Six miles into a 14-mile run along the lakeshore near where my parents live, I started to feel queasy. Not two minutes later, I saw that familiar flash of blue, the likes of which make a lot of people involuntarily wrinkle their noses in disgust but will appear as a bit of blue heaven to any runner in the situation I was in. Crayola doesn’t make Porta-Potty Blue yet, but it’s unmistakable, and at that moment it couldn’t have been more welcome. I did my business there and went happily on my way, a spring in my step for being a few ounces lighter.
Sometimes timing is everything.
Runners will tell you all about the significance of time in relation to running. (Actually, runners will tell you all about every thought, emotion, or questionable nugget of information they’ve ever had about running whether you want to hear it or not, and I can’t imagine why you’d want to hear it even though I do it too.) It isn’t just the measuring of time that concerns them, though; it’s also the quality of time, the way time passes during a run. A particular mile can seem to take forever or can be so energizing you can’t believe how quickly it’s over; either way, in running we have a sharper focus on what I am doing at this particular moment in time than we do in most other daily activities. I remember when I first tasted the running Kool-ade and I could not wait to put on my shoes again, taking great pains to arrange every other activity around The Run. Meals had to be eaten at certain times so as not to cause GI distress during The Run. Errands would be run at certain times that would allow solid blocks of time for The Run. A party that started at 8pm would be abandoned before anyone had even had a second adult beverage. Can’t get too pickled before The Run.
Like so much in life, all of this activity comes down to just another way to try to get control over something that’s out of your control. Time can’t be controlled; when you think about it, it can’t really be anything’d outright. We only experience it indirectly, watching numbers change on a clock, watching miles pass, waiting for the next thing to happen to us. If you’re lucky, the things that happen are by your own doing, they’ll be good things, and there will be lots of them. If not, our lack of temporal control can make life very strange indeed.
My mother was up at 2am this morning eating cereal. Immediately after she ate her cereal, she asked when we were having lunch. This was not because she was hungry—she hardly eats anything at most meals—but because that was the next big thing she knew tended to happen in a normal day. In every day prior, she would get lunch and dinner mixed up. “Are we having dinner now?” she’d say at noon, and right after eating lunch—sometimes during lunch itself—she would talk about making dinner. She always thinks it’s a lot later in the day than it really is, and because dinner is the main thing that happens late in the day, she focuses all her attention on that. Now, I can relate—food is awesome, and I imagine to a degree a lot of us get through the day looking forward to the next meal we’re going to eat—but it’s a little problematic when you turn the stove on at 10:30am for a meal that won’t happen until 6:30pm.
The blood on her brain has mainly affected her sense of time, and unfortunately because she never had much of a routine before her illness, she doesn’t have many ways to mark time now. My father listens to the radio all day, watches certain TV shows at certain times, and meets with other seniors at discussion groups on certain days; my mother doesn’t do any of those things, has tended to listen to music on CD and watch DVDs whenever the mood strikes her. The lack of regimentation is turning out to be problematic for her, and for my sister and me in dealing with her. She has no sense of what time of the day it is, no idea how much time has passed between now and the last time she asked about it. In all other ways she appears just as healthy as ever, and as seems to be typical in these cases, her long-term memory is unbelievably sharp. She could probably tell you what she cooked for dinner on June 18, 1972, but she doesn’t know whether dinner is the meal we’ve just eaten or the one that’s several hours from now.
Yeah, it’s disconcerting, to say the least. Dementia scares many people more than death does. It does not particularly scare me; I’ve had first-hand experience of what it’s like to not have complete control over a part of your mind, in my case the part that makes me feel really shitty about everything. But it does make me wonder what we’re all going to do next. My mother’s condition could get better very quickly, or it could get much worse and become full-on dementia, one of those hideous coin-flips of life that keeps you in a constant anxious limbo.
As with the magical appearance of the Port-a-Potty just when you need it, sometimes timing is everything, even if time itself is, in some sense, nothing, an emptiness we try to fill with things that matter to us. Even in an activity like running, where we are so focused on the present moment, we can’t help but look ahead in time, to consider what may happen next. The anticipation may brings us excitement and joy—finishing a good run, seeing a loved one after being apart—or dread: Will she ever be the same again?