Clocks and calendars have turned against me. The stark, unsympathetic face on the kitchen wall, the minute hand marching in relentless circles, the tricky little blocks of days and weeks in my planner…traitors, all. Maybe I jinxed myself by counting off the seconds of the pregnancy test — all 180 of them — in my head, confident that I needed no watch, no egg timer, no allies. The line appeared, shockingly pink — magenta, even. But since the directions said as many as ten minutes might be needed for results, I sat on the toilet lid to count out seven more, just in case the line went away.
I didn’t tell my husband immediately. Keeping that powerful of a secret from him for a whole hour wasn’t easy. An hour? Yes, I’m sure… not by virtue of the digital clock on the cable box, not because I timed it, but because I was one Law and Order away from changing his life. Already I was learning a new style of measuring time.
We didn’t tell others about the pregnancy for an entire, endless trimester. We didn’t want to tell the baby’s sex, either. But in the excitement of finally arriving at ultrasound day, we slipped in front of a few and the news got out to all. When we decided on a name, we told no one.
In keeping these secrets, we managed to catch time as it flitted by our heads, like a firefly. We held it in carefully clasped hands, peeking in to make sure it still glowed, thrilling at the sensation of little energetic legs on our palms. We knew we would have to let it go.
College for me meant theater, every semester for eight in a row: onstage, offstage, backstage. In theater, you work for weeks to achieve something meaningful and perfect. So much can go wrong that if it goes right, it must be luck, fate, divinity. No matter what your degree of success or failure, it’s all over in a few hours, a few evenings. The world you built and the character you created fade with the last light cue. No videotape can resuscitate those few moments on the stage.
In college I would sometimes try to keep them alive. I’d quote old lines from limp scripts and sneak try-on sessions in the theater’s basement costume shop. But time forces a chasm between a person and what is ephemeral: the distance widens and deepens until you have to stare back into your memories with squints and eye rubs to see those moments through the haze.
Around the time that a fetus can begin to hear noises outside his womb, the high school musical I was directing was three weeks from opening. Every day, the student actors and musicians grew louder, more confident; every day, I tapped out the beats on my belly, a metronome of touch. The rehearsals lengthened, my instructions — Louder! Faster! Clearer! — sharpened, cut deeper. The show evolved and improved, as always, just in time.
I wondered throughout: was the stress I felt hurting the baby? Were the hours too long, my criticisms too loud? Would he fear my voice?
The school nurse checked my blood pressure every few days. I saw a professional production of the show in a nearby city and the baby moved for the first time. Was it because he recognized the music, wanted to sing and dance for me? Smiling, I wrote the time, the day, the feeling in journals and baby books. I placed my husband’s hand on the spot to wait, wait.
The show closed; the script and costume rentals were returned; the theater went dark and quiet. Afterwards, evenings, I rested. The baby moved and moved. I wondered if he missed the music. I played a cast recording for him, turned it up loud. I felt him listening; he responded with his flip-and-hiccup medley. I paid attention, like they instructed in the baby books, but I didn’t run for my journals anymore. His movements came too often and were too much a part of my days: something that filled up my time, like the bathroom trips and the big yellow vitamin.
Time nudged forward, marked in firsts and lasts: the last time I’d fit into a certain skirt, the first time we shopped for nursery furniture. I tried to keep up with them.
The scrapbook idea hit me as I cleaned house, looking through bins and boxes of keepsakes and photos. The baby needed a book that would show him what had filled up our time before he came along, and I would make it for him. My imagination bloomed with the pages I would create: this is Mommy when she was a little girl at the shore, this is Daddy when he was in the Boy Scouts, this is Mommy and Daddy working in the theater together. The scrapbook would include relatives and travels and pets and relocations, and then halfway through — ta daa! — the ultrasound pictures. I was short of breath: I had figured out a way to press time and keep it still between clean, white pages: a way to give it to him.
I bought a book, dug for photos. I found scallop-edged scissors and double-sided tape and spread everything out on our new dining room table, bought for future family meals and game nights and homework. Every day I planned, laid out, snipped, trimmed, captioned. I am six, stacking shells with my father. My husband is two, rolling in the grass of someone’s yard. Here, our senior portraits; there, our first photos together; now the engagement picture, now the wedding. I struggled to fit it all in before the scrapbook’s halfway mark.
The baby started his arrival on a day when rain fell incessantly, the tail end of an autumn hurricane. I watched the news reports of evacuations and flooding while my husband tried to convince me to go to the hospital.
“It’s too soon,” I told him. “I don’t even know if these are contractions. Let’s wait another couple of hours.”
Then the power went out. Then the watch we were using to measure contractions stopped. In candlelight, we foraged for alarm clocks and batteries, for some way to tell time.
The highway to the hospital was closed due to flooding and we had to take a different route, tripling the length of the drive. Time played with us. We said, someday this will be a fun story to tell the baby. I could almost hear him giggling, loving the drama that brought him to us.
We kept one more secret. We told no one that we were at the hospital, that the baby had arrived. For a few hours, no one besides the medical staff knew him but us. For a few hours, time was trapped in our hospital room, and I thought he might stay a little bug in our hands forever, if we just held him and talked to him and kept the door closed.
From the worldly vantage point of his tub in our kitchen sink, he watched the leaves twirl downward, the snowflakes spin, the blossoms pop, and the summer fireflies blink. Now the fall leaves are again elegantly spiraling towards the grass, and old sayings wind through my head in similar, senseless patterns: “Where has the time gone…?” “Time sure does fly.” “They grow up before you know it.” On his increasingly confident little legs, he pushes through the reds and yellows — a mini-bulldozer in a mountain of leaves — with excited points and monkey lingo: “Ooh! Ooh!” He has left the kitchen window far behind.
It’s hard for me to get my mind around the paradox, the ultimate puzzler so far: I want to stop the tornado-paced progress of days and weeks and concentrate on the minute and the hour. I micromanage time into seemingly traceable portions: twenty-nine minutes for his favorite Baby Einstein; sixteen seconds to warm the sweet potatoes; an hour and a half or — oh, please! — even two for a nap. Inevitably, though, evening arrives with my muttering, “Where did the day go?” and I feel bested, confused.
Then I remember: time is a worthy adversary, a sheep in wolf’s clothing; outwardly, the unrelenting forward motion seems adamant and threatening, but inwardly, time offers a gentle and consistent logic. It’s only in conceding victory that I can look forward freely to the next day’s new words, new opinions, new feats of daring worthy of gasps and praise and phone calls to grandparents.
I thought I knew theater. But as the curtain of bedtime goes down, as his dances and movements and monologues come to a close for the evening, I realize I’m the greenest type of audience member. His stagecraft leaves me cheering, mesmerized, uplifted, and so, so eager for the next day’s show. I’m just beginning to learn the meaning of ephemeral.