It was a hot, muggy morning last week, the final day of my month-long vacation in Wisconsin, and my abdomen was in a state of turmoil. I’d later realize my stomach tumult was not indigestion but a bilious stone in the gallbladder I should have had removed years ago. I tried to focus on the task at hand rather than the radiating tenderness in my upper-right quadrant (I’m doctor-avoidant like that).
When people read my book, they almost invariably comment on the introduction, an anecdote that relives an angst-riddled conversation I had as a seven-year-old with the guidance counselor at my elementary school, Mrs. D:
“So, I’m already seven and a half years old,” I began, after selecting a crayon. “Plus, my dad just turned forty! I’m getting too old. Time goes too fast, and I can’t stop it.” (T&D, p. 11)
Looking back, I chuckle at how old forty seemed to me then–how perilous an age it felt for my dad to reach.
But at the time, it was a vaguely traumatic event.
To mark the milestone, my mom and aunts planned a surprise “Over the Hill” party for my dad. Or at least it would have been a surprise, had my younger brother not been asked to say grace for dinner the night before it was to occur. After praying that God would bless the meatloaf and Velveeta Shells ‘n Cheese and whatever else was on our 1990s dinner plates, Matt yielded loftier matters to God. “Jesus, please help my dad not to find out about his surprise birthday party,” he said, in his childlike faith forgetting that others at the table–namely my dad–could also hear his conversation with God.
Dad wasn’t thrilled about the party, but acted surprised and was a good sport.
The next day, as our family gathered for the festivities, I asked my aunts what “over the hill” even meant.
“You know when a car drives up a hill, and goes really fast on the way down?” One of them asked me. I nodded. It was like that, she explained. My dad had gotten to the top of the hill–nothing left except to coast downward, quickly.
“Until SPLAT!” she said, making her hand into a car that had just crashed into a wall. “It’s over!”
It meaning life. My dad’s.
Back in school the following week, I couldn’t stop thinking and crying and asking about all of this. So my mom or teachers did what they often did when I was that age, they sent me to Mrs. D’s office.
In factories and other risky work environments, they measure time by days since the previous accident. In elementary school, one of the ways I measured time was by counting the weeks or months since I had last been sent to Mrs. D’s room–almost always to talk about something death-related. There was the existential crisis of 1991, when my first-grade year kicked off with Michael Landon (“Pa” on Little House on the Prairie), Dr. Suess, and my grandpa dying within months of each other. The existential crisis of 1992 was when my dad turned forty. Some pets (a dog? Some gerbils?) died in 1993, I read a lot of young-adult books that featured dying protagonists in 1994, and the Oklahoma City bombing happened in 1995…
In between these emotional catastrophes, I did kid stuff: I formed a recess club called “School Daze” in which I tried to get other kids to attend my classes; attempted to teach myself Spanish and French on the playground; got beat up a few times by my then-best friend until it finally dawned on me that best friends don’t beat you up; and at age 8 went about establishing a diligent daily jogging regimen (I was not overweight or concerned about my body image–I just liked discipline).
So yeah, I was an almost laughably driven, anxious, and empathic kid.
I would be a lot more embarrassed looking back if I hadn’t had teachers and loved ones in my life like Mrs. D and others, who encouraged rather than limited my young self:
With warm hands and an even warmer smile, Mrs. D ushered me into her room, a tiny nook that had once been a janitor’s closet. Despite its dinginess and small size, the room was one of my favorite places in the whole school. Instead of windows, the wall was plastered with drawings, a patchwork quilt of crayon and construction paper. As we tucked ourselves into the child-sized table that the narrow walls could barely contain, Mrs. D scooted a box of crayons towards me.
“Let’s color!” She said. This was her ritual, her invitation–to talk or be silent, but mostly to be myself, with all my worries and fears, no matter how silly they seemed.
When I was drafting T&D, I tried to reach out to the real Mrs. D. When using real-life anecdotes, I like to fact check and get tacit permission from people I mention (even when I don’t use their real names). But I was never able to find her. I wracked my brain, trying to figure out how old she would be now, but I know that as a child I was no good at guessing people’s ages based on appearances.
(Case in point: I recently got together with my former fourth-grade teacher–another kind soul–and it turns out the teachers I saw as “really old” as a child had actually been fairly young when they taught me, and most are still alive. Teachers I believed to be “really young” were actually on the verge of retirement at the time and are no longer around. For someone as obsessed with time and mortality as I was as a youngster, my instincts were a little off.)
It was that fourth-grade teacher who told me how to get ahold of Mrs. D, who still lives in my hometown and is now retired, an avid golfer with an envious tan.
Mrs. D assures me it’s not everyday someone you counseled in elementary school shows up on your doorstep with a book that mentions you. And promptly complains of gall bladder pain.
“When you called and told me your name, I didn’t remember you right away,” she said. “But then I was thinking, and I remembered your eyes. They are unique.”
Abdominal discomfort aside, we spent a lovely morning reminiscing–remembering teachers, the other places she’s worked, the fact that we both have visited Greece. I told her what I’m up to, and read aloud from Time and Despondency.
I had awoken to the reality that life is short. This new thought haunted me with a panic-stricken loneliness I can still feel, deep in my bones, now a quarter-century later. Each time I tried to face the reality of death was like peering over the precipice of a quarry filled with deep, inky water. I was desperate for Mrs. D to tell me I was mistaken, to assure me–as adults were fond of doing–that it would make sense when I was older, that death was just a misunderstanding. Yet only one thing she said remains in my memory, a remark with which she ended nearly every conversation I had with her:
It’s good to talk about these things.
These words blanketed our conversations with a vague sacredness, echoes of the benediction our Creator bestowed upon this world in the beginning: it is good. Probably she said this to everyone who confided in her. But back then, nestled into her office amid crayons and artwork, it seemed she meant it particularly for me, that it was especially good to talk about death, to talk about time. It was good to talk about how perplexing it is to live and laugh and love knowing that nothing lasts.
This was the first time I recall actively struggling with what I now recognize to be despondency.
There are times in life when time itself seems to compress–when past and present are gathered like an accordion in the most meaning-filled way. Visiting Mrs. D, reading aloud of my memories with her beside me, remembering my childhood anxieties–not all that dissimilar from those I carry with me today–was one of those times for me.
And I think it was for Mrs. D as well. She spent most of her career helping children. “It’s not often you get to see whether you’ve made a positive difference in people’s lives,” she explained after hearing the introduction, how much her presence encouraged me. I hope that my grateful memory of her service helped fill that gap.
And you know what? It’s still good to talk about these things.