By Alie Wiegersma Smaalders
October 21, 1923 – March 12, 2018
Originally published in 2002 in SHARK REEF’s Nine Eleven Special Edition
“It’s twenty-one minutes before the hour.”
The radio announcer’s voice is cheerful, but the words sound ominous. Before the hour of what. Death? I shudder.
It’s early morning when I hear this on the radio and my sleepy mind panics as I’m trying to think of everything I ought to do before I die. Once I am truly awake the uneasiness about death recedes like a bad dream will when the day’s activities take over. Except that this is not a dream, it’s an alarm bell I cannot ignore.
“We do not count a man’s years until he has nothing else to count,” warns Emerson. Still, as the end of my eighth decade comes closer, I am more and more aware that time is running out. How much time have I left? Years? Months? Days?
I am inclined to put things off as if I had oceans of time. Oceans of time to put my house in order, to write everything I want to write, easily a few decades worth. A few decades is out of the question. Even if I have some years left, can I count on still being able to write? The answer to that question is of course no, life offers no certainty, ever.
I had better set priorities, itself a difficult and time-consuming task. To spur me on, my older brother sent me a Frisian saying I pinned above my desk: “Slûge scoe ek, mar hja stoar earder.” Translated freely: “‘Later,’ she said, ‘but then she died.’”
Time and death are intertwined. It may have been the poet W.S. Merwin who reminded us that there is one particular day each calendar year which sooner or later will be our very last day. Each year we pass that day without any concern; we have no idea when our time will be up.
In my parents’ and grandparents’ homes, the measured ticking of the hanging clock was background to what went on in the room. The pulling up of the heavy brass weights was a solemn ritual: it made me aware of time passing. Only when playing certain children’s board games do we still use an hourglass, symbol of the transitory nature of time.
But the sands are running out nonetheless. I look forward to a trip. The day of departure finally arrives. I leave, I come back. Time marches on. Slowly, inevitably, death comes closer. Not that I think about this every minute, but definitely more often than I used to.
An eighty-five-year-old friend says matter-of-factly: “We go when it’s our time to go, that’s all there is to it. No sense fretting about it.”
All of us have to accept death eventually, but not everyone is ready. Isn’t that what keeps many terminally ill persons going a while longer, the fact that they haven’t yet come to terms with dying?
William Saroyan expressed what most of us feel: “Everybody has got to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”
Is it only the old who think about death? If we are fortunate not to lose a parent early in life, we don’t tend to give much thought to death when we are young.
“Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic” says W. H. Auden. It registers only at the edges of our consciousness.
Young children’s sense of time is different from ours. Childhood is forever, there is no end to an afternoon of play, a school year lasts and lasts.
I remember when playing outside after school how easy it was to forget about time, not to notice the hands of the clock on the church tower, not to pay attention when the golden rooster topping the spire no longer glowed in the late afternoon sun.
Once time entered my consciousness it was too late: that is, it was past the dinner hour. I raced home. My father’s reprimand may have seemed short to him, but I thought it took a long time before I was finally allowed to fill my plate. I don’t remember when I grew accustomed to having my life regulated by the clock.
I lived in occupied Europe during the Second World War. I learned about death then and about the fact that there is nothing absolute about time. Early on we used to say: “the war will be over soon”. Slowly we had to accept the fact that it wasn’t going to be soon at all. As the war wore on, the years stretched and in retrospect the five years of occupation lasted a lifetime.
A shift occurs in our concept of time when our last parent dies. Suddenly we are the older generation, the buffer ahead of us is gone. We are next in line.
I made peace with the death of my parents, who both lived to what is called a ripe old age. But sometimes l find myself momentarily bereft when I realize that all those who populated my growing-up world are no more. That whole world is no more. I can still visualize the people clearly: there is the woman I called Aunt Rixt, her white hair flying in the wind, she’s waiting for me next to her hedge of yellow roses. I can see the people interact, can wander around their homes and gardens or their places of work in my imagination as if I could visit them there today. I can, but only in memory. As friends die, more and more of my past is accessible only in memory. I can’t pick up the phone and give them a call.
Why do we tend to pay more attention to what was as we get older? Why does it become more important? When still in the maelstrom of work and raising a family, paying close attention to the present as well as planning for the future is quite enough. At a certain point many of us are shocked to realize that what lies behind us is a long stretch of years while the future is limited.
Maybe we tend to put off thinking about our own past until we are older, because we assume it will always be there for us to consider. Not so. Our own past may slip away from us as we age. Those who have lost their past, both short- and long-term, sometimes are unusually aware of what that means.
It was my mother-in-law’s birthday. We visited her in the nursing home with our daughter and her son, still a toddler. I asked before we left:
“Was it a good birthday party?”
She answered: “Yes, very good, but the problem is I won’t remember a thing. I wish I could. Or that I could remember my life. I could think about the good times then. Now all I think about is what’s for dinner tonight.”
My father’s memory was still good near the end of his life when he could no longer read or go for walks. When the caretaker who brought his meal asked if he had been bored, he answered cheerfully:
“No, not at all, I was on the island this morning.” The island was where he used to teach some seventy years earlier. Revisiting the past gave him pleasure. Revisiting the past helps us make sense of our lives.
We use certain markers, points in time, to help us chart what has happened: before I left home, when John Kennedy died, after my mother’s death, during the Vietnam war. And now even the young share with us one definite marker: September 11, 2001.
Do we give up on the future as we grow old? I don’t think so. Our future is limited, but if we are able, we should not ignore it. Being overly preoccupied with the here and now is like running in place. Not giving any thought to the future can also mean being totally passive, doing nothing but waiting for death.
No matter our age, I believe we should put ourselves squarely in a continuum of time: past, present and future; together they form the threads of our lives, which help keep us in balance. My mother was eighty-nine when she wrote me at year’s end: “I will not use up all of the new calendar.” She was right, she died three months later, two months before her ninetieth birthday. On her desk was a list–with some of the entries already crossed off –- of calls to make, appointments to keep and letters to write.
“It’s eleven minutes before the hour.”
I’m awake when I hear this the next day and I smile at yesterday’s terror. I look up at the large plate above our bedroom door. It carries a Frisian saying:
“De tiid hâldt gjin skoft “: time never takes a break.
Carpe diem. Enjoy each day. There may not be many left.