Saturday, June 11, 2011

The March of Time

Caution: this post is a bit long and may even be depressing (although that is not really my intent). You have been warned.

When I came home from rehearsal this evening, my mom was watching an old family video my sister had made several years ago. In it was a segment that showed all of my siblings and I growing up as well as the first three kids in my brother's family growing up. It would start with footage of us as babies and then as kids and then progress into recent footage (at the time) all while instrumental music was played. It was very lovely, but also made me a bit melancholy, which doesn't happen very often.

When I saw the footage of my nephews and niece, for example, I thought about where they are today. One nephew is on a mission in Canada. The niece is on a trip in Thailand teaching English and is probably due to get married to her own return missionary within the next year or so. The third nephew is in high school. And still another niece who didn't even exist when the video was made, is 12 now, I believe, and is turning into quite the young woman.

My sisters have also gained children since this video was made; the first has three stepboys and a girl of her own, and my other sister and her husband have a nearly one year-old daughter.

I have a picture of me holding my oldest niece when she was born, and it seems like yesterday. As I watched footage of my brother's youngest boy, I remembered holding him on my shoulders. Now that would be impossible (in fact, it's more likely that he could hold me on his).

And, of course, there's the footage of my siblings and me as kids. There's my sister in the early 60s with super blonde hair gallivanting around our then sparsely-treed neighborhood (which now has so many trees the view down the street is somewhat obscured). There's my long-deceased father bouncing my now 6'3" brother up and down as a child. There I am running to give my dad a jacket, passing a car from the 70s that now looks completely ancient to me. There's my now married sister riding her tricycle. And I ask myself, where does the time go?

This morning I received an email from a friend. I met her and her husband in Belgium in 1992 when I was on my mission. We'll call them Marlyse and Jacques. At the time I was with my most challenging mission companion (a person, I am sad to say, who it will be too soon if I ever see again). Ironically, it was Marlyse and Jacques who contacted us. We were on are way in for the night, and Marlyse and Jacques, who never frequented this part of town, had felt compelled to take a walk in our area (which they actually had to drive to to do so).

They approached us just as we were about to enter our apartment and asked if we were Mormon missionaries. We said we were. They were primarily interested in our genealogical program. Jacques' father was an American soldier in World War II who had romanced his Belgian mother, and Jacques was the result. After the war ended, Jacques' dad went back to America, and Jacques had been trying, without luck, ever since to find him and any other family he might have.

We asked Jacques and Marlyse if we could come to their house and teach them, and they accepted. They never joined the Church, but they became two of my dearest friends from my mission. I always think of them as my Belgian parents. They were (and still are) such cool people, and they treated us so kindly.

Happily, my difficult companion was transferred the week after they found us, and my next companion and I taught them. Marlyse was an atheist, and Jacques was more agnostic, but both were curious. Unfortunately, the members of the branch we served, for the most part, did not leave Marlyse and Jacques with a good impression. A lot of them were very prideful, and at the time I always found it ironic that the atheist and the agnostic were more Christian than the church-going "Christians" were.

The best Thanksgiving I have ever had in my life was spent at Jacques and Marlyse's house in a country that didn't even celebrate Thanksgiving. It was a potpourri of traditional American fare and Belgian cuisine. They invited my companion and I as well as our district leader and his companion. It was wonderful and very memorable and helped me feel less lonely for my first Thanksgiving away from home.

Jacques and Marlyse took my companion and I to an American military cemetery near Liege, and it was so peaceful there, and obviously very sacred to my new Belgian friends. One of my favorite photos of Jacques and Marlyse was taken there.

Eventually I was transferred to another city in Belgium, but one that was close enough that Jacques and Marlyse surprised me by coming to our ward there and taking my companion and I out to lunch afterwards. It was so wonderful to see them again. They also later took us on a touristy sort of adventure to a nearby village which was very memorable.

When my mission was over, my mom came to get me and we toured Europe and made sure to visit Jacques and Marlyse. I went back two more times with my cousin and then my sister, and both times we visited Jacques and Marlyse, and the time with my cousin we saw a memorial ceremony at that same cemetery.

Later, Jacques found some limited information about his American step-siblings. I was able to hire a private investigative service that helped me track down his step-sister, and I called her and explained that she had a Belgian step-brother looking for her. She was wary at first, although she had known of his existence before I called her. Because she didn't speak French and Jacques didn't speak English, I served as a translator as they wrote each other back and forth. Eventually Marlyse, who knew English well enough to translate, took over those duties. Soon enough, Jacques became connected with the family he had always been looking for and which he had lacked with his Belgian family, and Jacques and Marlyse have visited them several times here in America. I was always grateful that God had helped me help him find them.

I still write Jacques and Marlyse, although our contact has dwindled a bit as we've gotten older. About a year or so ago, Marlyse and Jacques informed me that Marlyse had a very serious and aggressive form of cancer, and they were not very optimistic that Marlyse would survive.

Marlyse has been through a lot of chemo, and it's been a hard road, but she is still alive. She had asked me to help Jacques maintain contact with his American family after she passes because Jacques still is not proficient enough in English to communicate with them on his own. I promised her I would.

I wrote Jacques and Marlyse a month ago and never heard back, which was odd. I feared that maybe Marlyse had passed away and that Jacques was still grieving. But Marlyse wrote me an email this morning that said,

Hello [Cody],

It's been a long time, and I have needed to write, but I am having health problems which make me very tired.

We hope that you [and Jonah] are doing well. [Cody], you see what I have written, and I am already tired.

Right now I am still having oral chemo, plus I've have had the maximum of radiation.

Love you, take care

Jacques and Marlyse

It is hard to know that my once vibrant and very strong-willed friend is so weak and could possibly die. It is hard to know how Jacques will carry on without Marlyse, who has always been the rock in their relationship. I have not seen either of them in person for ten years now, and in my mind they are still the ages they were when I last saw them even though I know they are not. I'm sure Marlyse especially looks very different than she did ten years ago.

I'm at an age now where I'm starting to lose more people in my life. I've written about two of them here and here. Tonight my mom and I were talking about her own mother, who died here in 2002 while on vacation visiting my mom. Mom was with her when she died. I remember thinking how hard it was to watch this woman who was constantly on-the-go spend the last month of her life bed-ridden and struggling for breath and wondering if one day I will do the same for my own mother.

I look at my own mother, who is physically very healthy, but whose memory and awareness sometimes is impaired. Or I remember my once vital father, who was crippled by a series of strokes and basically slowly suffocated because of the amount of fluid in his lungs due to pneumonia.

Death is part of life, and, actually, most of the time I'm pretty good about how I handle it. We're all going to die. You. Me. Everyone. It's just part of the plan and only a temporary part of it at that. I'm not afraid to die nor am I terribly shattered when people close to me die (although I, of course, miss them very much). If anything, it just serves as a reminder for how grateful I have been for the value they have contributed to my earthly life and makes me excited for when I will see them again. But I do find as I get older, the march of time becomes more poignant to me in a way. When you're young and a teenager you think you're immortal and impervious to harm (at least I did). Now that I'm middle-aged, my mortality seems more real to me, and I feel more eager to suck as much as I can from the precious relationships I have in mortality while I still have them. I especially think about how often I am away from Jonah because of my career and how eager I am to try and find a way to spend more time together while we're still both relatively young and healthy. I've also thought more about what I want my legacy to be and who I might want to pass it on to.

The older I get, too, the faster the march of time seems to be. As a kid and a teenager, time seemed endless. As an adult, I can't believe how quickly time seems to pass by. Kids grow up so quickly and many of the people one loves start dying off. I guess it's a good reminder to value what you have while you still have it.

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