“Why does it have to pass so fast – time?” My husband asked me the other day. “Why can’t I slow it down?” He was rummaging through the kitchen pantry for peanut butter while I was tying my sneakers, anxious to get to the gym for a quick workout. I startled at the sound of the pantry door clicking shut, looked up, and saw him leaning over the kitchen sink, staring into the garbage disposal. He swiped the tear dripping down his cheek. I let my shoelaces fall to the side, pushed myself up from the floor, my forty-six year old knees cracking, and walked over to him. I didn’t know what to say. Maybe my mind was too busy with other things – get to the gym, dinner, call dad. Then he said, “Maybe we just need to do more, live it up. But then time will pass faster.”
I rubbed his back, feeling heat rise from beneath his shirt, the in and out of his slow breaths. I tried to come up with a good answer, wanted to come up with a good answer. Aha! “Maybe we just need to be aware of every single moment of each day,” I said.
“Yes, that’s it,” he said, pointing his finger into the air.
But he had reason to feel sad about the passage of time. That afternoon, we saw a movie in which the wife suffers from a stroke, then another stroke soon after. Her husband cedes to her wishes and refuses to stick her in a nursing home to rot. Though he hires nurses to help care for her at home, he takes on most of the responsibility. After all, it is his wife. He feeds, toilets, and dresses her. At the end of the film, when the credits rolled, my husband and I sat for a while, along with several others, stilled by the weight of grief. Save for a few sniffles and whispers, everyone eventually walked out of the theatre, respectfully quiet, as if we had just attended a funeral.
On the ride home, I watched the windshield wipers sweep back and forth, clearing the glass of snow, making space for us to see ahead, into the distance. But what lies ahead? How far can we see before everything turns hazy? I’m nearsighted, meaning I can’t see very far without squinting. Sometimes I don’t want to see far; sometimes I prefer haze. Seeing far into the distance means seeing things I don’t have control over, like aging and all the inevitabilities that come with it: weak bones, stiff blood vessels, loss of bladder control, constipation. Yes, this all sounds terribly drab and pessimistic, but wasn’t it just a few years ago when I graduated high school? No, it was twenty-eight years ago. Wasn’t it just a few years ago when I pedaled my bike, on my own, down the hill for the first time? No, it was nearly forty years ago, almost half a century.
My husband had another reason for feeling sad about the passage of time. His dad is turning 90 in May, a milestone that has prompted him to reflect on the past, and anticipate his own future – “I have about thirty-five years,” he recently told me. He plans to make it to 90, just like his dad.
And so, as part of his nostalgic tour, that afternoon, my husband decided to drag the box of family photos from our shamefully cluttered closet. He fanned them across the carpet, their yellow edges and antique store smell stark evidence of the distant past. He picked up a photo of his three girls when they were all under the age of ten. Now they’re in their middle to late twenties. “Look at them,” he said, then dropped his head into his hands, shook it side-to-side.
Meanwhile, I was gazing into the faded photo of a toddler: his close-cropped hair is the color of a pale sun, and he’s wearing a straight-lipped grin. His eyes look suspiciously familiar – narrow with a sliver of hazel peering through. “Who’s that?” I asked, my finger planted on the little boy’s ivory face.
“That’s me,” my husband said.
Almost fifty years ago.
I handed him the photo, watched his face – the wrinkles, each one longer than the next splayed from the corners of his eyes. Like lifelines. The pale sun is gone; it set a long time ago. But his full head of soft gray hair is a playground for running fingers through.
I left my husband alone, went to the gym. On my way back, I stopped to check the mail. In the pile of credit card offerings, there was an envelope addressed to me, from my dad. I ripped it open, pulled out a photo. There we are, my dad and me, at Disney world. I must be seventeen. I’m wearing shorts and a tank top. My hair is blonde. My legs and arms are smooth, and Coppertone tan. I’m leaning on a penguin, not a real penguin, but someone dressed-up as a penguin. He’s wearing a hat of all things (aren’t penguins used to the cold?) My face is wrinkle free, and just as tan as the rest of my body, so tan that my white-white teeth gleam. My dad is standing on the other side of the penguin. If I’m seventeen then he must be forty-two, four years younger than I am now. He’s trim, with barely a potbelly. His hair is as blonde as mine. I stared at the photo for several seconds, ran my hand over it, as if doing so I would be transported back in time.
When I got back home, I tucked the photo in a book of poetry laying on the nightstand next to the bed, then went into the bathroom and looked at my face in the mirror. The same Melissa, with the same brown eyes, the same broad smile. The only difference is that I’m an older Melissa, with darker hair and puffy lower eyelids. When I look at myself tomorrow, and the day after that, and the week after that, I’ll likely look the same. But when I look at myself a few years from now, a decade from now, what will I see?
I don’t have an answer for how to slow the passage of time. Perhaps if we stop looking at ourselves in mirrors or dispose of all timing devices, like those digital clocks with red LED lights that keep us insomniacs up at night. Still, the sun and moon rise every day, the seasons change – and tax day arrives every year.
Though no one possesses a magic remedy to slow time, the good news is that there is a reason for our perception of time moving faster as we age. Starting in our forties or fifties, time flows through us differently. There’s a change in our internal clock so that our brains no longer measure time accurately. I know, this sounds inane and metaphysical, but I encourage you to listen to the following National Public Radio broadcast, “Why does time fly by as you get older?” If anything, you can rest assure that you are not alone with the ticking clock.