The tricks of time
Commentary by ADAM TANOUS
The other night, on his sixth birthday, my
little boy was running around the yard with his buddy, Landon—both of them
shirtless, barefoot, wild with the freedom of imagination. The scene suddenly
seemed so familiar as to be a part of my memory. It felt as if decades had
compressed into a single moment. Wasn’t I just there, in that skinny little
body, my friend, Davo, at my side as we scurried about our own fantastical lives
38 years ago?
Parents are always telling other parents
of younger children: "They grow up so fast. Before you know it, they’ll be gone,
on their way."
It’s a cliché, but while it may be a dull
turn of phrase, the heartache of that realization is no less profound. I
sometimes see the experience of being a parent as analogous to sitting beside a
clear, running creek. We spend all of those days and nights trying to cup the
water in our hands—if only to shape it for a second, marvel at its clarity and
subtle beauty, perhaps get a tiny sip of the sweet stuff—before it slips through
our fingers and carries on to lower ground.
What’s curious about that common ache
among parents is that it comes of our own conflicted feelings about growing up.
When children are new to the
world—newborns, then infants and toddlers—our sense of time actually expands.
Winter days with an infant seem to stretch out forever. Before long we are
pushing them into the future. How often have parents led the refrain: "I can’t
wait until he can sleep through the night. If only we could get him potty
trained. I can’t wait until he can go to pre-school. Please, act like a ‘big
boy.’ Stop acting like a baby. Grow up."
We’re guilty of this because we see all of
these hurdles in front of our children. Perhaps because we love life so much, we
want to hurry them up, get them past all of these hurdles so that they can taste
life. We want them in the stream of things, feeling, thinking, laughing.
Why are we so frantic about it? Maybe it
is as simple as we are always, deep down, afraid something bad might happen to
them before their time in the sun. Fear lurks about and haunts parents. We fear
accidents, bad influences, the unknown. It is fear born of love, but fear
nonetheless. It drives us, and it drives us crazy.
So, when our children are suddenly out in
the world, independent of us, we somehow can’t comprehend how it happened,
though we made it happen and wanted it to happen. That was our goal, right? Were
we not trying to give them life, a life that belongs to them, not us?
We were, and are. But somewhere in the
back of us, there’s something holding us up. We can’t seem to be totally at
peace with their moving on. And I suspect that unease has something to do with
our own mortality.
In the most obvious way, children remind
us that on the grand scheme, life is cyclical, akin to the shape of a sinuous
river snaking across a wide plain. Where we leave off, they move on. And yet, as
we witness their moving through the moments and milestones of life, it becomes
clear that own lives are but part of the sinuous waterway that unfurls into a
straight line. Parts and moments of our lives have gone by and aren’t coming
back around again. This sense that there is finiteness to our experience gets a
hold of our heart, dampens it for a time. Yet, we know but don’t want to admit
that that finiteness brings the very intensity to life that makes it precious.
There is a passage in "The Sheltering
Sky," by Paul Bowles, that far more eloquently expresses the central puzzle of
"Because we don’t know when we will die,
we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a
certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times
will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s
so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without
it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times
will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. Any yet, it all seems