The Time Thief

Here we are at the beginning of another year. A year already marred by which Greek letter of the alphabet is coming to wreak havoc on us next. Conversations at home and with friends (and with strangers) focus around words like peak, surge, test, mask, variant and my personal favorite: “close contact.” My perpetual optimism and good nature have given way to patience and resignation. I feel like the world has hit pause and I am waiting with my finger poised on the play button, fingers on my left hand tapping, tapping, tapping, wearing a veritable hole on my desk.

Two years ago I had this notion that it would be excellent to throw a really big fiftieth birthday bash (for myself) in the back yard, complete with tent, dance floor and live band–or at least a really good DJ. When COVID hit I figured things might be okay(ish) by May 2022 but also being a realist, I wasn’t sure. So I didn’t plan anything. Now in the run up to this milestone of birthdays, I am still not sure. So I still haven’t planned anything. I am waiting. Waiting and seeing with my finger on the button. But it occurs to me that this may be a mistake.

For the second time in my life I feel–acutely–that my greatest adversary is what I would call “The Time Thief.” Oddly, the first time I stared with hatred into the eyes of this villain was exactly ten years ago, in the run up to my fortieth birthday. Our young family had recently relocated to London and begun an adventure that I had always dreamed of: life in Europe. Not a vacation, not a long sojourn, but a real, honest-to-goodness life for an indefinite period of time. The Time Thief had some additional plans for me, it turned out. We did get our life in Europe for four years but it was altered by a cancer diagnosis and treatment that spanned the better part of a year and temporarily limited our ability to go full throttle.

Let me take you back in time to understand how I experienced this first pause.

It is one day after my diagnosis and the first time I have been alone since we got the news, I am riding the Tube, having left Bill in Hampstead, the girls safely occupied at school. Seated facing the doors, I am staring straight ahead. In my mind is a swirling mixture of fear, anxiety and sense of urgency to research a plan and set the plan in motion. I feel overwhelmed. That’s when I realize that I am still sitting there, on the upholstered seat, watching the doors close at my stop. Like the man in the Beatles song, A Day in the Life, I “didn’t notice that the lights had changed.” So I just sat there as my stop came and went. Mind blown out.

Then of course, I came to my senses, leapt up, alighted at the next stop and doubled back. But this is when the idea first hit me. This is unbearable, I thought. The train is moving and the people are all getting on and off at their stops and life, life is moving ahead as it always does, Without me. I am not part of this. I am sitting here, observing people living their lives. And I am stuck dealing with this bullshit cancer diagnosis. I am being left behind, I thought. Yet again I am the child hovering at the edge of play while the other children all run and leap and scream on the playground, making weekend plans and having fun. I am the loser, the one missing out.

Of course I did not always feel that way. When I did experience the feeling it was in glimpses, and then I would push it away as useless and self-indulgent. This is a ridiculous way to view things, because the reality is that the person on the train next to you could be suffering from a much graver fate. Everyone has their problems. In the end it is all about perception. I figure it is pretty normal to have these invasive thoughts when dealing with an illness or other horrid life event. Thoughts such as “why is this happening to me?” And “this is not fair,” are understandable. But I wager that the former is the wrong question, and the latter though it may be true is irrelevant. Both, then, only perpetuate suffering, which doesn’t do anybody any good.

Lately I have have been thinking about how the pause I experienced after my cancer diagnosis differs from the one I am experiencing today, during the pandemic. I have wondered which was worse, if you can hang a value on such a thing. The greatest difference I perceive between these pauses is that in the first one, I felt the Time Thief had interrupted my life while the rest of the world continued to move around me. Now, in the pandemic, we all seem to be incarcerated by the Time Thief. The entire world is–to some extent–in the same boat.

So which is worse? You might think that the answer is obvious. Misery loves company, after all. But that is not the answer I arrived at. For me, this second pause is much much worse. The collective angst of an uncertain future as real time continues to tick along is almost unendurable. People are confused, angry, depressed and exasperated. They have in many cases forgotten how to interact, courtesy and curiosity replaced by rage and impatience.

So what is the solution? I think we have to keep hoping. Keep the finger hovering over the play button. Make the plans even if we have to cancel or reschedule them. In the end that’s what we ended up doing when I experienced my first pause. It’s got to be “okay so we might not be able to go to Paris tomorrow, but we probably can in two months…” And so forth. So does this mean the party is happening? Honestly I don’t know. It isn’t that I am afraid to take my own advice. It’s just that there are so many ways to celebrate a birthday. And having spent so much time staring at my own back yard, maybe it is time for another adventure. Either way, the Time Thief can kiss my ass. Because the reality is that until someone invents time travel, there is no pause button. There is only play. Onward.

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