Hard to Grasp

Posted on November 10, 2011


On the day of my birth, I was the youngest person in my family. I know this is true for everyone who has ever been born, but I wanted to claim some special distinction, even if just for the briefest moment it took you to realize that there wasn’t anything remarkable about it.

The year was 1955. Let me try to give you some idea how long ago that was. The president of the United States was a man named Dwight. Have you ever met a person with that name? No, you haven’t. That’s because there have been only twelve Dwights in the past three centuries, and ten of them are dead.

The fifties was a time when people fooled themselves into thinking they were living at the pinnacle of modern technology. This belief grew largely from the fact that they could take pre-packaged meals out of the freezer, heat them in the oven, and eat them on folding trays while watching Gunsmoke. When frozen apple cobbler and brownies were added to the dinners, many people nearly lost their senses, sure that flying cars and robot maids were just around the corner. In fact, the goal of sending humans to the Moon was a distant dream back then, California had zero major league baseball teams, and the original Disneyland had just opened. But I was blissfully unaware of any of that. The larger world, and time itself, didn’t exist. There was nothing I had to do, and everything I chose to do at any moment was adorable and perfect. I only wish I could remember it.

Within four years I would find myself a middle child, with two older brothers, a younger brother, and my sister the youngest of five. Still, the demands of my daily schedule consisted mostly of trying to finish every page in a coloring book so I could show the pictures to my father when he got home from work. Then in 1965, my mother began watching a new soap opera. Its opening line was: Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives. She ironed clothes and stared at the fuzzy images on our black and white set, carried away by these people whose relationships seemed to be continually filled with pivotal moments and drama. Meanwhile, I played with plastic army men and tried to ignore the ponderous background music and the narrator’s creepy voice. But it was the line about the hourglass that haunted me, for reasons I can’t fully explain. I tried to blot it out by annihilating the enemy soldiers, pretending to shoot them repeatedly with my little-boy machine gun voice and then flicking them off the table. Despite my efforts, the words engraved themselves into my brain, and gave me a cold feeling in my stomach when I thought about the relentless flow from future to past.

What was I supposed to do with that time? And why did it have to run out? Why couldn’t we grab the hourglass and turn it again, to start all over? How much sand was there to begin with, and how much was left? These questions shadowed me throughout childhood.

But I didn’t actually experience the rushing passage of time. Quite the opposite. Each year on the last day of school, summer vacation stretched away like an endless landscape of dodgeball games in the backyard, swimming at the public pool, and staying out until nine o’clock. My birthday, Halloween, and Christmas approached in slow motion, as though they didn’t want to ever arrive. Time may have been finite, but there was so much of it that I couldn’t imagine it ever running out, or life changing very much. My world was small, and simple. I spent my days thinking about baseball, comic books, and television. There were stores around the corner that sold penny candy. A man drove a truck down our street every Friday and swapped fresh fruit and vegetables for fistfuls of change.

Always, there was family around, because my parents’ brothers and sisters all lived a few blocks away. One day, I grew tired of listening to my oldest cousin brag about how he could boss the rest of us around just because he was nine and a half. “Yeah, well, you’re going to die before we are,” I said, drawing from some hidden pocket of my mind where quiet reason had been replaced by verbal stupidity. “Not necessarily,” he replied. “You could all burn up in a fire tomorrow and I’ll still be alive.” I hadn’t thought of that, mostly because it required logic and a perspective I didn’t seem to possess. But it became my introduction to the idea that life can end without warning.

My next-door neighbor was a teenager named Wally, a good-hearted guy who was willing to play stickball with a boy half his age, and to be patient about it. Wally and I lived in the same small and simple world. His parents were proud and protective, and loving, and rarely let him leave the neighborhood. In 1967, Wally went into the Marines, traveled to some place called Vietnam, and never came back. He was nineteen years old.

When I was in the tenth grade, I had typing class on Friday afternoons. One Monday morning, I went to school and learned that our teacher had died over the weekend. I spent the rest of that week trying to imagine what could have happened to her, and feeling guilty about the thoughts I’d had the previous Wednesday when she criticized my uneven keystroke rhythm.

Holidays and birthdays were crammed with people, all taking advantage of the excuse to eat and laugh and talk loudly and stay up just a little later than they should have. I remember sitting at the top of the stairs one New Year’s Eve and peeking between the spindles, hypnotized by the sight of my mother and father, aunts and uncles, and even my grandmother whooping it up in our kitchen. They smoked cigarettes, drank liquor, and played cards. They danced to music coming from the same television on which I had just been watching My Three Sons, Leave It To Beaver, and The Twilight Zone. And the same television that would soon deliver the notion that the days of our lives were like sands through the hourglass. I was chased back to bed before the ball came down in Times Square, but I stayed awake and listened as the calendar flipped to a new year. At midnight, there was a loud and prolonged noise, followed by what sounded like a lot of kissing, and then subdued mumbling as the music and the fun trailed off. Or maybe I’d just fallen asleep.

I graduated from high school in 1973 and that’s when things began to pick up speed. At twenty-five, I considered the fact that I was now a quarter-century old, and it shook me. I went to bed that night and when I woke up the next morning I was a half-century old. If each grain of sand represented a day, more than eighteen thousand grains had fallen in my life. I couldn’t recall a single thing about most of them.

Recently, I recognized the fact that all professional baseball players — and many managers — are younger than I am. There are players who completed an entire career, retired, had sons who grew up to be ballplayers and who have themselves retired — all while I was doing those things I mostly can’t remember. For the first time, I am older than the president of the United States. There’s a justice on the Supreme Court who was born the year I started school. My parents and all of their siblings have died. I never see or talk to my cousins. I am no longer a middle child, but am now the oldest living member of the five.

And yet, I can look at the top of that hourglass and feel hopeful. Although I can’t be sure, it appears as though there are still a few grains left up there. I just have to avoid fires and typing class, and maybe those frozen dinners, too. But I also have to remind myself that the sand continues to flow, and I can either build castles with it or let it slip through my fingers. The time is mine to use, or to waste.

Yes, sooner or later the ball will drop and the party will be over. I’m older than I’ve ever been. On the other hand, I’m younger than I’ll ever be again. And that’s true for everyone who has ever been born.