Not a Given

You all assume next year.

The speaker? My mother, who no longer bought green bananas.

The targets? Eight junior seniors, who were casually talking about plans for next year’s season in the (Arizona) sun, without so much as a bow to that old adversary in the corner: Not the American Navy in our case, but Time.

That was seven years ago and my mother has since died, at the age of 95: I was sad but not surprised. One of the women confidently making next-year plans has also died, in her early sixties: I was sad but also aghast. And scared.

Theoretically, I know that I can’t assume even the next breath; practically, I carry on as if I’ll live forever. As if I have all the time in the world. Endless time to start new hobbies, fulfill old dreams, finish existing projects, meet ongoing exercise and other personal objectives, and sustain precious relationships.

It ain’t so.

Just as a milestone birthday can bring me up short, suddenly feeling the uncertainty about what time is left, so a milestone year can do the same. For me, 2020 is such a year: A decade marker, it invites me to consider where I’ll be in 2030. Whether I’ll be.

And it invites me to consider what to do with my time, however much more of it there is. And not just what to do, but how. Shall I use my time intentionally? Carefully? Jealously, even? Or shall I use it freely? Fearlessly? Audaciously?

Maybe how-ever else, I should use my time gratefully rather than thoughtlessly. To paraphrase that goofy mixed-message interstate billboard:

Because time’s a gift,
not a given.



This entry was posted in Appreciating Deeply, Mortality, Thinking Broadly, Through the Calendar and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Not a Given

  1. Alison Uhrbach says:

    It’s a delicate balance – good to be aware – but good to make plans. I think anyone who has worked in the Healthcare system automatically has an early appreciation of how fragile the future can be.

  2. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – I know of what you speak. Last year when I was 70 I didn’t feel that old. But now when I enter 71 for my age into an exercise machine program I am reminded of my mortality on a daily basis. What is it about that extra digit that had such a profound effect in my case? Don’t know, but I hope I have the same problem in another 10 years.

    On the other hand, maybe I should stop using the exercise machines.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – LOL. Don’t stop using the exercise machines. And I hope you have the same problem in 20 years. (As to your actual point, I don’t know why some dates/ages strike us more than others. But they clearly do.)

  3. Tom Watson says:

    Time is such an interesting topic. Is the realization that one’s time isn’t infinite what causes some people – for good or for ill – to want to leave their mark? And there are plenty of examples of both kinds of marks.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Yes, I expect that actually believing we won’t live forever motivates a lot of activity, from straight-out hedonism to thoughtful legacy building.

  4. Tom Watson says:

    A follow-up. I remember a few years back, at an outdoor concert in Parry Sound, listening to a band from Toronto called “The Red Hot Chili Peppers.” During an intermission I had a chat with the trumpet player in the group. He related to me a story about his father who decided upon turning 80 that he would learn to play the trumpet. He asked his father, “Why now, Dad, at your age?” The father replied, “How old will I be if I don’t do it?”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – LOL Exactly! Like the 50-year-old woman who wanted to speak Russian but decided not to when she learned it would take her 10 years to become fluent. “I’d be 60!” she said to a friend. “You’ll be 60 anyway,” replied her friend.

  5. Dave Jobson says:

    After each major encounter I have with the health care system it is “phew got by another one” .The more of these encounters I have the more I appreciate our healthcare system and my “luck” . Thus the question “how much more luck can I expect”. So yes not only is time a gift but as length of time on earth increases the magnitude of the gift of life increases. Not a constant function of time. Expectations are a factor. In other words the magnitude of the annual gift of life grows.

    At some point however when life involves too much suffering the gift of life becomes negative and assisted suicide may become the request to the healthcare system.

    Cheers for 2020.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dave – An interesting mathematical take – sort of the reverse of the principle of diminishing marginal utility? I think I saw something of that in Mom in her final years as things she would hardly have noticed gave her disproportionate pleasure.

  6. barbara says:

    The phrase “This too shall pass” is now way too personal.

  7. Somewhere, fairly early on, I realized that the only way to fill moments or days was with the best possible I could intend according to my inner compass (for lack of a better word), which includes a balance of some kind or one cannot keep up the pace. “Best” means “best for now” and often has to be abandoned for another run at something else that’s part of a larger “best” picture. However, the aging process is a reminder that my best is not likely to bring me the rewards of that output but someone else. Planning for the future at this stage doesn’t mean for my future but for future generations. I wish that notion had struck me sooner because it is liberating from some of those adverbs you mention. But “audaciously” has a nice ring to it!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Sometimes when I see a mature windbreak edging the home quarter of a Prairie farm, or roof-high rhododendrons around a house on the Olympic Peninsula, I think of the folks who planted and tended them. Maybe as a society we would do well to add “legacy” to our children’s vocabulary, as well as to our own. Not as an all-encompassing preoccupation but as a part of what we do with our time.

  8. Ralph Milton says:

    Bev and I moved into a retirement home 7 months ago, and it has been a revelation. Average age here about 93. We’re the kids at 85. All of them are here because some personal crises has gob-smacked them with the reality of death which is no longer theoretical but staring you in the face. The ambulance is at the door here more than once a day. What gives the short remaining life meaning at this point?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ralph – At 67, I’m not sure I have an answer that respects your stage, nor that I can add anything to Laurna’s thoughtful comments. Let me try, because I watched my mother (who died at 95) continue to find meaning in her final years despite the physical aches and pains, despite missing my father (who died 7 years before she did), and despite the pain of losing new friends to that daily ambulance. She found meaning in her old relationships and in the new ones she forged with other residents and staff members. In writing and connecting with people — some strangers — on her blog. In learning to write better. In appreciating the beauty of every day, including music. In “being” as opposed to “doing,” and in being in the moment (in that hackneyed phrase). In doing all that, she added joy to the many lives around her until the day she died. I hope to do half as well.

  9. Ralph, you and Bev give meaning to one another. You have extended meaning to me, one of Isabel’s readers. Death is never theoretical. We’re a little younger than you but with no more guarantees as to when the ambulance may arrive. We have a great deal to share in the things we talk about that are meaningful to each of us: memories, new things that catch our attention online, the birds that alight on the deck railings to steal cat food, the changing light at this time of year. And the difficulties of personal aches and pains and losses as well as our concerns for others, including in the wide, wide world. We pray more together and possibly alone. Do you have access to music? It can give you a lift. Ask someone to bring you headphones and you will get a bigger lift. And let us know how that works for you. People are listening to you.

Comments are closed.