Cherishing the Time of Our Lives

A friend wrote a beautiful song a few years ago with the refrain, “Time, like gold, is hard to find, is hard to hard to hold.” The melody of that song has been playing in my mind frequently these days, perhaps because the words express so poignantly my beliefs about time and the passage of another year. It has occurred to me often that, except in reality, time does not go by at a consistent rate of speed.

When I was waiting in a dentist’s office a few weeks ago to begin the process for a root canal, I would have been willing to attest that every minute lasted hundreds of seconds. A friend of mine, who is a student in a graduate program that involves many timed exams, assures me, however, that the minutes during testing have significantly fewer seconds than 60.

While we have all experienced how time can fly by or drag, depending on what we are doing or waiting for, we can be certain that as the song reminds us, extra time is hard to find and definitely impossible to hold. To me, it is equally significant that time, like gold, is hard to mine. That is, it is difficult to plumb its depth and extract its beauty, its meaning. Instead, we tend to bemoan its passage or, alternately, wish it would hurry by. As one who often longs for more time, I’ve been pondering at the beginning of this new year how I’m living the time I have. A rather surprising question posed to the participants by one of the speakers at a conference I recently attended has prompted me to reflect even more deeply on the gift of time: “What would you like to be caught dead doing?”

I had a lengthy conversation not long after that conference with a good friend’s son who has been H.I.V.-positive for over 15 years. Having almost died twice during that time, he lived his days in the conviction that death could be imminent. But in the last few years, after he began taking the newest drugs, Bob experienced a real rebirth. He no longer felt a death sentence hanging over him; he was able to go back to work and, as he described it, “pay taxes and be a real person again.” When I asked him the question posed at the conference, he did not hesitate to respond, “Just what I’m doing now.”

He told me about the perspective he had acquired in the years before the new drugs, the importance he had learned to assign to the present, the only time he was sure he had. He had promised himself then that if he lived, he would try never to lose his focus on what he considered most important. And as he told me of his refusal to work overtime to earn more money, his lack of interest in “getting ahead” of his competitors, his concern about spending time with those he most cared about and helping those in need, I was convinced that he was truly holding on to the perspective he had gained from being so close to death.

Not long after that conversation, I had dinner with a friend whose husband had died suddenly a few months earlier. She had told me how glad she was that she and her husband had made a pact with each other shortly after their wedding day 30 years ago. They had agreed that they would never go to bed angry at each other, and they had kept that promise. Sometimes it meant they had to stay up much of the night talking through the issues that divided them. “It was worth it,” she told me, “because as sad as I am about Joe’s death, I feel good that we did not waste the time we had together. We really saw every day as a gift.”

Both my conversation with Bob and that with my friend have made me wonder why we don’t more frequently learn from the lives of others. Shouldn’t hearing others’ stories, understanding what their experiences have taught them, seeing the changes in their lives, affect our lives too? I keep wondering during these early weeks of a new year, how we can begin to value the present moment before a doctor tells us what all of us know already, that we have only so much more time to live.

I recently read a review of a book entitled, How, Then, Shall We Live, Knowing That We Will Die? Although I haven’t yet read the author’s answer, I think I know what I want my answer to be. I would like to believe that I will live remembering that we are all, right now, having the time of our life—the only time we will ever have. I want to remember, not in order to focus somberly on life’s ending, but rather to help myself live my days as we all surely wish we would—caring about what is worthy of our concern, ignoring the superficial or petty, clinging to what gives meaning to our lives and recognizing that death is one reality that can do just that—if we let it.

I want to believe that we can and will learn from others’ experiences, from Bob’s perspective, from the pact my friend and her husband made and kept and from the title of that as yet unread book. It is my hope that every life story we hear will remind us that time is a gift, that it is more precious than the gold of the song and that, while it is impossible to hold, it can be mined and treasured with the help of those who would teach us by their own lives and deaths.

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