I wander onto the online classroom homepage of an old friend, one quite long out of touch, and smile when I see the footer quotes a mid-life observation of Albert Einstein: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious." How so I agree. Beautiful, but also an artwork rendered with colors human eyes cannot fully appreciate, if they are always able to identify them at all.
For people like myself, the realm of the mysterious in life appears to have to been shrinking annually, something like my tee shirts. Season after season sees it fade, grow flimsier, fainter, until it has become something impractical, something that no longer quite fits. Like the damned tee shirts.
In 1981 my son was five years old, healthy, of clear complexion and usually ready for bedtime by 8 pm. At the time we lived in a plain, single-story rental that featured a washer and dryer, a small front porch and the deluxe accommodation of a rope swing out in the front yard, which we shared with the second rental that rested further back but on the same lot.
It was the beginning of our second year in the house, Andrew had just started taking swimming lessons at the Y down the street, and I was settling into my new full-time photographer post at the Skagit Valley Herald, a local daily in Mount Vernon. After some early years with concerns for our son's health, and a spate of part-time jobs for me, life seemed to be settling down nicely.
Andrew's room was just off the living room, and without doubt was the prettiest room in the house- his mother and Nana had made sure of that, having spent days fixing it up with fresh paint and rolls of new wallpaper, a peaceful mural of clouds and kites in a blue sky that stretched from corner to corner, floor to ceiling. It was the perfect room for playing, and even more perfect for dreaming. I relished it at the time as a small corner of boyhood heaven.
Bedtime had become a predictable and playful ritual for us, one that usually included a rendition of his favorite, made-up bedtime story, "Cocoa the Clown". Following a rollicking series of events which included a ride on a steam engine, a ferris wheel and a hot air balloon, the story would always end with the same, spectacular stunt: the main character (Andrew) tumbles downward in a thousand-foot fall, down through the sky and ultimately right through our own shingled roof, finally bouncing safely down, uninjured, right into his very own own bed, which lay warm and waiting. The perfect end to any kind of day, for both of us.
After tucking him in with a hug and kiss, I would begin another part of the bedtime ritual, a secret second part, of which he was unaware and is perhaps still. While he was drifting off to sleep, I would stand outside of his pale blue room and peek back in through his door, making sure he didn't notice, until I could just barely see his face there on his pillow. My secret game was to stand in the shadows and imagine as hard as I could that I was now very, very old - many years had passed - and Andrew was all grown up. Flown the coop, and far away from his folks, living his life. With my imagination and some non-specific magic, I would then pretend that the "Old Geff" was then able to travel back into time, back through all the years, back until he was standing right there at that exact same spot. Where I/he could/would stand and watch and behold my beautiful little boy once again, safe and asleep, and for as long as I cared to gaze. And just drink it in, to my very heart's content.
It worked every time. Bedtime was magic time, that was for sure.
This went on for several months, my secret nighttime visitations known only to me, and the "Old Geff" from the future.
Then one evening, with no warning at all, the Universe decided to follow the two of us to bed. Or at the very least, its pocket watch did.
As I trailed Andrew into his room one completely ordinary night and approached his bed, I was suddenly aware - with no mistake - of a loud "ticking", apparently coming from nowhere. Pulling his blanket snugly up to his shoulders, I stopped, stood up straight and swept the room slowly with my eyes - no clocks, no toys, no watches, either, or radios. It was at that same, peculiar instant, that I also felt a string of words suddenly surge into my mind: "Time is running out." Just like that. The voice was calm and clear. It came in my own thoughts complete and with perfect diction, like a living flashcard. I felt a chill.
While I am not accustomed to messages coming by way of the supernatural, omnibus or otherwise, my ears are definitely perked at this. What the hell was that?
Time is running out. A warning - of what? And from whom? Rather than worry Linda that it may just be some kind of foreboding omen or something having to do with our son, I kept silent. And chose to pretend that I may have been just hearing things, or imagining things, or had it happen in a dream even, who knows. Either way, it's over now.
Weeks pass, quite a few actually, and slowly the everyday hum-drum does its work, performing as a force of mental gravity that eventually lowers the importance of possible "mystical" experiences (and anything else it can sink its mundane little teeth into), first to eye level, then below, and then out of your peripheral vision all together. End effect: Weird, yes? Significant, doubtful.
I had the mundane to thank, at the very least, for sleeping better.
I'm watching television, alone in the living room - this is a good 6 weeks later - when all of a suddenly, out of the blue again, the ticking. Not like from a TV, or a record player, but as if someone is holding a fine instrument, an invisible stopwatch, right up tight, next to my ear. It is precision machinery I hear, held infinitely close. And yet it is nowhere. I take a breath, look over my shoulder, ponder my options, and decide to completely ignore it. Eyes back to the TV. Tic toc tic toc tic toc tic toc tic toc tic toc.
Absolutely ridiculous, but I refuse to let it shake me - whatever "it" is.
Linda enters the room, plops down on the couch, pauses for an instant and says "Do you hear that?"
"What do you hear?"
"You can't hear that ticking?!" And she begins (and I join her) to rifle the couch, pulling away cushions, reaching the arms, searching everywhere for it, the source of this insane ticking. We turn off the TV, slide the couch away from the wall, check the space behind it, under it, and make a cursory search of the entire room, ending up again on the disheveled couch, all the while the "clock" is ticking away.
Linda shakes her head, dumbfounded, perhaps now looking even a bit frightened when she says "It's so weird, Geff... it's like time is running out!" and that exact instant the ticking stops, dead, silent.
Now I'm fucking shook. I tell Linda my bit of backstory, that I heard the ticking weeks earlier, in Andrew's room while putting him to bed, but didn't know what to make of it. Shit, I still don't know. But something is definitely going on here.
We continue to tear down the room, to find nothing. We lay awake in our bed and swap possible scenarios, but not a one seems to make any more sense than the other. I am perplexed but have also come to the immediate conclusion that this all is 1). Defintely a message, and 2). One that does not require the talents of Edgar Cayce to interpret: Watch out, and possibly, watch out for you lives. That an impending catastrophe or tragedy lay in wait for Andrew, or Linda, or for all three of us, I had no doubt. Just a matter of... time.
And for two full years I payed very special attention, to every day, and every evening, and especially every moment that I spent with Andrew. And I was afraid that it would all end, end just like that. In a swimming pool, a side street, an intersection, a park, you name it. Bang. Gone. Over.
But it didn't, as it turned out. And what?
If you'd had almost an entire lifetime of years to unravel that strange little ball of string, what would you make of it?
Here's my best shot: What if it wasn't a warning, or at least not a warning that something bad was about to happen. What if, instead, it was a message, but a warning to be good. To "Take care. Don't let it slip by." What if someone had reached into our lives with a magic timepiece and was whispering to us: "You are together and these are precious, joy-filled years - pay attention! You have a beautiful, happy son and he will soon be growing up. Play on the swing! Love each other! Enjoy! Time is running out!"
And maybe to be a tiny bit afraid at the time isn't all such a bad thing, given the stakes, given what you have to loose. No rehearsals, people, you're on.
Come to think of it, that's exactly the type of message I'd like to send back, if I was able to, somehow.
Hey Andrew, hey Linda, close your eyes.
I love you. love you.