Sunday, June 8, 2008


Who taught you to tell time? For most of us, the answer is either a parent or teacher. Me? Well, my mom was a teacher, so teaching us to tell time was one of earliest 'schoolings' we got. You know, the big hand means the minutes, the little hand means the hours, and together they tell us when it's time for Daddy to come home, lunch, 'Captain Kangaroo,' our naps, or whatever we were waiting for. Long before digital watches and clocks, we had to learn to count by five, had to read Roman numerals on some clocks, it was our first skill (along with tying our shoes), but only one in a long, long line of things parents teach us. For example, my elementary school teacher mother taught me how to fix my left-handed penmanship so I didn't get pencil all over the side of my hand from writing upside-down (Beve, also left-handed, still writes that way).

But now, with the gift of Alzheimers, telling time is failing for my mother. The hands on the clock mean nothing to her. She has charts in her room to compare with the watch she wears so she'll know when to go to meals, but she doesn't know what those numbers mean. She no longer remembers why we count in values of 5 with the big hand on a watch; in fact, "she's never heard of such a thing." And those numbers on a digital clock--they don't mean what they should either. She looks at them and wonders why they're there. So she'll get up in the middle of the night, and look at the clock, think she's slept the whole night and see 3:15--but to her it's just a blinking light to distract her. She'll get dressed, go sit in her chair, not even care that it's pitch black out, and see the clock on the big bookcase across from her--3:32--and wonder who brought that thing into her room--that 3:32 that she never saw before. But then moments later, something suddenly clicks in her that those numbers are values of time, and she'll look out the window and know that the world is dark, and she's gotten up in the middle of the night.

To lose the ability to tell time, to lose the value of time, means she sits for long, empty moments while time--yes, time--passes. Not asleep, not thinking, just sitting and gazing out blanking into the space where her life used to be. The activities that engaged her months ago no longer hold her attention because she can't remember when to go, and doesn't know how do do things on her own. This woman whose hallmark was telling generations of students, not to mention her six children what to do, every single day of their lives, can't get out of her chair unless someone tells her. All that education, all that bossiness, disappearing through the holes in her brain.

'Time's awasting' takes on new meaning now. Sure she has good days. Days when she gets out, when the conversations are almost familiar. Yesterday I caught her the very second after she's watched Hillary Clinton's suspension speech on TV, and Mom talked about it. She actually talked about it--it was pretty least for the first few moments. But when I asked what Hillary had said, she couldn't remember a word. I was kicking myself for asking even as the words came out of my mouth. Most of our conversations are full of scrambled words and such confusion that I have to try to guess her meaning. She points at things I cannot see, tries to find words she can't pull up, sputters and spits out half-words and phrases that don't make any sense to me. And then suddenly has to go.

Time's up. Because she can't tell time, she panics about it. Thinks she doesn't have enough, time, that is. Worries she'll be late to whatever is coming--even if nothing's coming. And unfortunately not much is ever coming in her days anymore.

This panic doesn't bode well for me, I have to tell you. I'm a prompt person myself. Hate--with a passion--being late. I can see my future and it isn't pretty. But that's not my point. It's about the other kind of time. There's chronos--chronology, or linear time--that Mom is losing. And her choice is limited about that. But then there's kairos, which is 'the time between.' A moment of significance--qualitative time. In a sense, this is ALL Mom has. She only has this moment, every single moment. I'm pretty sure she's not living kairos time--in fact, I know she's not. But what I can learn from her wasting away, her sitting in space, is that I--we--have daily, hourly, momently opportunities for kairos. We have these moments in every conversation of significance, every time we extend grace to others, including to my mother with Alzheimers. None of us, when you think about it, can do a dang thing about chronos. It just passes as relentlessly as the clocks Mom can no longer read. "My times are in His hands," says Psalm 31:15--God is in charge of our chronos. Praise Him for that! But in the between times, how will we live? I hope my moments--my kairos--to mimic Paul's: "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain."

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