Time is relative, Einstein tells us. It’s an artificial construct that we have created to remind us that we are finite, mortal. The universe doesn’t wear a wristwatch. And thankfully, I decided to stop wearing one the day I found out I had terminal cancer.
That was some time ago—I no longer think in terms of weeks or months—probably rather quickly if you were to ask my dear Bethany. The illness has been hardest on her. For me, there was a brief moment of panic, a sense of denial, and thankfully, a long period of acceptance.
Now I am lying on my bed, looking at the faint cracks in the ceiling of my bedroom while Emily and my two children, Mark and Elizabeth, help her in the kitchen. It’s October, and normally Thanksgiving would be more than a month away. But because there’s a very good chance I won’t be here to enjoy it this year, the family decided to celebrate Thanksgiving in October like the Canadians. I didn’t put up a fight, even though I have never been to Canada.
The door is almost completely open, and through the corner of my eye I can hear them talking and working. Liz and Mark are teasing and ribbing each other, as they always do, as siblings are supposed to do, as brothers and sisters have done and will continue to do as long as more than one child is born to a family. And there’s a singular blessing that comes with seeing them interact with each other. They fight, as all siblings do, but even in their bickering you see the love that they share. I was born a single child, and continue to be amazed by the dynamics of sibling rivalry and bonding.
I think about Mark; creative genius that he is, obstinate man that he has become. I think of the challenges he has been through; the auto accident that took away partial use of his left arm and made him drop out of college for a year. I think about the job after job that he struggled with because of his physical and mental challenges. I think of the wonderful girl that he married and the young boy that he and his wife brought into the family. I see Mark as he was when the nurses brought him out of the delivery room the first time. I see him walking for the first time. I see him playing Little League, graduating from high school, then college. I see him as the boy he was and the man he has become.
I shift in the bed and feel numbness (can one actually feel numbness?) in my feet. There’s no pain, only coldness. I know that the end will come sooner rather than later, despite what my family’s plans are.
And I think about Elizabeth. Strong-willed, beautiful, brilliant, argumentative, sharp-witted. I feel sad that she hasn’t found someone to share her life with as of yet, but I know that even with my life ending, hers is far from over. I remember carrying her on my shoulders on the beach in San Diego, her little legs dangling over my shoulders, her small hands grasping at my hair and my ears. I remember teaching her to ride a bicycle and her accidentally crashing into the neighbor’s car. I remember the day I swung her between my legs and dislocated her shoulder, prompting us to visit the E.R. I think about the row of trophies and ribbons that lined a wall of her room, and the incredible joy on her face the day she was accepted into medical school. Each memory is as sharp on my mind as if it had happened five minutes ago, and I am grateful.
My reminiscing is interrupted as Bethany comes in to check on me. She puts her hand on my forehead, kisses my cheek.
“How are you feeling, sweetheart?” she asks. I can’t tell her that I am numb and cold from the waist down. In fact, I can’t tell her anything. The cancer has affected my ability to speak, and I can only smile in response. I can see the sadness behind the smile that she shares with me.
“Dinner will be ready in about 30 minutes, OK?” We both know that I won’t be able to share the turkey, the corn, mashed potatoes and gravy, the sweet potato pie that she always cooks for me and no one else, the cranberries and the delicious pumpkin pie. I will watch them eat and share in the fellowship of family, eating only in spirit.
I see Bethany and I see the young girl I fell in love with so long ago, her quick smile, sharp wit and short skirt too much of a temptation for me in college. I had barely finished my courses and graduated, so obsessed had I been with her. We had dated quickly and recklessly, loving and fighting with the same passion, marrying as soon as our education, our parents and our pocketbooks would allow it.
Our early marriage was as rocky as our courtship had been, with both of us called to work in order to pay bills. Then one child, and then a second were born. I finally found a job that helped get us out of debt. We moved from apartment, to rented house, to our first purchased fixer-upper, to a much larger, much nicer home.
Things got better financially. But I would never surrender those first years of sacrifice and sharing. And through it all, she was there: my partner, my lover, my eternal best friend. My life was like a fine wine that mellowed with age, but I wouldn’t trade any bit of it for another year of life.
Speaking of which, I feel the numbness of my lower body taking over the rest of my body. My heartbeat is loud in my ears, slowing steadily. I look through the doorway at the others, wishing to say goodbye, but knowing that perhaps my going will be easier if they are caught up in what they are doing. There is no pain; I feel like I am watching one of those medical shows on TV that Liz made me suffer through.
And then a miraculous thing happens. I am once again caught up in my memories: of Mark, of Elizabeth, of my darling Bethany. But instead of remembering each incident one at a time, I am reliving them simultaneously. It doesn’t make sense, but then I never really understood Einstein. And I bet he was surprised when he came to his last breath as well.
For I have met my own personal singularity. Just as time slows and eventually stops as one nears a black hole, I am finding my own personal time slowing. I am reliving my life—all of it—right now. And as I close my eyes for the last time, I realize that my wonderful life is my own gift to myself.
Einstein was right. I wonder if he knows that.