The Unforgiving Minute

Another Father’s Day weekend has gone. Those of us who have been orphaned by the passage of time can embrace, or we can confront these holidays in various and sometimes unpredictable proportions.

As I move forward from this yearly observance, there is something I want to carry with me and keep close to my heart. This year the memories rested more gently on my spirit, and I have come to realize that my  father is still teaching me, even though he has been gone almost 5 years now.

Growing up he always reminded us to embrace the moments of our lives and to cherish them, because nothing lasts forever. Today we might call his philosophy “mindfulness,” but in his own words, he encouraged us to listen, to observe,  to think about what we were doing  – and to think twice before we spoke.

In this age of constant distraction, I begin to realize that my father was teaching us a method of actually slowing down the passage of time. Mindfulness allows us to apprehend the moments as they pass,  and in doing so we can build a rich storehouse of memories along the way, the very memories that can help make bearable the terrible losses that time inflicts on us all.

When we’re very young we don’t yet understand that everything has a “last time.” They tend to sneak up on us,  those “last times,” like the last time your mom cooks your favorite meal, or the last time you play ball with your favorite pup; the last time you hear a loved one’s voice, or the last time you go fishing with your dad.

If we knew beforehand when these last times would come, how focused we would be on the moments as we tried to hold on to each one for as long as possible! It would be very difficult to live that way, or at the very least we would become subsumed by melancholy or morbidity.

Dad’s way of mindfulness overcomes that difficulty. When we honor as many of our moments as we can grasp, when the last ones arrive, we have already stored them away for safe keeping.

Recently I found an old scrapbook of Dad’s which had been given to him by one of his favorite teachers on the occasion of his high school graduation. He had just begun to add to the book when he was called away to serve in the Navy in WWII, and after he returned from the war he had completely filled up the book within a few short years. His book is filled with memories from some of the most intense and influential times of his youth, and he kept it and cherished it for the rest of his life.

Displayed prominently inside the front cover of this catalog of his formative years is a passage from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If.” It reads:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds worth of distance run

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

“There is something to learn about everything,” Dad would say, and while we grew up learning to gather moments, we still had to learn not to take them for granted. As I remember the halcyon summers of youth when the moments stretched out endlessly before us,  I think one of the biggest challenges Dad faced is one that is given to all fathers at one time or another, and that is to teach their sons and daughters not to procrastinate.

I think that lesson is easier to learn on the farm, where one is connected to the unyielding rhythms of the seasons and where the concept of death is learned at an early age from the stillborn lamb or the chicken that did not come from the supermarket. When I was eleven and my grandfather’s health began to decline, we discussed life and death openly, and when Grandaddy passed away I was as prepared as a 12 year old could be for that great loss. I knew then the reason why moments were so important:  We are only given so many, and no more.

Nevertheless, like so many of us, I let too many moments slip from my grasp, lost in the distractions and diversions of youth. But there comes a time when one can no longer ignore the accumulating losses and a renewed appreciation for the moments of life occurs. It urges me to pass on the wisdom that was handed down from my father to me and from his father to him.

Take nothing for granted. Do not wait to return your mother’s call. Don’t put off visiting your friend because “there will be another time.” Take that vacation. You can always make more money. You can never make more time.

As humans we are gifted with the ability to perceive fractions of a second. We are given sixty seconds in every minute; sixty minutes in every hour;  twenty four hours in every day and three hundred sixty five days in every year. We are gifted with an abundance of opportunities to gather memories. And because of my father’s wisdom, I have been blessed with many to cherish.

But oh, what I would give to go fishing with him one more time.


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