When I’m Gone

This piece appears in POPs #1: Parents on Parenting, a zine edited by my friend Jonas and available from Pioneer Press.

The invincibility of youth is a cliché that I never fully celebrated in adolescence, but I did, nonetheless, become acutely aware of my own mortality for the first time when I was twenty-five. That was the year that my dad died from a rare form of cancer. He had been a strong and healthy man, yet his body succumbed to an ugly and tortuous disease. I was happy for his suffering to end, and of course I was sad in many obvious and nuanced ways that I won’t expound here. But one lesson I learned from watching my primary role model die at age sixty was that I will also die.

My father died in a crude and beautiful room in our house that he had hand-built from massive timbers, and eight years later my son was born in that exact same room. Raising a baby boy in the same house in which I had grown up made it easy to imagine that I had become my father and that my son was a new version of me. Such comparisons are both cutely sentimental and grotesquely patrilineal, but my thinking of distinct persons as multi-generational manifestations of some common narrative was an enticement of a kind of immortality, one that may have helped mitigate my opposite, predominant feeling for a while.

Not since the death of my father has any event or process so singularly invited the fear of death into my mind as the birth of my child because time seemed to be moving so fast during the first several months of his infancy. I suppose this is mainly due to the rapidity with which a neonate develops, but whatever the cause, the effect was that my life appeared like a video on fast forward. It was terrifying to feel that not only had the first thirty-three years of my life become a blur of memories archived on magnetic tape, but that the next few decades threatened to play even quicker.

So while I was laying against a stack of pillows and watching my infant son crawl around the rug and stick objects into his mouth, I conjured the syllogism:

 If time accelerates as I approach the end of my life, then at the instant of death I will perceive all of my life’s experiences simultaneously.

It’s a kind of Relativity, I guess, wherein reaching the time of death eliminates the perception of time itself. So there is a paradox that as mortality bears down on my terrestrial mindbody like a hammer against an anvil, I will perceive a sort of timelessness in death—maybe.

Anyway, that’s a hypothesis I would prefer not to test until the second half of this century, and in the meantime I have a more conservative approach to slowing down the unforgiving onslaught of entropy. If I reverse the direction of time in my if-then statement above, I might also contend:

If time decelerates as I move back towards my first breath, then at the moment of birth I perceived my lifespan as infinite.

It makes sense because when I was a little kid a half-hour seemed like a long time, and going back even further, a newborn waking alone in a crib, for example, can take no refuge in the possibility of being comforted soon, because it only perceives its present experience.

Now, I am absolutely certain that my life has no rewind button, but I know somebody who is young enough and new enough to our four-dimensional experience that “now” feels like a long time and “later” feels like eternity. At this writing, my son is sixteen months, and I am fortunate to be able to spend a great deal of time with him. Sometimes it seems tedious and frustrating watching a baby for several hours, especially when you have work to do around the house and errands to run and so on, but these long hours are a precious opportunity to suspend or at least slow down entropy. By relinquishing worries about the gutters and the dishes and the library books for a while and instead relaxing and just being with my son in the present moment, I can live a little bit in real time and delay the inevitable demise of my existence as I currently understand it.

Of course there’s one more, vital piece to this “be here now with baby” strategy. Whether or not it really affects my perception of time now or at the moment of my death, at least I will know that I enjoyed as much time with my son as I could during my life. Afterall, there’s something else I learned when my dad died, other than the obvious notion that I too will perish. It’s another cliché, but one that I would be foolish not to honor—that I won’t be able spend time with the ones I love when I’m gone. That I know for sure. Unless—just maybe—the instant of death brings the perception of simultaneity, then mortality may bring us all together forever.