Watching This Is Us this week triggered some emotional residue that concerned my family.In this particular segment of the show, hospitals play a pivotal role. Kate confined after Jack’s precipitous birth, ministers to her underweight premie, However, the underlying focus is Rebecca, Kate’s mother who not only keeps watch on the infant but is revisited as a patient: once as a young mom in a car accident, her body broken but also her mind slowed by meds; then at the conclusion of the episode, her hands fidgeting , her eyes blank, likely beset by Alzheimers. The children now grown and grey- haired gather, perhaps for the final goodbye.
The juxtaposition of Rebecca’s hospital scenes of young and old combine for a curious and sudden effect, the immediate ellipsis of foreshadowing an event, a mind under attack, with its eventual outcomes. And within less than an hour of the viewers’ time, we observe Rebecca grow, interact, age, decline: the cycle of life as if captured in one of those National Geographic photographic speed ups of a seed planted, blooming, blossoming and dying. For a flower, it’s startling ;for a beloved human, it’s painful because we know that this is our fate as well, and for the inevitable trajectories of those we love.
As a child yourself, perception and time is skewed. Summer vacations of sun and redolent sand of a few months seem to stretch forever, oases from dreaded pounding school. Teachers, in reality young and perky in their twenties, even kind ones appear to be ancient, so so old. Proceeding through middle and high schools, life accelerates soon, shorter vacations, an awareness that more closely conforms to truth. But eventually before you are even aware, the reverse sets in and months seamlessly turn into days as you mark out holidays, milestones, plans for weekends, next month, next year, checking them off in red on your calendar as quickly as they appear. It’s Groundhog Day in reverse.
Even if you are ignoring or not noting your own changes, your children are the physical markers of the days as they first crawl, then walk, then leap to adulthood, all ready making plans for future endeavours and love relationships. In your own head, you’re still the same, but your mirror records the alterations on your face, your back, your walking gait, that shrink you each year, reminding me of Marquez ‘s One Hundred Year’s of Solitude, both in confusion and imagery of shoes or clothes enormously large for bodies that have become the size of dolls. Still you collect treasured precious moments in photographic books or digitally, in which you’ve frozen the frozen perfect marriages, celebrations that slowed the days, making them memorable and retrievable of a good life you created for your family.
In the flow of time, I think too of my parents and their last days in hospital, and I don’t want to think of them. My mother ,who like me hated hospitals, demanded to go home, turned her face away in anger, and my own response of self protection and little acquiescence; my father enclosed in his hospitable bed, the victim of doctor ignorance, then in a coma when only a few days prior I had been rubbing his feet and he assuring me, “ Of course, I loved you Pat.” He 68, younger than I am now. I think both would have preferred to drift into sleep at home, never to return. Or my mother-in-law’s agitation, her final days as a patient in an institution where she once, warmly welcomed, was a volunteer.
Rebecca’s leap from active to passive, the dramatic speed up of time, ephemeral time was what caught me off guard. Even in my doctoral thesis, I had quoted TS Eliot in the Four Quartets, so fascinated have I always been by the seconds, minutes, hours and years that can lapse, meander, speed by, confound and heal. Eliot once wrote,
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.”
And so watching the combination of “ time” in Rebecca’s life in This Is Us exerted a profound effect on me. Perhaps more than ever, it’s my own age as I struggle to accept I’m no longer young, for the belief of the baby boomers was that, unlike their parents, they would endure fresh, active and able forever, time posing no barrier. Unlike our dodgy parents who toiled, wore white gloves only in the summer, obeyed rules and conventions, we would dance at dawn, free. If you are a boomer, you know exactly what I mean.
Now there is an incredulity that accompanies what slows us down now, amazed at our selves. Strangely, what we wore, our clothes, tie dyed,high waisted have been reverted, unlike us, persisting, now lauded and reissued as retro and our rock groups of Jagger and Lightfoot and Fleetwood Mac make last gasp tours as their boyish( and girlish) charms and talents have faded. But even they must know time has marched on. And we finally acknowledge what our parents knew and tried to impart to our stubborn refuting heads.
As above, the poets said it best as in Tennyson’s lament by Ulysses,
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Ironic words for Tennyson was 24 when he wrote the poem in 1833.
In one of Tara Brach’s meditation, she soothes by quoting Tilopa,
Let go of what has passed.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.
At present, this is my mantra.