How Long Have You Been Playing?

At the net

A man and a woman were several courts over… [Photo Credit: Getty IMages/Tim Clayton]

In hospice, time rules.

A hospital’s old-fashioned wall clock’s blood-red second hand seems to circle faster than a Daytona racecar. Or in the dark of the darkest night at home, a blue, glowing digital number blinks from one second to another with an agonizing sluggishness. Time roars by. Time grinds to a halt. Time marches on. Time freezes. Time is our friend. Time is our adversary. Time never stops. It’s never the right time.

  • How long will it take for her to die? I don’t want Grammy to suffer anymore.
  • The doctor said Daddy has six months or less to live. Is that true?
  • This grief is horrible, and I can’t sleep or eat. How long before I’m “normal” again?
  • Some friends don’t like to spend time with me because I still want to talk about my spouse. And it’s only been a year since the death.
  • My boss gave me two weeks off for bereavement, but will I ever be ready to return to my desk?
  • Who can grieve with so much work to do? (And if I keep working all of the time, I can avoid my feelings.)

*          *          *

Many years ago, I headed to the public tennis courts to play a few sets with a buddy. Though early in the morning, we weren’t the only ones there. A man and woman were several courts over, already deep into a match. As my friend and I warmed up, we heard the other players announce the score after each winning shot, saw them protect the net or drift back for lobs. It looked like an equal contest and I wouldn’t want to bet against the woman or the man. I was impressed, more than a little awed by their skill and energy. Both were obviously in their seventies.

In other words, not youngsters! They were, simply, good athletes.

When a practice ball skittered away from us and toward the couple’s court, I trotted over to retrieve it. I paused as the woman blasted a winner past the man’s outstretched backhand stroke. In the brief pause, I asked, “Hey, how long have you two been playing tennis?”

The man squinted at me, then glanced at his watch, and said, “About an hour-and-a-half.”

Then they returned to their game.

I thought he’d say forty or fifty years of playing tennis.

An hour-and-a-half. Started that morning. Still playing. Time was now. Time was here.

How long . . .?

*          *          *

In the hospice grief support groups that I’ve led, in the numerous phone conversations I’ve had with new widows or orphans, during not-so-casual conversations with friends, I am asked the time question. How long will the dying-suffering-death-grief-anguish-hurt last?

In the year before Dad died, with dementia peeling away his humanity while his healthy heart thundered on, I helped Mom calculate finances. Keeping Dad in a memory care facility was expensive. However, keeping him home wasn’t an option if my aging mother would have any quality of life. But what if my then 94-year old father lived two or three more years; what if he reached his 100th birthday? Would their bank account last? Mom tried to trust my pragmatic guesses, but the time clock and financial calculator in her mind created anxiety.

Time screams at us. Time tricks us. Time, seemingly so precise when waiting for the end of the workday or the first bell at school or rising at reveille in the military, becomes a muddled mess for those dying, caregiving, or grieving. How much time does he have? How much time do I have?

Though Dad did die a year later, I continually had to reassure Mom they’d done enough financially to prepare for their needs. But when anxiety projects into time’s scary future, how can there ever be enough money? Or when regret gazes back in time—ah, the deceit of hindsight—how often do you curse yourself for the wasted time of worry?

Time is cruel.

Mom never believed my practical, conservative guesses about money. Outwardly, she smiled. Inwardly, it was mostly frowning. How I wish I could magically stop the time queries. For people I try to help. For the ones I loved the most. For myself.

But we do have a choice. I can still hear the thwack of a tennis ball as the “old” woman stroked a winner just beyond the “old” guy’s reach. Were they on a first date? Or had they already celebrated their golden anniversary? I had no idea. But I did know how long they had been playing.

He glanced at his watch.

Today. Right now.

Playing Tennis

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. If you remember the premise behind the science fiction movie “Arrival” Time is not a constant. We all look at time differently.

  2. Thanks Larry for the reminder to try to always live in the moment. It doesn’t come easily, one has to consciously work at doing so – but it is so worth it.

    I love the saying, “The the past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”

    Someone once said to me, “That last breath you took? That was a gift. I have found that one of the keys to happiness is gratitude.

    After these last years volunteering at hospice, I have found that the people who have the easiest “passings” are the ones who fully live each moment remaining (as much as they are able), think about their loved ones (rather than themselves) and have a heart bursting with gratitude for all the good they have experienced in their lives.

    • Michael:

      Thanks for your response. And I continue to be grateful for your willingness to “walk” with others as a hospice volunteer. A wonderful gift.

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