I once read a magazine article whose goal was to illustrate that scientific concepts should not be intimidating and it then proceeded to provide every-day examples that served as metaphors to, if not explain, make complicated concepts a little more accessible. The one I remember was about the theory of relativity.
Picture yourself as a ten year old who just finished grade six. It’s the morning of the first Monday in July and all you have to do is play, ride your bike, watch some TV on rainy days and grow. The summer seems like it will last forever and each day, seemingly without a clock, may unfold in a way unattached to time.
Two months later, on Labour Day Weekend, as the anxiety of last minute preparations and the worries of a new school weigh on you, the sands in the hour glass couldn’t fall any faster. Two twenty-four hour days whose time travels at distinctly different speeds.
Or the 19 year old who feels like a victim of unrequited love, who yearns for the one who doesn’t notice him. For two years he aches patiently. It seems to be an eternity that he waits for this young woman. Miraculously, they finally become a couple and for their two years together, time moves in a way that seems normal. But when they break up, as most twenty-one year olds do, time will change again. And thirty years later, looking back on each of those two year periods, they will seem like a flash. Three different times experienced by one person at different rates.
Today will be three years since my mother died. She went quickly and she was under the direct care of me, my wife and a couple of close family members in her last days. When I was alone with one of the cancer doctors on the afternoon when they told us she was terminal, I asked him, “does she have weeks, months or years?” Before I could finish my sentence, he said, “months”. It was twenty-seven days.
There’s a paradox in our perception of time. It was both the longest and shortest twenty-seven days of my life. It was unbearably exhausting and yet she was gone in the blink of an eye. Up until that time, it was the only time where I was aware of the relativity of time in the very moment I was in. And looking back, three years later, it seems like yesterday and it seems like a world ago. Some days she’s as close to me as she always was, only a phone call away. But my number she knew is gone and it just occurred to me I don’t remember her number. Close and distant concurrently.
Tonight I was grilling our dinner and I have an old plastic bag of matchbooks that my mom kept through the years. From bars and restaurants that closed forty years ago. She didn’t collect them. She just never threw anything away. That’s how I light my BBQ. With my mom’s matches.
And then I thought of another little irony. These matchbooks usually lasted a day. For a pack of smokes or two. The matches themselves only burn for a few seconds. And yet here I was, lighting forty year old matches, my deceased mother’s matches, to cook dinner for my wife tonight. Somehow, time all made sense to me, if only in that very moment.