Last Sunday, it finally felt like spring in New Hampshire.
Oh sure, we still snow on the ground, but the temperature was above freezing for the first time in a week. The air felt lighter, like it was full of promise.
It had been a rocky morning.
My 12-year old son Jack was really mad because I refused to take him to the grocery store with me. He always, always goes to the grocery store with me.
I mean, I didn’t refuse exactly, I just told him he needed to change out of his big, stinky snow boots and wear the new sneakers he’d just picked out—blue Nike’s with neon green laces.
Change is not Jack’s friend. Or maybe I should say change is not autism’s friend. Either way, neither does it well.
See, Jack and his autism both hate any kind of transition. Seasons are especially hard—sometimes he’ll beg to wear his turtlenecks in May, and we have trouble getting him to wear his winter coat when it snows.
The thing is, I didn’t feel like going to the grocery store. I wanted to get the errand over with and enjoy the rest of the day. It was taking too long to get him out the door and he was screaming and maybe I was screaming too and finally, I just told him I was leaving and I walked out to the car. Maybe I closed the door kind of hard. I was annoyed.
Once I was in the store, I relaxed a little. Everywhere around me, it was as though people were climbing out of a long, dark hibernation. We all stepped a little lighter. We were chatty with one another.
When I pulled back into the driveway about an hour later, my neighbor Jeremiah whizzed by on his bike. He called out to me, and I stopped the car and rolled down my window.
It sure is, finally!
And off he went, around the corner.
Less than two hours after I saw him, Jeremiah was hit by a car, and he died.
He died. I still cannot believe it. I cannot stop thinking about it.
Why didn’t I talk to him for five more minutes? Five more minutes could have delayed him just long enough to change his final moments.
It’s not that I blame myself, exactly. That’s not it. I mean maybe that’s it but it’s a lot more complicated.
It’s that I was so close to the intersection of life and death, time and fate, helmet and metal, I could reach out and brush it with my fingertips.
It’s that I wish with every cell in my body and soul that I had put my car in park, jumped out, and talked to him for just a little longer. Made a joke about the wacky weather we’d been having, asked about his wife, or his small dog Oscar. He adored Oscar.
I wish I had given up on the argument about snow boots and let Jack come with me, because Jack would have leaned his big tall self across the center console in that super annoying way he has, and in his Arnold Schwarzenegger voice he would have asked Jeremiah a million unrelated, disconnected questions.
What car. Now do you drive.
Where is. For Oscar now.
How old are you.
Maybe that would have been enough to change the course of events and keep his life intact. He would have finished his bike ride and walked in the door to his wife, sweaty and happy, and none of us would have been the wiser.
I know it’s not my fault. I know this in my brain because facts are facts and fate is fate and who can say, maybe he would have sped up his ride or taken a shortcut and somehow arrived at the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.
It’s hard to know. He was a nationally ranked triathlete and he ran or biked through our neighborhood all year long—even when the temperatures were arctic in our tiny New England town.
He ran like the wind.
I mean, I can’t tell you how many times my husband Joe and I looked out of our kitchen window first thing in the morning, and saw him sprint up the hill and round the corner like it was the easiest thing in the world–like he was chasing the rising sun.
There goes Jeremiah.
Man, that guy is fast.
Whenever he saw me standing at the bus stop waiting for the kids in the afternoon, he would always pull over, and in one smooth motion he’d open the door and step out onto the grass while Oscar sat in the back seat.
Carrie! Are you running a lot these days?
And depending on the season or my fitness routine or whatever, I would answer.
Yeah, a little here and there.
Well, make sure you don’t listen to music if you run outside. It’s not safe.
He was always smiling. He had the biggest, widest smile.
For the past three years he put a handwritten note in our mailbox a few days before Christmas, inviting us to join them for their holiday meal. He and his wife always did make-your-own pizza for dinner. We never went.
Maybe next year, we told ourselves, when the kids are a little older.
Life is so stupidly, painfully, exquisitely fragile. I know this. I know this with every bone in my body and beat of my heart. And yet, how easily I take it for granted.
Five minutes. Three hundred seconds. I wish I could hold them in my hand and count each one like the silky petals on a sweet, sweet flower.
The problem is that grief is not sustainable from the periphery. We are programmed to forget—to move on and forge forward, the details fading to the background of our everyday life. We forget the lessons it is meant to teach; patience, and mindfulness, and gratitude.
So the question, how do we memorialize a life lived fully, yet ended too soon?
How do we honor a man who walked his dog and made pizza for Christmas and smiled at everyone he passed in the neighborhood?
We give him five more minutes.
It is the space between tantrum and calm; rage and forgiveness.
It is the difference between annoying, and endearing.
It is how long it takes for the purple night to become dawn’s watery sunlight, when dewdrops sparkle on the new grass like so many iridescent diamonds.
It is exactly enough time to sit down on the floor next to my son, and whisper in his ear.
Come on, Jack-a-boo. Let’s try your sneakers. It’s spring now.