universe. It didn’t matter that my sister had exceeded the CF life expectancy she’d been saddled with at birth. To my mind, we were supposed to have had some kind of warning. The universe had pulled the rug out from under us. If I’d known the good years were winding down, I could’ve behaved differently. I could’ve savored them more.
Behind my anger — as often is the case — were sadness and worry. “I think I spent the good years mostly complaining about dumb stuff,” I remember confiding to my older sister. It was a devastating, nagging thought that I’d squandered the good years.
Having just snatched my younger sister back from the jaws of death, for a while, my family tried to infuse every interaction and gathering with a full blast of magic — all the attention and gratitude we could each personally summon. This didn’t last, because trying to force magic moments can be really exhausting.
Maybe because I grew up in a house defined by health crises, I’m susceptible to thinking of time in terms of before and after. I’ve noticed myself doing this again since my mother’s stroke this year. Walking beside her on the beach now, worried about her losing her footing, I think to myself, “How did you walk beside her before? Were you truly present or were you grousing about the heat of the sand or hollering at the kids?”
My before-and-after thinking mostly involved raking myself over the coals for all the ways I didn’t fully show up for “the before times,” though it’s unclear how fair an adjudicator I am of my own past behavior.
In trying to break out of this pattern, I’ve turned to a few resources. I’ve tried to adopt the motto “be here now,” and it sometimes helps to reinforce this with the teachings of the late Buddhist monk, author, and poet Thich Nhat Hanh. Here’s a truly worthy quote of his: “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.”
I’ve also come back multiple times to the ideas about time that memoirist Katherine May suggests in her book “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.” Writing about her own need, for health reasons, to dial down her high-powered life and schedule, she reflects on the way we envision time in our own lives.
She’s critical of our linear view of time, which posits that we are always evolving and moving forward, like pieces on a game board, toward some pinnacle achievement or greater end. She suggests a more circular way of thinking about time, one that’s more forgiving of revising lessons learned, and with pauses and repetition. What appeals most to me about her writing is the overarching idea that our sense of time is a construct that we can revise.
In both my personal and professional life as a political organizer, I’ve drawn inspiration from the idea of hope that Rebecca Solnit offers in her writing. In Solnit’s view, hope stands outside of optimism and pessimism. Hope involves an embrace of the unknown, an acceptance of factors we cannot anticipate, and a willingness to act, to be a co-creator in a story that hasn’t been written yet.
In her view, hope calls us to action, the kind of action that’s necessary for political change — as well as a cure for CF.
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