It was the morning after my daughter’s eighth birthday and since she had a delayed school opening, she got to sleep in late. Taking advantage of the quiet I made myself breakfast, put on a pot of coffee and then, after I’d stowed the dishes in the dishwasher, retired with my java to the couch and began reading a book by John D. MacDonald; an author who, despite my long-standing love of the detective genre, I had never read. After about an hour, however, Natalie woke up and peeked around the corner at the top of the stairs.
“Is my birthday over?” she said.
“But I didn’t get to have a party.”
“I know, honey,” I said. “But we had to postpone it because Daddy had COVID.”
“Don’t worry, Natalie. You’ll have your party soon.”
After making my daughter her usual breakfast of waffles, peanut butter and sliced apples, I turned on the television and let her watch The Thundermans, a kiddie sitcom about a superhero family. I can’t stand it, but those are the sacrifices a father makes. But after about hour, with my ears and sanity strained to the breaking point, I shut it off.
“An hour of television is enough,” I said over her protestations. “And you didn’t take a bath last night. The bus will be here soon. Go upstairs and clean up.”
“I hate baths,” Natalie whined.
“C’mon. Chop Chop.”
“Can you come with me?”
I sighed. My daughter is a very headstrong and independent little lady. But with certain things; like going to bed, venturing into the basement or taking a bath, she sometimes requires a parental escort. “Natalie,” I said. “You’re eight years old now. I think you can take a bath by yourself.” My daughter’s reaction to my fatherly missive was to burst into tears. Roused by the wailing, my wife walked into the room.
“What happened?” she said, glaring at me.
“I told her to take a bath,” I said, trying to look innocent. Then Natalie ran into Annie’s arms.
“I don’t want to be eight years old,” she said, blowing snot into my wife’s housecoat. “I don’t want to grow up.”
“There, there, dear,” my wife said, stroking her hair. “It’ll be alright.”
“I want to stay seven!”
“I hear ya, kid,” I thought to myself.
Like most parents, I sometimes entertain notions of temporally freeze drying my child so they’ll stay little forever. As I see Natalie changing almost every day, I could be forgiven for wanting to stop the clock and savor this sweet and innocent time for just a little bit more. Natalie, however, is entering that period in her development where she’s starting to think abstractly – which means she’s starting to think of the future and the demands adulthood will make on her. And, like most smart kids, she starting to figure out that life won’t be all unicorns, puppy dogs, and birthday parties. That can be frightening for a kid, especially when they start to realize the world is much bigger than the safe and loving home they’ve always known. So, I don’t blame Natalie for not wanting to grow up. But then again, many adults don’t want to grow up either, myself included.
When I was twenty-four, the age I am now seemed so far away. But when my youthful self thought about it, I went, “Oh well, in thirty years I’ll only be a hale and hearty fifty-four.” Now, when I think about myself three decades hence, I realize I’ll be eighty-four. No matter how you slice it, that’s old. After my bout with cancer, I know there are no guarantees I’ll even make that number. Working with elderly people almost every day doesn’t help either. As I listen to them moan and groan about the vicissitudes of aging and losing their independence, I sometimes want to freeze dry myself – to stay the way I am now before it all turns to shit. But, despite what sci-fiction writers would like to tell you, time only flows one way – forward. You cannot stop time and, honestly, it would be foolish to try.
At first glance, of course, such a proposition does seem awfully appealing. We’ve all imagined being twenty-four forever. But think about it, would you ask an eight-year-old to stay a child in perpetuity? Or a ninety-year-old to remain trapped in their decaying body for eternity? No, the kid eventually would want to grow up and the oldster would, at some point, yearn to be released from their mortal coil. Besides, if time didn’t march on, I’d have never gotten my act together, gotten married or had my daughter. When I think about it, change has been good for me.
Change is central to our being because we are dynamic creatures. When you think about it, you’re never the person you “truly are” at any given time. We start life as babies and then move through time into childhood, stormy adolescence, adulthood, middle age and then, if we’re lucky, we get to take advantage of those senior discounts at the movies. We are all works in perpetual progress. But we all live with the knowledge that all these changes will ultimately result in our deaths. So, as we get older, it should come as no surprise that we start regarding our birthdays with a certain amount of ambivalence. We know our tomorrow are running out.
When we look at it that way time becomes our enemy – “The fire in which we burn.” But I have always had the suspicion that all this God/ life after death stuff is bound up in the question of what time truly is. God, at least as he’s classically defined, is infinite, perfect, unchanging and beyond time. But we live in time and, when we think about our finite existence, God’s infinity can seem awfully intimidating. How can we even begin to wrap our heads around his eternal vastness? We can’t. Infinity, by definition, is completely beyond us. If God was a destination, even if you ran toward Him at light speed for quintillions of years, it would be like you never took a single step. The journey would be endless. At first glance that sucks – mostly because much of Western thought looks at infinity as a bad thing. The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel defined a “bad infinity” as “one in which the operation to overcome finiteness always remains the same, repeated and never comes to its destination.” In short, you’ll never get to where you’re going – like Sisyphus rolling that stupid rock up and down a hill for all eternity.
Hegel’s solution to this bad infinity problem was quite simple. He argued that since there is nothing greater than infinity then it logically follows that “the finite must therefore be contained in infinity, or, to put it another way, that the infinite includes everything finite.” But a thousand years before Fredrich was born, Christian thinkers were already pondering what the that really meant. We can never grasp the infinite perfection of a changeless God, they argued. because we’re finite and do change. But it’s our very finitude and imperfection – the things that make us not God –that allows the infinite to be poured into us. A saint named Gregory of Nyssa compared humans to a vessel that can stretch without ever breaking, allowing God to pour his gift of infinite and immutable being into us; allowing to exist within time but infinitely into the future. Far from being a “bad infinity” like Sisyphus’ tortured labors, nothing would remain the same because we’d change and grow endlessly. In fact, Gregory claimed we would become more and more like God, a process called theosis. And if God is blissfully happy in his perfection, then it follows we will be happy too.
But as we journey through this vale of tears such theological niceties seem like pie in the sky thinking. Time and change bring about real pain. To paraphrase something another old saint said, “One day you will mourn everyone you’ve ever loved, or they will mourn you.” Loss hurts. And as we get older, we start to realize that our tomorrows are numbered. But as I dealt with the worst of my cancer ordeal, when I was facing the very real possibility of leaving my wife and daughter way too early, I took comfort in Gregory’s view on change and time. If change is the very thing that allows us to participate in the Divine – the elastically that allows that “vessel” to stretch – then change might not be a bad thing. Sure, it causes us no small amount of distress but that’s probably because we live in a “fallen world” where our experience of time is only a shadow of what it truly is.
I don’t know what life after death will be like. Whenever we try thinking about it we run the risk of turning it into a cartoon featuring white lights, rainbow bridges, chocolate rivers and meeting Elvis. But if time is indeed part of the infinity that surrounds us, supports us and give us, well, everything, then we’re faced with a concept that beggars our understanding – that our tomorrows might never run out. The finite cannot contain the infinite but the infinite, as Hegel said, can easily contain the finite. And that brings me to something else Gregory talked about. We’ve all experienced bad things that, after the passage of time, don’t bother us as much. Now imagine yourself journeying endlessly though time. No matter how much something hurt you, or how badly you’ve hurt others, the endless acquisition of new experiences perspectives will eventually turn our travails on earth into distant and painless memories. Personally, I think the start of that journey might sting a bit as we see how our selfishness, egoism, and sin hurt us and others but, since you’ll have plenty of time, I think the kinks will eventually get worked out.
Of course, as I watched my daughter cry, I knew rapping about such eschatological musings would be useless. So, I picked her up and hugged her. “Do you remember when we went to that museum in Seattle where you had so much fun?” I whispered into her ear.
“Yes,” she sniffled. “When are we going back there?”
“One day,” I said. “But life is like that museum, Natalie. As you get older there will always be new things to see, always more fun around the corner. It might be scary at times, but trust me, there will always be something to look forward to. There will always be time to play. You’ll be all right.”
Mollified, my daughter calmed down enough to let my wife help her with her bath, brush her hair, bundle her into her winter coat, and then send her to the corner to wait for the school bus. Watching from the window, I smiled as she bravely waited in the cold, her warm breath steaming in the frigid air. Then, when the yellow bus came, she broke into a smile and then hopped on, her worries seemingly forgotten. And as the bus pulled away, I knew it was heading towards a future filled not only with reading, writing and arithmetic but also new relationships, connections and perspectives. My little girl is growing up.
That reality bothers me at times, of course. I used to hate Natalie’s diaper pail and potty trainer for obvious reasons but, when it came time to throw them out, I was kind of sad because it meant she was no longer a baby. But I knew it was also a sign I was getting older. Change, as I mentioned, always stings a bit. Cancer changed my life in a big way this year and, to be honest, I sometimes mourn the changes my disease caused. Even though there’s a ninety percent chance my affliction won’t bother me again, which is a fantastic outcome, I occasionally get depressed that I’ll never be the man I used to be. When I mentioned this to my doctor he said, “Recovery is the hard part, Steve. But in a few years, this will all be in your rearview mirror. You’ll adapt and, eventually, you’ll realize the hell you’ve been though was worth it. Life will go on.”
He was right, of course. Seven months out from my surgery, I find myself improving and healing almost every day. I started going back to the gym, dropped twenty-one pounds and my energy levels are starting to climb back up. And while I’ll never forget the terror and anxiety my diagnosis wrought, as time passes, it stings a bit less every day. Time, as Gregory posited, does seem to heal all wounds. And if this healing occurs here on earth, how much greater will it be when I’m hurtling through infinity? When seen in that light, time is no longer something to fear or change something to dread but, in fact, might be God’s mercy at work. Now, I’m just as scared and fragile as everyone else, so I make no claims to special wisdom or sanctity. I’m sure other changes will scare me terribly. But now I’m beginning to see that time and change are “signals of transcendence” – hinting at the very thing that allows us to participate in God’s infinity. Far from being a bad thing, His infinite distance from us is a great gift – allowing God not only to create everything that is not Him in all its wondrous diversity, but also giving it the ability to become greater still. You will never reach your destination – but that just means that the party will never end. And, as counterintuitive as it may seem, time and change – those realities which bring us so much pain on earth – may, in fact, be the very thing that ushers us into Paradise.
After the school bus turned the corner, I hit the shower, got dressed and made my bed. But, as I passed Natalie’s room, I wryly noted all her new birthday Barbies and stuffed animals were strewn all over the room in various stages of discombobulation. So, I made her bed, arranged her toys in a neat pile, put her laundry away and then looked with satisfaction on the order that I’d wrought from chaos. One day, probably when she’s a teenager, Natalie will freak that I’d been rummaging through her bedroom. Hopefully by then she’ll have learned to clean up after herself.
Such a change, however, might require Divine Intervention.
This really resonated with me. I am in a similar spot in life; my daughter is 9 and I too was diagnosed with cancer last year. In three months I went from diagnosis to surgery to radiation and done. Likewise I have a very good likelihood that my cancer won’t recur. Yet I am now dealing with what my therapist calls grief – I can never go back to being the person I was before I had cancer. I am grieving the loss of that person. And things now are not bad – my house is awash in Barbies and Legos and books. I am healthy and despite being a healthcare worker in the middle of a pandemic, work isn’t so bad. But the grief hangs there like a curtain, and some days it’s more opaque than others. I am working on identifying and naming emotions and sitting with them and being ok with having the emotions and knowing that at times they will be in conflict with each other. Because that’s grief for you. I’ve been a long-time reader of your blog (and your book!) and this is the first time I’ve commented but it has not been the first time where you have reflected things in my head back to me. Thank you.
My son was six when I got the cancer diagnosis. He’s now 16 and I’m “celebrating” ten years of cancer free. It hasn’t been easy. The medication I was given tore my insides up – I still am living with liver problems. But you know, ten years later, I have perspective. It’s something that changed my perceptions of myself and the people I know. I’ve actually ended up being the person who others say to talk to when they get the same diagnosis I had.
My son is 16 and having to look at what life is going to be like in a year and a half when he graduates from high school. It’s a life that scares him but I’ve told him, that he can take his time figuring out what his path will be after the cocoon of high school. I think that a lot of parents forget that the first step out of each cocoon their kids emerge out of is scary. So you’re doing good if you remind your daughter that it’s okay to be scared, and it’s just the way the world works growing up and changing.