The brilliant, awful truth of existencePosted: November 18, 2015
I went to my 20th high school reunion on the same day I went to a high school open house for my oldest child.
At the reunion, our name tags had our pictures from our freshman year in high school. There I was with my bangs nearly flopping over my eyes, my entire future unscripted and unknown. I pressed my name tag onto my blouse and thought about my oldest son, with his hair flopping down across his forehead, how he’d be turning the same age as I was in that picture in just a matter of months. In some odd way, I felt as if he was becoming a peer.
I don’t feel all that different from the girl I was in that picture. I remember everything she liked and wanted for herself. I remember all her hopes and dreams and fears. I’ve certainly changed, my priorities and values have shifted, but that young girl is still with me. All I have done for that last twenty years is sleep and wake up, and life has happened around me. I got married, earned degrees, moved, had children, moved some more, and then finally returned to my hometown. Through it all, the years just passed without any sort of fanfare. I wish we had to crank the gears on some giant clock or push time forward in any sort of physical way, because this sunrise-sunset business crept up on me. Wrinkles just showed up on my face; grey hair appeared out of nowhere; and my waistline decided it had enough. After three children, it was done shrinking back to its pre-pregnancy size.
But I’ve always regarded these changes as invaders of that original younger me. I catch sight of my fleshy stomach in the mirror and wonder, “When did you get here?” And now this boy that grew inside that same, stretched-out belly is growing into his original version of himself. I have been watching it happen day by day, but beholding it in this almost man, who stands taller than me and speaks with a voice so much like his father’s that I have to look up to see who has entered the room, I am overcome with a melancholy so sweet and yet so bitter that it sits like a pill on my tongue.
Thinking about how quickly the first thirteen years of my son’s life passed, I dread this turn toward high school. Will those four years go too fast for me to understand that they happened at all? Will I wake up one morning and regard my child’s empty bedroom the way I now regard my aging body, with a befuddled, “When did this happen?”
And if the first 38 years of my life went by with such speed, what does it say for the next fraction of my life? If I live long enough for this indeed to be my mid-life, how do I slow down the next half until I can feel it coasting by?
When I was growing up and I asked my mother about our upcoming plans, whether for the weekend or any travel, she’d almost always quip, “If I live that long.”
“Mom is such a downer,” I’d complain to my siblings, “always with the death and the dying. Why can’t we just make plans with a simple yes?”
Now I look back at my mother and find her wise. How could you arrive at middle age, observe the gangly teenagers around you, and take for granted this very fleeting thing that is life? It is a simple matter of doing the math. A certain portion of your life is spent, and the other portion is up for grabs. My mother wasn’t morbid. She was alive, alive enough to understand that we humans are time-stamped animals, that we are better people when we know this.
After the open house and the reunion, my son settled into a bar stool at the kitchen island and said he’d been thinking about time, how fast it was going, how it cycled from school to weekend without any change in its rhythm except for summer, but then summer ended and he had to go back to school. And, then school would end and he’d have to get a job. There were no breaks. Time just kept going.
It was as if he’d been reading my own thoughts, but I didn’t want my thirteen-year-old contemplating life’s ephemerality just yet. One of youth’s greatest joy is its obliviousness to time, that feeling that hours were yours to squander. He was skipping this perk entirely.
However, this was not my son’s first moment of existential angst. Last year, he’d watched a moth struggling for his life on the living room carpet, the way its undamaged wing moved slowly up and down and the other wing just lay there slack. Witnessing a living creature in its final moments overwhelmed him so much that I picked up the moth in a napkin and gently tossed it outside with the claim that, “I bet this fresh air will revive him.”
I’d known that there was no hope for the moth, that the only thing I was trying to save was my son from any evidence of life’s fragility, but my rescue operation had failed. “I bet it’s just coasting down to the ground,” he’d said as soon as I closed the front door.
Now, in that same disconsolate tone, my son added, “This feeling always comes to me on Sunday nights in that lull between dinner and getting ready for bed. It just brings me down to think that this routine is life. There’s no way to make it stop or slow it down.”
I wanted to clamp down my son’s thoughts, with a, “No, no, you are my baby, and we must always believe that you are immune to time. You will live forever because any awareness of your mortality has the power to kill me.” But I forced myself to listen because this is the brilliant, awful truth of existence: We live and then we die. We all die. Every day we live, we march closer to our end, to our life breath escaping the fleshy pouches that hold us.
“And so what?” I like to think in my more enlightened moments. Nothing lasts forever. It is enough to have had the privilege of passing through this planet, to see, hear, and touch this broken and beautiful world for a time. Other days, I think life is more palatable when death is taboo, when it is all wrapped up and packaged away with fear.
But that Sunday, I sensed that death was not really on my son’s mind as much as he wanted to know, what is the point. What is the point of all this routine when life is so transient, when everything we work to accomplish is so short-lived?
At the time, I had no words for him, nothing to say except that these are questions people have been wrestling with for ages, that they are the kind of questions philosophers ponder because they don’t lend themselves to easy answers. But later when my son came to me for a good night kiss and my lips pressed against his cheek, still soft and fleshy enough for me to sense the baby he’d once been, I felt so keenly that the answer lived inside his own question. These routines are the best stuff of life, these small moments that repeat often enough to give us the illusion of permanence, that let one day blur into the next and let us believe that we still have time.
Read more by Huda, here.
Huda Al-Marashi is an Iraqi-American at work on a memoir about the impact of her dual-identity on her marriage. Excerpts from this memoir have appeared in the anthologies Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women, Becoming: What Makes a Woman, In Her Place, and Beyond Belief. Other works have recently appeared in The Rumpus Funny Women Column and the anthology Rust Belt Chic. Her poem, TV Terror, is part of a touring exhibit commemorating the Mutanabbi Street Bombing in Baghdad. She is the recipient of a 2012 Creative Workforce Fellowship, a program of the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, made possible by the generous support of Cuyahoga County citizens through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.