After a college class a very long while ago, I sat in the late morning drinking Guinness in an old pub on Grafton Street, in Dublin, with author Alec Reid, a close friend of Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright and novelist. In Ireland then, barmen took a brief afternoon lunch break, and brought down a gate between the customers and the publicans, during which no one would be served. The bartender loudly proclaims this sacred pause: “It’s Time, gentlemen. Time!”
I knew that Reid was a thirsty man, and I — thrilled to be talking Beckett and his writing for hours with a man who knew him better than most — was concerned that without renewed libation, the lessons would soon end. Having had experience with this siesta, I rushed up to get another two pints. As I was on my way back to our table with the refills, the room filled with the booming call: “It’s Time, gentlemen. It’s Time.” Down came the rackety gate. And as only a Beckett-lover would appreciate, Reid looked at me with a twinkle of amazement as I set the dark porter down and said, “Thank you, John. You got these after Time, but not too late.”
Time: the unmerciful ruler of life, the essence of relativity, the measurement between events small and large, or, simply, the bread upon which the butter of our days is spread.
Last month, I went to the reunion of my high school class. Fifty years. The experience has got me thinking about time, as if someone plugged an amplifier into a grandfather clock.
We all get our secret sack of time at conception. Time and Life, as existentially married as mustard and hot dogs. We think we’ll just never get to that 4-foot mark on the wall, graduation day can’t get here soon enough, the day we get our driver’s license, can’t wait to meet that special someone, and, all of a sudden, retirement and 50-year reunions. What was so slow to happen is so fast to become a memory.
Time defies definition, but is hidden beneath other words: memories, regrets, joys, losses, mistakes, accomplishments, celebrations, anniversaries, funerals, baptisms, wedding days, battles and births.
“How much time do I have?” the student taking the test asks the teacher. “How much time do I have?” the reporter asks the editor about the deadline. “How much time do I have?” the patient near the end asks the doctor. Time is history. Time is now. Time hasn’t happened yet.
At the high school reunion, it was at once awkward and joyous to meet people whom I knew, spent four years of hours with, and now didn’t know any more. Actually, I knew younger versions of them. Their eyes proclaimed that who they were, they remain. But their eyes told, too, vaguely, a little of the intervening sadnesses, the aches and pains, the changes they’ve seen along the 50-year-long roads we traveled.
We each thought we knew back then something about the now that would happen. Some of us saw more clearly than others. I had a plan then. It didn’t happen. Other things happened instead. Dublin happened. New Jersey and Pittsburgh and New York happened. Work happened. Happily, my honey happened. Traveling happened. Terrible lows and flying highs happened. Days, weeks, months and years of other things happened. People came, and mostly left. Family stayed, and loved. I’m with the best people now. A grand outcome.
The reunion dinner was too short to get into my classmates’ days since we traded homework and worried and laughed together. I learned that the courses of their lives ran about as roughly as mine, and that they’ve reached about as happy a place as I have.
The reunion reminded me what was. But, more important, it showed me the present faces of what the past became. Phil and Joe, Sean, Jim and Mike. They looked great. I was glad for all of us. I wondered about the missing ones.
I think we all became who we always were.
Happiness doesn’t always come at the time we choose. Each moment is invisible and weightless, so there’s no way of knowing what’s in the sack we were given in our life’s beginning. So I’ve learned, slowly, that we can’t wait for better things to come, like the characters in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
We cannot master time, but we can always act now. We can go get what our souls need. We can go let the people we love know. We can go thank the deserving, help the needy, inspire the hopeless, join others who are doing good. No matter how old we are, we can go get the important stuff of life. Even if we get it after Time, it will not be too late.
John O’Connell retired as the Herald’s executive editor in 2016.