All of my life I have been surrounded by too much time. To be clear, it isn’t that the universe gave me extra hours in my days or added a few more years to my life; sadly, none of us will be granted these gifts. More precisely, I have always been surrounded by time’s inevitable march as I rushed through a childhood that should have been carefree. Mine was ensnared in time. Time was all around me. Everywhere I gazed around my parents’ house, a clock appeared to cast its judgmental eyes upon me. All around me there were reminders that time was ticking away, letting me know that there was always something to do, somewhere to be, some task to be accomplished by a particular time. Is it any wonder that I was an anxious, frightened child who grew into an anxious, insecure adult? My entire life was been one cosmic race against the clock.
My parents were German immigrants and I can say with absolute certainty that the stereotype of the uber-punctual German is, indeed, no stereotype. Google the phrase “Germans and time” as I just did and you will be met with a delightful selection of articles that basically describe my family. To be sure, I believe punctuality is extremely important. I was raised to believe that early equals on time and on time is equivalent to late. Consequently, I have serious issues with those who do not hold timeliness with such high regard, particularly those who are chronically late. But I am not obsessed with time to the same degree that my mother was.
Time was marked by so many events in my mom’s long life. Time passed merrily as she walked home from school with her friends, laughing and stopping to tell stories. Then time stopped in its tracks as she and her family hid in the bomb shelter night after night during World War II. Time ebbed and flowed with the ocean tide as she, my dad, and my seven-month-old brother crossed the Atlantic on the Gripsholm to begin a new life in America. Time passed quickly as her son grew, then a daughter — me — was added to the family.
Several years ago, I sat with my mom in her assisted living facility. During the two hours I was here, she asked me five times when dinner was. “Five o’clock,” I would say. She checked the clock above the TV, the one with the giant face so her glaucoma-affected eyes could see it better. It was three o’clock. As we waited until it would be time to go the dining room, she asked me seven times, “So what do I have to do now?” It is all I could do not to yell, “You are 90 years old. There is absolutely nothing you have to do!” But I didn’t. I couldn’t. She was ruled by that clock and if she had nothing to do I think she felt she had no purpose.
As we sat there together, my mother thought only of time in terms of her next deadline, where she had to be, her next task to be done. I thought of time as it moved my mom along in her life so quickly. My mom sat and stared at the clock measuring the moments until dinner, while I gazed up at this same clock and pondered time as it counted down the moments in her life. Time had stopped for my dad a mere seven months earlier. I was still processing this loss, still so sad, still grieving his absence in my life. When time would cease for my mom, I did not yet know. She would die within a year of that day, but that afternoon I was blissfully ignorant of how little time I had left with her as we sat together watching time pass.
While my mind fretted over life’s larger questions, my mother was content to stare at the clock as it counted down to dinner. At that point in her life, perhaps marking time in this manner was truly a gift. I turned and we watched the clock together, each lost in our own thoughts, time whooshing by like an invisible tidal wave, carrying both our lives and our thoughts with it.