“Once upon a time there was a man who asked himself, ‘Where have all the days and nights of my life gone?'”
-from “All the days and nights” by William Maxwell
The past month was rough on our family’s immune systems. In early March, Fiona, Georgia, and (to a lesser degree) Erick were knocked out by a fever/upper respiratory virus. The next week, Georgia developed her first ear infection. And THEN, days later, Fiona, Campbell, and (to a lesser degree) Erick were taken down by one of the nastiest stomach bugs I’ve ever witnessed.
Throughout most of this (until the stomach bug knocked me out for a couple of days), I was the only Gong left standing. This was a REALLY mixed blessing. I’m happy to care for my sick loved ones, but it’s a lot of work: running around with food trays, bringing books and markers and DVDs, changing pajamas and bed linens (I did about 25 loads of laundry the day the stomach bug hit), forcing antibiotics into a screaming toddler. Plus, there was always ONE healthy girl to be entertained separately from her sisters.
For several weeks, I barely left the house. Playdates were cancelled. School was missed (which makes me verrrry grumpy). The days seemed endless, but at the close of each day I felt a nagging frustration that I’d accomplished nothing.
I started thinking about time. Time is a strange thing, because it seems to work in two ways at once. And my experience of parenthood has only served to highlight time’s dual nature.
It’s like this: The days ARE endless. My first thought each morning is usually, “How am I going to get through this one?” I do get through it, like we all do, by putting activities on the calendar, running errands, preparing meals, washing dishes, doing laundry, reading to the girls, and keeping them supplied with coloring books and stickers and craft materials. But every day there’s a chunk of time — sometimes it’s the entire day, sometimes it’s just the hour before dinner — when the clock seems to slow, when I’m counting the minutes until Erick gets home, when I wonder how I can possibly usher us all through the next hour (or two, or three) without losing my mind.
And yet, time flies. The phrase is overused because it’s true. It’s as if, somehow, all those endless days get smushed into a space capsule at the end of each year and blasted forward at light speed. The last thing I remember, I was holding a brand new hairdryer in a Macy’s bag and meeting a guy I barely knew at Grand Central Station so he could come to an Indigo Girls concert with some friends of mine…and now we’ve been married ten years, we own a home in Vermont, he’s a college professor, and we have three kids and a dog.
I’ve only had children for five years, but I already know that older parents speak the truth when they say, “It goes so fast!” The last thing I remember, you were no bigger than a doll and your eyes were closed but your tongue was sticking out when they handed you to me in the delivery room…and now you have the longest legs I’ve ever seen and you’re a big sister to two and when you grow up you say you’re going to be a swim teacher/singer/mommy.
Life is a series of endless days that fly. So how do we get through the endless days, those eternal minutes until dinner? Are we each destined to become someone who asks longingly, Where have all the days and nights of my life gone? Does every parent inevitably become the empty-nester who says wistfully, Enjoy every minute; it goes so fast!
Maybe. And maybe that’s not a bad thing; the idea of looking back over time and feeling that it’s flown doesn’t particularly bother me. What does irk me are all the days, here and now, when I think, This day seemed endless, yet I’ve accomplished NOTHING.
Because, as we’ve all heard, time flies…when? WHEN YOU’RE HAVING FUN! But these days — these endless days that will someday be the sum of my time that’s flown — let me tell you: most of them aren’t “fun.” They are lunches to pack and dishes to wash and children to dress and relationships to maintain and bills to pay and errands to run. Even when I purposefully create “fun” moments — painting, baking, craft-making — they’re honestly not much fun for ME; there’s a lot of preparation and clean-up for a few minutes of messy joy. There are transcendent moments, sure, but the majority of the day is dragging drudgery.
To look back and realize that time flew and you didn’t have fun seems to me a recipe for regret.
Unless…we’ve forgotten that what we do today IS fun. Perhaps it takes the distance of years to realize: All those endless days and nights, those times when I thought I accomplished nothing — those really were FUN.
How to capture that future perspective, and transport it into the present? Can we live each endless day while holding the hope that this may someday look like flying fun?
I’m not big on Pollyanna-ish denial of reality. Let’s face it: some days will just not EVER be fun. We lose loved ones, we struggle with depression, we clean up bodily fluids from every member of our family.
So I’m trying to think of my days like ice cream. In particular, Fiona’s favorite flavor of ice cream: Playdough (sold at a deli in town). Playdough is a horrifyingly sweet concoction; the ice cream base is something like “vanilla cake,” but Fiona doesn’t get it for the ice cream. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her touch the ice cream portion of this flavor. She gets it for the colored “candy gems” mixed into the ice cream, and she’ll spend enormous amounts of energy digging through the ice cream with her spoon, tracking down every last candy gem.
Our days are like Playdough ice cream because every day, no matter how terrible, has at least one candy gem in it. You may have to go digging for it, you may not find it until the day is past, but I promise it’s there. Maybe it’s something as basic as: I’ve never been more thankful for a working washer/dryer, because I just did 25 loads of vomit-stained laundry today. Candy gem!
I’m going to take my plastic spoon and go digging at the end of each day, so that I won’t have to wait until the time has flown to appreciate all my days and nights.