Grinning in his tuxedo, my son—my son!—stands at the front of the church as his bride enters on her father’s arm.
Time rushes in my ears. Time when I was the bride, when my mother sat where I sit now. (What am I doing in her seat?) Time when my son squinted through newborn eyes, and my mother peeked at the little bundle in the arms of her daughter-turned-mother. Time when I cried widow’s tears while my newborn slept, and my mother shared her own bereavements, somehow lightening the weight of my darkness.
All these moments and more flow down that church aisle and coalesce back into the man who is my son.
Then comes an announcement, just as I grow another year older: “Happy Birthday, ‘Grandma’!” Time rushes in my ears again, pushing me forward, out of the familiar. I feel joy—but it is mingled with surprise and confusion. I am not the baby’s mother this time. I am the grandmother. With the same mixed feelings, my mother receives the title of great-grandmother. She and I have to practice recognizing our new names. We talk through this transition, trying to understand why I’m wearing her shoes and she’s wearing her mother’s. We grind our gears as we shift into our new roles. Yes, they are good roles, wonderful roles. We just need to adjust to them. And to let the rushing, mingling waves of time quiet down.
My child, my mother, myself. We share all these moments. Each moment, containing so much time…
The Mysterious Movement of Time
There are five adult children tromping through this river of moments with me. They splash along just behind me. And beside me, anchoring me in Now, is my husband—the one whom I laughingly call the “prompt” husband, not the late one. My two parents wade ahead, where the stream is wider, deeper with memories. If I can see so much in each moment, how much more can they see?
Perhaps they see, as I am just beginning to, that these moving moments aren’t truly a river. Here, time has not only a flow, but also an ebb. Moments can pile up, can tumble over each other, in both directions. We seem to travel along more of an estuary, an intermingling of the waters that run irretrievably forward to the sea, and those that come washing back in waves. That would explain the rushing sound I hear when today, tomorrow, and yesterday meet.
In a day called today, I comfort and counsel my youngest daughter through her senior year fears. The rushing waves remind me: I am passing along the same hugs and talks my parents poured out on me at her age. As she returns to her schoolwork, my cell phone rings. It’s my mother, hoping for hugs and talks to ease her past the fears that come with her senior years. So we talk, and I hear myself pouring her blessings back into her lap.
I text to my youngest son: “I’m confident you’ll be great at your new job!” We communicate through different technology, yes, but I pay forward the same words my parents gave to me as I headed off to my nerve-wracking first day of work. I smile, realizing that my parents must have believed their words as much as I do mine. When I lay down my phone, I check my morning email. There is one from Mom, asking, “How do I download those photos again?” So we step through the process once more. Then I add, “I’m confident you’ll get this, Mom. You’re doing great.” I believe that, too.
Another day, my older daughter calls, troubled. I sit in the quiet stairwell to listen. Around her words, time rushes, and I am the one hunkered down in a closet weeping out my troubles to my parents. I hope my daughter can hear how much love is in my listening, and in my silent prayers for wisdom to pass on to her. Later I board a plane toward Mom in California. I’ll be her chauffeur, cook, and confidante during Dad’s hospital stay. This time she talks, and I listen—and she receives her love paid backward.
My children, my parents, myself. We give so many gifts to each other. Each gift containing so much love.
The Piece of Time We See
Time, great crashing billows of it, tumble over me as a nurse chats with my father while she checks his vital signs. She probably sees him weakened, thin, and dopey after a triple bypass. She sees him as his chart: prognosis, meds, diet. But I see him amid the backward-rushing waves of time. I see him upright and young in his freshly-pressed white clinic jacket, the smiling orthodontist who can charm his patients into letting him tweak their braces. I see him playing volleyball. I see him grinning at the wheel of his restored model T, careening around corners in red and black splendor at a whopping 25 miles an hour. I see him in sunshine out on the front porch, playing Sousa marches on his gleaming brass baritone. I see him teaching my children to fly kites.
The nurse doesn’t see all that, but it’s there. All that time, all that love, all coalescing in the one man in the bed.
Next it is my middle son in the bed. A different nurse reads “kidney stones,” and thus defines him. She doesn’t see the terrified boy learning to live in a whole new language when his new family brought him across the ocean. She doesn’t see the cliff diver, the determined actor, the grinning monkey-bar gymnast. Not the son, the grandson, the world-traveler. Not the rolling waves of time and love that have poured forward and backward through his life. But I see. I see it all.
How can all that time just pile up, layer upon layer? All those remembered moments, all that time, all that love?
Lessons from the Estuary
This is the beauty and the mystery of the estuary I live in—this is both a gift of strength to me, and a gift of understanding which I can pass along.
Those layer-upon-layer moments have the power to produce in me a flood of gratitude that keeps my estuary from running dry.
Thankfulness can keep my heart so full that I never lack something to give forward to my children and backward to my parents . . . at the same time.
But the lessons from the estuary are not to be kept to myself, or to my own family. It’s true, the people whose lives briefly intersect with mine have no idea how deep is the stream they’ve just floated across. They cannot see the way my memory projects the past onto the present like a sudden slideshow, with all the images superimposed on one another. But blessed is the person who knows that such slideshows exists. For they exist in everyone we meet.
For that reason, when I meet a stranger—or even a friend—I must make room around my present snapshot of her for her moments to pile up; for the strong feelings and valuable insights her loved ones will have as they watch her layered slideshow of moments. I must leave space for her to possess more dignity, more significance, more love, more time than I can perceive.
I must remember that all the people I meet live in an estuary. Time and love—for them as they do for me—flow forward to the sea, and also back into their hearts.