Variations in the Measure of Time

October 11, 2017

It’s been a whole month since my dad went into the ICU for the last time. That’s a long time but also so short. A lot of things have happened to me this past month that would have blown his mind if he had been here to hear about them.

A message in a birthday card from Dad

A message in a birthday card from Dad

It’s hard sometimes because, just like my generous and kind friends who have gone through similar situations have told me, it doesn’t get easier. You read that correctly. Does not get easier. In fact, some days it actually feels like it’s worse.

But, like coming indoors after being under the unrelenting heat of a Texas sun makes the first blast of that sweet A/C feel so much cooler, or how the first drink of water in the morning feels like it hydrates you so much better, having a perpetually broken heart makes the good stuff better. I have laughed more and harder this past month than I think I ever have (and that’s saying something because I laugh a lot). I have loved harder and told people I loved them more. The small victories I’ve experienced have been sweeter. Although on their own they would be pretty great, against the backdrop of despair, they shine even brighter.

I’ve said “no” to more things so I can say “yes” to others. Though we all think we have unlimited time, it’s made me realize that life is so short and so precious. I’ve tried picturing myself in the future and what things I want to have accomplished. One thing my dad said was “I wish I would have stopped smoking sooner.”

Daddy and me, on my birthday in 2016

Daddy and me, on my birthday in 2016

So what would I say at 66 that I wished I would have done sooner? Taken better care of myself for one, so I’ve started doing that. Pursued creative things more seriously. I’ve started doing that, too. I can’t tell you to do these things any more than someone else could have told me to before this all happened. But I will anyway. Don’t be bitter. Focus on the good. Hug people when you want to. Go after what you want because time is so short.

We’ve all experienced variations in the measure of time. A minute is a minute whether you’re running a mile or waiting for Christmas morning; waiting for a plane to take off or waiting for it to land. No matter how fleetingly short or excruciatingly long it feels, every one of those moments is the same length of time, the same slice of our life. 

The time it took from when they removed my dad’s breathing tube to when he exchanged his last breath for the air in the room was something like four minutes. Maybe less. To be honest I was not watching the clock exactly. When I think about those last few moments with him, they seemed to have slipped out so quickly. The thirty seconds I spent at the gym whipping the battle ropes this morning before work seemed like they took an hour. Those four minutes in the ICU last month passed in a blink. Dwelling in those moments in my mind feels like a big heavy boot is sitting on my sternum pressing all my air out. I remember staring at the monitors, staring at him, trying to will him to get better using my mind.  I had never before felt so absolutely powerless.

I try not to focus too much on those last moments but look at the 66 years worth of minutes that came before that - all the vacations and meals we shared, all the things that made us laugh together that still make me laugh when they creep up in my mind. It helps when I think of how he would react to the things that have happened to me in just the last month. I’m so lucky to have had someone who was so proud of me and who loved me so much and was never afraid to say it. He said he was proud of me so often that the sound of the words coming from his mouth is imprinted in my brain.

A scientist once told me that the things we remember aren’t our original memories but memories of the last time we thought of that memory. Since that’s the case, I try to remember good things about him very often. Like the sound of his voice when he would get on the phone and say, with such joy, “Hey sweetie!” Like when he would call me his little chickadee or prairie flower. Like how he’d grab my shoulder and roll his eyes when I made a joke, and would say “That kid breaks me up!”  It’s helps when I do something I know would make him proud because I can just shut my eyes and hear him say “All right! I am so proud of you!” in my head. 

On Sunday I performed in a show and the suggestion we got from the audience involved annual coffin races down a mountain. My partner and I got on a little tangent right at the top of the show, and said basically we’re all hurtling in our own coffins to the bottom of the mountain. At the time, it was so funny to say that, to belabor the ephemeral nature of our existence for the sake of the audience’s reactions, but like most funny things, it was also very true.  Unless you’re Walt Disney, dying isn’t optional. We’re all hurtling to the bottom of the mountain. We don’t have a choice in that. Whether a moment feels like an hour or the blink of an eye, you only get so many. Really the only thing we can control even to a small extent is how we spend them.

Heather McKinney