There’s this nagging feeling I can’t get rid of in my stomach. I’m lying in bed, trying to sleep without help from a pill. It’s just not working. So I try to go into the dread just a bit to see what’s at the core of it. Maybe if I can name it I can quiet it down – at least for now – and finally get some sleep. What is it? I wonder… Is it dad? Yes, that’s part of it. Is it the neighbors we ran into tonight? Her girls were just the tiniest things when we moved here, now the eldest daughter talks with confidence about certain far away colleges, and a career in marine biology… Is it my own son, with his feet growing big and his legs getting hairier? Yes, it’s all of these. Each one stirs a familiar tugging inside, but I know that there is one that looms larger than the others tonight. And finally I can’t stand it. I forsake that perfect toasty nest I’d at last made in the covers, I rise up to my knees, and I look out of the window above my bed. I see a serene picture of our garage and chicken coop, lit gently from within by one red heating bulb. Beyond it, I see only blackness. The sort of scene that reminds one of a tomten fairy tale; a quiet, timeless farm carved out of the endless woods, a small homestead made cozy by its simplicity and isolation. On nights when the moon is full, it casts a deeper charm on the outbuildings, and they seem to glow in contrast to the forest beyond. But this nightscape is not to be much longer, I may not even see it like this for another full moon. Like my disappearing father, like my own tiny child who lives only in memory now, and like all the other inevitable changes of my private universe, a silent transition is already underway. Soon the darkness will be gone forever. Before long the lights of a house will pierce our dark and quiet corner of the world. Nothing, it appears, is sacred. Nor is anything forever. And I just can’t get used to it.
Once, at the home of a piano student, I happened on a simple children’s book that was laying out. In a few minutes I’d read the whole thing, and by the last line I found myself in tears. I’d thought this same thing many time, but had never dared to give expression to it. It was about all the ‘last times’ of childhood. How one never knows if this time will be the last. The last time a mother can ever pick up her child, the last time he’ll call her mommy, the last time she’ll read her child a bedtime story… there are a myriad of lasts, and yet one can never know for certain which moments they are. I think now of my father. Tonight mom told me that he hasn’t been downstairs since my visit a couple of days ago. We’d had a bit of a heated exchange on the phone the other night as I continued to lobby for some in-home nursing help. She’d hung up on me. Although she still believes that dad will manage to march downstairs again tomorrow for breakfast, business as usual, I myself don’t think so. Instead, the very real possibility occurs to me that we have finally experienced a last time here. The last time dad ever came downstairs. The last time. I arrive at that final, looming idea: this may well be where the true last time will happen. Right there, in the bedroom which looks out into the same woods as mine, in the bedroom with years of cat hair embedded in every upholstered surface, in the bedroom with photos of Andrew and me as babies still sit displayed on the bureau after five decades, there, on the right side of the bed – on my father’s side of the bed – that is where he will experience his own last time. That is, very likely, where my father will die.
I’m a sentimental person, and that sort of leaning will of course give this awareness of finality even more charge. I know that I’m probably dwelling more deeply on these passages than some folks would. (At the same time, I think any human can easily understand ambivalence around change.) But that’s the only way I can live through it all. I need to name it, to face it and to savor it before I can let it go. I need to bear active witness, I need to engrave that memory into my system, I need to take it with me as best I can. To preserve the essence of what this thing that I loved felt like. It’s a challenge for me to be simply pragmatic about it, and in fact, I really can’t. I can’t understand change without feeling a burning nostalgia. Sometimes in order to lend perspective and maybe take some of the sting out of it, I try to imagine a time just a couple of hundred years earlier, and I picture the change that’s taken place long before the world came to look as it does now. I imagine the Native Americans of Saratoga Lake, watching as their sacred sites were defiled and built-up by these white people from somewhere else… then I imagine the large parcels of unbuilt land throughout town, the disappointment of certain homeowners when the space around them appeared to shrink as investors continued to build upon the remaining vacant quadrants of land. I imagine all of the tiny disappointments, all of the hearts that had to acquiesce with deep regret the bittersweet changes around them.
I see the business people making these visible and profound changes in our physical environment. And I understand their detachment around such things too. They are merely dealing with a product and a service. (Be damned the wake left behind in its many forms, all of us must simply learn to live with resulting change!) “You can’t stop progress” people like to say. The implication is that progress is good. That progress is desired. Yeah, well, cancer is progress. Nuff said.
I feel a little better now, at least a little more sleepy. All I can do is be as zen as I can about the changes coming; I will savor these final nights of our deep, black forest, I will drink in all the tiny familiarities of my dad while they’re here, I’ll enjoy this magical time of a ten year old boy’s life, and I’ll be present and grateful for every last bit of it all. So that by the time today becomes yesterday, while it won’t be here to look upon anymore in my physical world, it will still exist somewhere. It will be here, cherished and alive, forever in my heart.