Suddenly I became aware that I wasn’t really reading any more. My eyes had closed and my rudderless brain was drifting off to nowhere. Enough of that! It was four-thirty. Time to get out of my study and do something else for a while. Maybe give Kay a hand.
Heading for the kitchen I heard voices from the dining room. Kay and Marie having tea. Marie lives next door on the north side. She and Kay get along well together. I found some juice in the fridge, poured a glass, and joined the two women.
Slumping into the chair at the end of the table, I greeted Marie and nodded apologetically to Kay. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”
Kay smiled benignly. “No, dear. We’ve just been comparing husbands.”
Marie added, “Kay says you are working up something about time, John. My husband would likely consider that anyone thinking or writing about time is actually wasting it. For him time is like money – something to use and turn to account. Jack keeps his appointments on the dot and he’s never late for dinner. But I don’t think he’d have anything more profound than that to say about time.”
Before I could make any joking comments that would disparage the “engineering mentality,” Kay explained, “John is hooked on the mysteries of time.”
Marie’s brow knitted quizzically. “Mysteries? What mysteries? Things like … when did the world begin? Geological ages and fossils? The origin of the human race? Or are you into history?”
I shook my head. “Those are interesting subjects all right, but I’m trying to put together a believable explanation of why time keeps on behaving as it does. Things like: for untold billions of years, time has been pouring out this vast, ever-changing universe. What for? Why does time keep on coming on? You can’t slow it down or speed it up. You can’t stop it, turn it back or control it in any way. It keeps seeping in everywhere, but you can’t find any holes to plug. Where do all the inventions and unforeseen developments come from? And where did everything that ever actually happened go when it left the scene? Mysteries like those are what I’ve been pondering. Okay?”
Marie shrugged. “Lots of luck. If no one else has ever been able to solve those puzzlers … I hope you live long enough!”
Kay tried to explain. “For as long as I’ve known him, John has been gripped by questions about the nature of time. For him this isn’t just a hobby or a casual interest. Somehow time has a hold on the very core of his personality.”
“Hmmm… Very int’resting!” Marie sounded like a cross between a comic detective and a psychiatrist.
She lowered her head and looked at me over imaginary half-glasses. “Tell me,” she asked in solemn tones, “how long have you had this problem?”
I was pleased to be asked. In conversations, if I ever introduce serious thoughts about time, people tend to just throw in an old folk saying or two and quickly change the subject. In speeches and articles I like to draw attention to the central role of time in every aspect of human existence. But although time is deeply involved in our minds and everything that happens in the whole universe, hardly anybody seems comfortable about digging into the subject. My inquiry keeps my own wheels turning, but I haven’t been spinning anybody else’s. I think even Kay sometimes wonders why I take such an intense personal interest in probing the nature of time. Actually I wonder about that too. Now Marie had me cornered with her straightforward question and I was groping for an answer.
I picked up my glass of juice and sipped it slowly. As I stared out the window into mental vastness, my memory tape was rewinding furiously. Back, back through the years, flicking through dimly glimpsed scenes and fleeting snippets of reminiscence – like what people are said to see when drowning. In that insistent silence my mind at last whisked back to the earliest scene that I could remember from my childhood.
As if in a trance, without looking at the waiting women, I voiced what I was seeing. “I’m back home in our big old farm-style kitchen. I’m about four years old, standing on a chair in front of our pine sideboard. I see my reflection in the glass doors above the shelf in front of me. At the other end of the shelf a beautiful girl is kneeling on a chair. That’s Aunt Mina, my mother’s younger sister. In my hand I have a small red toy wagon with blue wheels. I scoot it along the shelf. It rolls off at her end but Aunt Mina catches it. I shriek with delight and she laughs. That’s all I remember, except my warm, warm feeling for my Aunt Mina.”
“But,” Kay interrupted, “what does that incident have to do with your interest in time?”
Marie looked quizzical. “Time,” she observed, “wasn’t obviously involved in what you said, except in that it was your earliest memory. What I wanted to know was whether you could recall some special experience when you were a child, something really out of the ordinary that might have kick-started your rather unusual concern about time.”
“Okay,” I said, raising my hand. “Let me tell you more about Aunt Mina. Being unmarried, with no job and living at home, she didn’t have much to do. Most afternoons, when her few chores were finished, she used to walk from Grandpa’s house to our place. For a few hours she would look after me and free up my mother. Mina was almost a second mother to me. Snapshots show me as a baby in her arms, as a toddler holding her hand and as a little boy kicking a ball toward her. Mina and I were very close.
“An awful loneliness came over me one morning when they told me that Aunt Mina wouldn’t ever be able to come and play with me anymore. I was taken to Grandpa’s house to see her. She was lying in bed upstairs, very pale and sad-looking. Nobody spoke. Mina just looked at me, flickered a sort of half smile and weakly patted my arm. Without a word, they took me downstairs and out to the woodshed. On the walkway over the cistern they showed me the hole in a rotten plank where Mina had broken through and torn a big gash in her leg. A few days later she died from blood poisoning.
“On the day of her funeral, I remember the fearsome scene at the cemetery – the forest of strange, tall stones; the ornate black hearse, shaped like a royal carriage, hauled by a team of sleek black horses. They pulled up near a green-covered mound where people were gathering. The day was gloomy and wet with a steady drizzle. Black umbrellas. Black coats. The men took off their hats when my aunt’s oaken casket was carried around the mound and set down on the straps of an apparatus over a deep hole in the ground. The people closed in and lowered their eyes while a man with a round white collar voiced solemn sentences.
“After the casket had been lowered into the hole, friends and neighbors filed past Grandpa and Grandma and my mother. They clasped Mother’s hand in theirs, offering their tears, their sympathy and words of consolation. My father was standing just behind and beside my mother. Up in his arms I could hear what the people were saying to her: ‘She was so young. But her time had come,’ and ‘What is to be will be.’ I remember streamlets of water running down into that hole in the ground.”
Sipping my orange juice, I was lost in reverie.
Kay cocked her head. “You never told me that story before, honey. Why now?”
Setting down my glass, I rose from my chair and leaned over the table. With the utmost seriousness I looked from Kay to Marie.
“I realize that in my childhood I actually had had an upsetting experience, one that got my mind entangled with time.” I thumped my forefinger hard on the table to emphasize every word. “It was what happened at Aunt Mina’s burial!”
Marie was really interested now. “Do say more.”
“Don’t you see?” I asked pleadingly. “Someone emotionally important to me had been yanked out of my life. I missed Mina terribly. And several wise adults had all volunteered the same explanation for my loss. Everyone kept saying, ‘Her time had come.’ Do you hear that? ‘Her time had come.’ I heard those words over and over again. They were burned into my brain. I can still hear them echoing and reechoing. Time had snatched away my dear aunt. Time had left its claw marks on my soul.”
“Now, dear,” Kay broke in, “those people only intended to assure your mother’s family that God had your Aunt Mina fitted into a sovereign plan. They were hoping that your folks would accept Mina’s departure without protesting too much, but would just give over your aunt to take her assigned place in God’s plan. After all, haven’t owners the right to do what they please with what belongs to them?”
I slowly shook my head in uncertainty. “Maybe my mother and her parents got that message, but I certainly didn’t. I never heard those people say anything about God’s plan. But I did hear them state again and again that her Time had come. Her Time!”
“And what did you understand by that, John?” asked Marie.
“I was only five years old. In my imagination a Time was a quasi-person, a sort of prowling wraith that stalked its prey and lay in wait to nab a person in an unwary moment. That repeated saying, ‘Her Time had come,’ raised a lot of worrisome questions for me. Questions such as: Does everyone have a ‘Time’ that’s coming to get them? Will my mother’s Time spring out at her some day and snatch her away from me like Aunt Mina’s Time did? Will Time come and take away my kitty-cat? Is my Time lurking around here somewhere, just waiting to grab me and take me away somewhere? Will my Time put me too into a big hole in the ground, one filling with muddy water? Will everybody then go away and leave me there? Oh, I had lots of terrifying questions about the sinister intentions of Time.”
“Mm-hunh!” mumbled Marie. “Now I’m beginning to understand where you’re coming from.”
Kay nodded knowingly. “And as a child you had heart trouble. I’ll bet your precarious health boosted your dread – your terrible fear that Time was pursuing you with … uh … as you say, sinister intentions.”
“It certainly did,” I said. “I came into the world with a defective heart, Marie. Every so often I would pass out and turn blue, giving my parents a scare. They used to revive me with sips of sweetened brandy in water. As the months went by, they wouldn’t allow me to do anything very strenuous. Several times a day Mother would make me lie down and rest. If I caught a coughing cold my heart would act up. Mother would keep me in bed for days and days. I hated staying there in bed when I could hear the neighborhood kids out playing.
“Once the doctor let me listen through his stethoscope to my mother’s heartbeat. It was a nice regular ‘flub-dup … flub-dup … flub-dup.’ But when he put that round, shiny, cold thing on my own chest I could hear horrible, squishy, irregular sounds. ‘Flub-squish-dup-silence-flubbity- duppity-squish …’ I looked up at the doctor open-mouthed.
“‘And that, my dear boy,’ said the doctor, ‘is why we have to take care of you. Make things as easy as you can for your mother.’
“They had set up my bed in the living room and, for weeks at a stretch, that’s where I had to lie. It was easier for my mother to look after me downstairs. Through the long winter nights the coal stove there kept me warm.
“Over in the hallway I could see the front door, and through the door to the kitchen I could see the back door, so I could keep my eye on my family’s comings and goings. My parents worked hard. Dad’s favorite hymn was ‘Work, for the night is coming when man’s work is done.’
“In the kitchen on a high shelf of its own stood a large pendulum clock in a carved wooden case. Every half hour its hammer would strike a stiff coiled spring which gave off a strange lingering sound. It knew how many times it should strike at the appropriate hour. When the house was quiet, that clock’s tick-tocking reached me loud and clear where I lay at the far end of the living room. All through the night it kept counting off the hours, reminding me that ‘my Time’ might be moving closer.
“I realize now that I learned to count by reciting the numbers which that kitchen clock wheezily banged off hour after hour. To me its steady tick-tocking sounded like the relentless tread of approaching doom. Sometimes to this day when I hear heels click-clacking along a hallway, I involuntarily remember that my life span is shortening a little with the sound of each footstep.
“My father managed a salting station for a pickle manufacturing company. Farmers brought their wagonloads of small cucumbers to the pickle factory on the railway. There the cukes were graded and stored in great wooden vats of salt brine until they were shipped. In the growing season my father wasn’t home very much. When Mother would ask him to do some little job for her, more often than not he would say, ‘I’ll look after it when I find the time.’
“‘So!’ I thought, ‘My father feels the threat of Time too and wants to spot its whereabouts. I wonder if he’ll find it.’
“One winter night when Dad was in his rocking chair reading the newspaper, I told him about those dreadful questions which had been bothering me since Aunt Mina’s burial, and asked him if there was any way to keep Time at bay.
“He nodded gravely when he realized that I believed I was being relentlessly stalked by Time. But soon his midriff jerked with a quick little sniff and his eyes crinkled in a half-suppressed smile. Then he explained that the word ‘time’ mainly refers to a number of days which have passed or to parts of those days. My ‘lifetime’ was just the number of the days since I was born. So I learned that ‘time’ is actually about all the days of my life, not just about that grim day when my life will come to an end. Chatting with Dad helped me – but not completely. He admitted that some people think our days are numbered. We never know when the last number is coming up.
“Hoping to keep me from catching so many dangerous colds, my folks decided to have my tonsils and adenoids removed. Out in the kitchen I heard the doctor tell my mother, ‘You must realize that this operation will be risky. If his heart reacts badly to the anaesthetic, we could lose him.’
“Hospital smell; taut white sheets; a shortie gown tied at the back – and I was strapped onto a hard, narrow gurney. They wheeled me into an all-white room with big bright lights. The two nurses and two doctors were all in white except for eyes and hands. The one at my head told me that he was about to cover my face with a rubber mask. When I smelled something strange, I was to breathe deeply and count my breaths. With the mask came darkness, and soon the strange, strong smell and … five … six …
“I’m down in a poorly lighted basement under syrupy liquid, trying to swim. It’s so hard to move. Something is pounding in my head. Up ahead in bright light I can see a great white clock face. In front of it stands a huge hulk. An ugly ape is slowly swinging its hairy arms around as if they were the hands of a clock. Every time its right arm moves past a number, the clock strikes a resounding bong! But the arm keeps moving faster and the bong! …bong! … bong! … pounds out ever faster and faster. Those head-splitting bongs make me want to yell ‘Stop!’ but I can’t even open my mouth.
“That’s all I remember until, back in my room, I became conscious of my sore throat. My nose was stuffed with cotton. I felt awfully sick and I reeked with the smell of ether.
“To this day if I set eyes on a clock in a tower, something in my brain has to switch quickly past a channel featuring one of King Kong’s cousins about to bong out the time.”
Briskly shaking my head, I refocused on the table and the two women.
Marie was the first to speak. “But as you grew up, I’m sure that time came to mean much more to you than the loss of a loved one and the approach of death. I don’t see you as a gloomy pessimist or an unusually timid soul. You must have had other childhood experiences which showed you that time can be pleasant and useful.”
I agreed. “Having to lie down fairly often to rest my heart wasn’t all bad. My mother had been a school teacher. She used to read famous poems and stories to me. Long before I started school I could read well for myself. During the first two grades I spent much more time at home than I did in schoolrooms. Mother did what she could to keep me up with my classes. I particularly enjoyed reading The Book of Knowledge. Through its pages and pictures, distant lands and other times became familiar to me.
“Alone for long hours in my downstairs bed, I can’t honestly remember being entirely unhappy or resentful. Although I had to stay in bed, my imagination could fly away. By day or by night I could zip over to ancient Troy and watch those Greek soldiers stealthily climbing down out of their wooden horse. Instantly I could be standing in old Rome right behind Horatio as he fought to hold the bridge. I could stroll through the bazaar of Baghdad on an Arabian night. I could hear David shout victoriously when he felled Goliath and the Philistine soldiers took off. My imagination was a time-defying magic carpet. Right there in my living-room bed I could be a time-traveler. I could go around the world in far, far fewer than eighty days.
“To my parents my heart condition was a constant concern. During one of my particularly bad spells Mrs. Moore, a neighbor woman who was very hard of hearing, came to the back door. I plainly overheard my grandmother tell her, ‘I feel he’s living on borrowed time.’
“I began to wonder whether time could really be borrowed or repaid. If I didn’t pay back the days that had been loaned to me, would that shorten the life of the lender? If on the other hand I did pay back those borrowed days, wouldn’t that shorten my own life? I couldn’t remember anyone giving me any extra time and I didn’t know how they could do it anyway. But maybe time borrowed from someone else did explain how I could keep on living when I had passed out or had gone to sleep. Sometimes it did seem that the life I was living was not at all of my own doing. To whom did I owe my extra lifetime?
“Eventually time mostly came to mean the number of days I had stayed alive. When the kitchen clock struck twelve times at midnight, it was no longer an ominous portent of pending doom. It could even touch off a quiet celebration of victory. Thus far safe! I could snuggle down in my bed, thankful that I had been given one more day of life. And since I had heard the clock strike, I knew for sure that I was still alive.”
Marie rose from the table and came around to me. Squeezing my arm she said, “Thanks so much, John, for sharing your experiences. You should have kept a diary.”
“In those days I wasn’t very good at writing,” I replied. “Must go now and start dinner. If you don’t mind, I’ll tell Jack a bit of your story. Bye now, Kay. Thanks, both of you, for an interesting … shall I say? … time.”