Eighty years after the fact, you’re lying on a worn mattress with now-thin pillows under your sun-freckled baldspot and your hand is propped higher than the rest of you.
Because it’s being held by your wife or your son or your neighbor in the old folks’ home who sometimes cheats at dominoes. Because whoever it is pulled up the ugly chair with the flower-pattern cushion and has been sitting at your bedside since you woke. Because this person really loves you, really cares about how you spend your last few days, minutes, seconds.
And even though you only recognize them in flashes — “Is it really you?” — you know this person is important to you.
And they don’t say much. They just sit. After all these years, too many words might cheapen the reality of two people sharing silence, just being together.
So you’re quiet. You’re thinking about this person. You’re thinking about your life, because you know the credits are rolling, and you’re struggling to piece together big memories, but a few of the smaller ones stick with you, and suddenly seem a lot bigger than they ever did before.
Just snapshots. Little moments on which so many other moments hinged. Thirty second bytes that, added together, brought you from the hospital at Point A to this newer, shinier, beeping hospital at Point Z.
So you think.
* * *
You think of that moment when you were 24 and sitting at your desk at your first “real job,” trying for the life of you to figure out how to make sense of this business — what, after all, were you doing? — fighting the thought that this is too hard for you; not right for you; you have no idea how this works. And how, suddenly, the guy who had been sitting next to you for six months, training you and waiting for you to just get it, said something that struck a chord and you caught sight of a word on the screen that you missed so many times before and, somehow, everything clicked. You knew then how it worked. You knew what you were supposed to do. You knew you had, in a second, become the person who, from now on, people would come to to ask, “Now, will someone explain this to me?” One second none of this made sense and the next it was clear as crystal. And it was then that you knew you would be just fine.
You remember the exact feeling you felt when you made the decision that you were going to move to that place instead of stay put. And even though there were a million reasons not to — your family, your friends, your inside-out knowledge of this place called home — you felt completely at peace about it. A decision that took months of wrestling, all at once, was made in a minute, and now you can’t imagine it happening any other way. And briefly you recall that in the filing cabinets of your mind you stored this event in the same category as Robert Frost because, in hindsight and even in those first seconds, it made all the difference.
You think about the one event that you tried to talk yourself out of but never could, when the God of heaven and earth spoke to you. Actually spoke. With words. The sort of words that passed through air, into your ears and affected nerves and synapses and wires in your brain, and ultimately everything that ever happened after. He said, “This is the way,” in English — which always made you question it — but no matter how much you tried to think it was imagined or someone cutting grass outside or circuits misfiring in some soft, gray lobe, you know He spoke. For real. To you. And told you what was up. And you listened.
You think of that This Is It moment when you knew — you just knew — that, yes, this is the girl you’re going to marry and, yes, you’re willing to lay down everything for her. It wasn’t the first time you saw her, and it wasn’t at the wedding ceremony; it was between those, something much simpler, and you’re not sure why it mattered at all, but she said something softly — you don’t even remember what — and her hands were folded and it was real, sacrificial, godly, the-sort-that-only-gets-better-with-time love. It washed over you then, in a flat second. An atom split somewhere and you were convinced she was the girl you’d spend the rest of your life with. So you did.
The time two years ago comes to mind when you walked to that girl, who had become a woman — at 78, maybe even an old woman — even though the doctor said you’d never walk again. This was a miracle, you know. (You are glad you’d come to believe in miracles by that point.) Because you got out of the chair and walked. Just for thirty seconds, and it took a lot out of you, but you walked to her, and she cried, and you almost did too, but instead you just smiled and sat back down forever.
And of course the moment you never forgot, even though it meant nothing to anyone else who was there. It was when your family was together for Easter… or an anniversary?… you can’t remember what it was for, but you remember they were all there. Your wife, your kids and kids-in-law, their kids, the dog, all 28 of you. And in the chaos — because someone insisted — everyone got together for a picture. All of you stood in one place for thirty seconds (because, naturally, the timer didn’t work the first time), until the camera flashed and some of the kids were already looking away. You don’t remember the photograph, but you remember the feeling. The feeling that this was perfect, this was your family, and you thought to yourself, Remember this, because we may never be here again.
And you never were. Not all of you. Not together.
But, even in your current condition — bedridden, tubes, monitors, the smell of cleaning products — you remember that one time. Those thirty seconds.
* * *
Now you’re happy that your hand is being held, even though the rest of you hurts and parts of you are already dead. You think of each of these moments. You know these snippets weren’t enough to carry you all the way. Thirty seconds of bliss, of realization, of simplicity probably didn’t overwhelm the other eighty years of your life, but it doesn’t matter. Because they’re all you can remember now.
The most important things that ever happened to you were really just these moments. A few breaths. A tick of the clock. An instant stretched beyond anything time can measure.
Like this very moment, when you manage to wink. When, despite everything, you smile at the person who’s holding your hand because you know there’s love there.
And maybe, just maybe, if you smile for your last thirty seconds, it might mean the world to the one who’s watching.