Great Expectations

by Carol S. Hyman

This time of year invites us to contemplate time. In the everchanging flux of life, we find comfort in reference points. The transition from one calendar year to the next is so deeply embedded in our culture that we may not notice how arbitrary the human construct of a “new year” is.  And yet it has the power to help us track our shared history and the events of our lives.

When I was a child, New Year’s Eve seemed the most glamourous night ever. Like magic, a new calendar went up on the wall. I couldn’t wait to be old enough to stay up and engage in the mysterious rite of greeting the new year. A fresh start. A time of expectations and resolutions.

Years passed and the urge to party hard subsided. I began to see a quiet toast with loved ones in front of the fire as an ideal way to mark the passing of the old year. This year, as I was booking our flights to California for the holidays and back home on New Year’s Eve, I realized my husband I would likely be in our car nearing home at the stroke of midnight. I imagined that we might raise an invisible toast as we drove home from what I expected to be an excellent trip.

What I didn’t imagine was the man sitting behind us on the flight to California with a terrible cough—a man who hadn’t gotten the memo about covering his mouth. Nor that when the wheelchair attendant came to help my husband off the plane, I would be left juggling two roller bags and multiple personal items. Struggling, I heard a voice. “Let me help you with that,” and suddenly two of the bags were being carried up the jetway by, I would soon come to realize, the same man who was carrying the cough.

And so I couldn’t have predicted that several days later I would awaken sounding like the man on the plane. Nor that a few days after that, my husband, who has only one lung and a weakened constitution, would follow me into the land of labored breathing. As several urgent care center visits, steroids, and antibiotics followed, it began to seem uncertain whether we would be able to fly home as planned. My hopes of humble New Year’s Eve plans dimmed.

Despite our mutual ill health, it was a lovely visit. Our two children hosted a fabulous 40th anniversary party for us just before Christmas. Family had gathered from as far away as Japan, Sri Lanka, and Mexico. One of my sisters had put together a slideshow of photos going back half a century, pictures from when we were the ages our children are now, and of our children when they were the age of our grandchild. The continuity of past, present, and future hovered visibly on the screen.

My husband’s health stabilized, so we made our flight, and the idea of an imaginary toast in the car, celebrating being on the home stretch, beckoned again.

But time brings change. The captain announced the weather at our destination included a winter storm warning, with snow, sleet, and freezing rain, and my enthusiasm plummeted faster than our descent. When the plane landed, midnight was still over an hour away. But at least one of our fellow passengers was already well into his celebratory cups. “Happy New Year!” he kept chanting as the plane slowly taxied to the jet ramp. “Happy New Year,” a few of us weakly echoed back.

What is normally a 90-minute drive across the Green Mountains from the airport in Burlington to our home would no doubt take much longer. A day that had started in the wee hours on the West Coast would now be capped off with white knuckle driving and potentially inebriated, drivers sharing the road. I could only hope that it would end with us safely in our bed before 2019 was too far underway.

Of course, that elevated moment at the stroke of midnight between December 31st and January 1st is, after all, not qualitatively different from any other moment. But in the narrative of our lives, it provides a kind of punctuation.

With relief, after slushy, slippery roads had doubled the time of our drive, we finally relaxed into our own bed with the new year only a few hours old.

But it was only a few hours after that, the new day brought unwelcome news: the trip had been so hard on my husband that he was struggling to breathe. We greeted the new year with a page to the doctor on call at the hospital, more drugs, and an ever-increasing awareness of life’s uncertainty. And now, a week later, things have stabilized enough for us to begin a drive to Florida, where warmer weather might bring some temporary improvement in my husband’s health.

Sometimes temporary is the best we can hope for. Indeed, temporary is the nature of life for all of us, always, a fact we often manage to ignore. Especially when the calendar rolling over gives us a keen sense of being on the cusp of the future — unwritten and open and full of possibilities — time feels bountiful. Mindfulness can enhance that feeling; after all, the moment is always ending and always beginning.

And yet, whether it’s the cycle of the earth around the sun marked as a calendar year, or the cycle of a life from the infant to the end marked by birthdays and, eventually, the day of our death, life is constantly unfolding, a natural progression in which we’re always riding the current moment into the future, leaving the past in our wake. Despite our great expectations, uncertainty and impermanence rule the physical world. This is why awareness is key. It softens the blows of our spoiled plans and helps us rise to meet every moment.

Some years ago, loving the midnight ritual of singing “Auld Lang Syne” but wishing the lyrics were more relevant, I wrote some new ones. I share them with you now, along with wishes that the new year will bring you time to contemplate time.

Another year is passing, dear,
and we’re still here to sing.
With attitudes of gratitude
our voices now will ring.
Our voices now will ring right out
to hail the new year’s call.
May joy and sadness mingle here
to bless us one and all.

Who knows what time will give and take?
Who knows what life may hold?
All things must pass, all people too,
but the moment’s never old.
For now is always new, my dear,
and time’s not what it seems.
Let’s lift a glass to waking up.
Our mem’ries are but dreams.

So dream we now of old long since
and dream of future choice
when waking from our dreams
we’ll sing, all beings with one voice.
Our voices then will ring right out
and hail each new year’s call,
with joy and sadness mingling
to bless us one and all.

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