Like Contrails in the Sky

Source: CORE Aviation

Source: CORE Aviation

“It’s like those streams in the sky that airplanes leave when they fly,” I told him.

“What do you mean?” He asked.

I told him about a quiet summer day back when I was 17, lifeguarding at a mostly empty pool, deeming it safe enough to take a few moments to stare up at the sunny, blue sky instead of the one adult floating steadily on his back in a shallow pool. Growing up not too far from the Philadelphia International Airport, it was always easy to find a couple airplanes in the sky at any given moment. I counted all that I could see from my two little eyes- from the innermost tear duct, to the outermost corner of my eye just before sclera meets skin fold. There’s three; There’s four, I noted, continuing to count, only halfway through my inventory of the azure sky. But rather than counting, I found something else that caught my attention: the evaporation of those white, jagged, cloud-like lines that the planes leave behind. Turns out they’re called “contrails,” short for condensation trails. Contrails are formed when the water in jet exhaust meets the wet, cold air of the atmosphere at 30-some-thousand feet. Upon this collision of jet exhaust and moist air, the contrail condenses and freezes into ice crystals, making a thin cirrus cloud. How long these vapor trails remain in the sky depends on the temperature and humidity at the altitude of the contrail’s formation.* Regardless, whether seconds or minutes, slowly, the end tail will dissipate, showing no evidence that the plane was once hundreds of feet behind, in another position of the sky. Gone. Nothing you can do can bring those jet lines back.

It’s a lot like life, I realized that summer day on the lifeguard stand.  

Now, I walk around each day with this strange, sickening sense that whatever I’m doing right now with my fingers, or whatever conversation I’m having with the person next to me, is just like those contrails, never able to be repeated in that specific place, time, and date. I go to bed each night, thinking about what happened since I left it this morning. I can’t remember half of it. What did I eat for breakfast, anyway? Did I tell my parents I loved them today? Yikes, did I really gripe in my head over who was the last one to discard the free newspaper full of ads that unwantedly finds itself on our sidewalk each week?

I feel like I walk around, and each moment is slowly evaporating, never to be tasted, touched, patted, embraced, changed, re-shapened, molded, or experienced, ever again, at least not in real time. There’s nothing I can do to bring back what happened 15 seconds ago. Whatever you’re doing, and I’m doing, right now, will change, in just a few short inhales, exhales, and blinks, almost imperceptibly, perhaps. But change it will. This hour will not last. This day will not last. This year will not last. And you too, no matter your age, will become old one day, perhaps if we’re lucky enough to see the rising sun on our one hundredth birthday.

We live life forward.
We look back on old pictures.
We try to remember.
Often, we forget.

That is, until Aunt Lou, or your college roommate, or your dear parents remind you of something. The still frame that they remember in their head.

Some story.
Some funny thing you said.
Some detail you couldn’t recall.

Some bit of the scene that you didn’t quite remember, but now, upon provocation, comes forth, memory jogged by this person’s memories. This causes your heart to quicken and a smile to slide up your face, as though you were wearing lose suspenders, and now tightened them for a satisfying fit. You then chime in your memories of the new scene you now remember, your contribution to this mutual, shared memory.

But that’s it; that’s all they are now. These still photos.

We look at the past, and no matter what shade of awful we went through, we can now talk about the hard practice we survived as a high school varsity football player, singing about our glory days. Or that immensely intense triathlon race, that in the present moment, leaves you half miserable, in fervent longing for it all to be over, and yet, you keep running, half flooded with a bizarre energy that sustains your movement until a finish line tells you to stop, tells your endorphins to surge, and your heart rate to decelerate. Now that it’s over, and you’re re-visiting the experience as a memory, we’re glad these kinds of experiences were so hard. It makes us look like champions, looking at these still photos of our hard work in the comfort of our own home, heart rate relaxed.

We smile at the graduation pictures. Smile at the pictures of our parents, before they were our parents. We laugh at how silly we looked in our teddy bear vest on 5th grade picture day.

All of this leads me to wonder, awe, and melancholy over the mystery that is the passage of time.

I mourn it.

For all intents and purposes, that time is gone.
How is it that our minutes evaporate?
How is it that we can’t go back?

It’s like a locked door, with no key to open it.
We scratch our head, looking up for answers. Did it even happen? Did all of this even happen? 

I yearn for yesterday’s moments all over again, from my morning bike ride commute, to the belly laugh that my roommate and I shared, as if to have one extra day of life. I want to re-experience the morning of April 4th, as I was about to embark on my flight to Portland for four days, a sojourner excited to interact with west coast folk. I want today, and I want the future, to enter in and out of each of these scenes with ease and possibility. No locked doors, just tall, open bay view windows, and a warm breeze to lull you in and out of the past and present, forward and back, back and forward. Any direction you chose, any moment you wish to re-experience again.

This lament over the passage of time is the same reason why I both weep a little each New Year’s Eve, recounting all of the events, new people and travel that took place over the course of these past 365 days; and in the same breath, the very same reason why just moments later, I beam my face into the moonlight of the dark January 1st sky at 12 AM, bright, optimistic, satisfied, hopeful. The people of the 1800s are dead now. They don’t get to have this moment, not here on Earth at least. The people who will one day be born in 2100 are just future zygotes, not here on Earth right now either. But you and me, we’re here right now. On the verge of something great, unprecedented and un-experienced. I stand hilltop, watching New Year’s early morning fireworks, just for one moment, wanting to cup the year securely and lovingly in my two hands, gently whispering to it: “It’s ok. Let go. You’re in a new year. You take with you all you learned last year, and years’ past. You’re lucky enough to see the aurora of a new year, a fresh calendar. It’s all there, right in front of you, untouched, like early dawn snow free of any human footprints. Yes, something wonderful is going to happen this year. Something hard will happen. Something unexpected will happen. But, perhaps, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll be here again in 365 days wondering where all this time has gone, each turning of the monthly calendar a mere contrail into the vast, bottomless vat known as the passage of time. So enjoy this moment of newness.” I un-cup my hands and spread them high over my head, a “namaste” to the night sky on the first of the year. Free, outstretched, fingers loose, winter air flowing in between each finger, I clamor for the power to hold onto every ephemeral moment.

It reminds me of family vacations at Rehoboth Beach as a kid. When I needed some solitude, perhaps after too much teasing from my older brother, or after I had enough of my sister’s wails as seagull after seagull snatched her Cheetos from her beach towel, I would plop myself on the shoreline, digging my feet into the cool, mushy sand. As waves pushed and pulled around me, my feet sunk deeper into the wet sand. Eventually, once satisfied with the proper dosage of introverted loneness, I’d step out of my footprint and watch the next wave take away a bit of it, footprint still mostly visible. And then another wave would come forth and retreat, taking away a pinky toe imprint along with it. And another wave followed, erasing another toe, and another, and so on, until that footprint was no more, washed away. Dissolved. Recycled by the ever constant flow of ocean wave. I’d then walk back to my sister’s towel, seagulls having moved on to some other child’s unattended snack, my brother now gone, having left the ocean for the pool, sick of the sand. Most of this afternoon was now gone. Soon, we’d seeing the last hours of our vacation, and head northbound up 95 back to PA, codifying each day’s activities, the highs and lows, so that one day we can look back on Family Vacation 1995 and actually have something to say.

And so the continuum of time proceeds, right off the reel.
Back to remembering and forgetting, lamenting, and praising our time on this planet.

I guess the good thing about getting older is you get to keep experiencing time, making new memories, printing out more pictures for your frames and refrigerator magnets. And maybe, just maybe, if all I’ve been taught about what happens when you die is true, I’ll realize that we never even had the proverbial hourglass of time. Or perhaps we did, but once all the grains reached the bottom, the hourglass automatically flipped itself to begin the release of sand grains all over again. It will keep on going infinitely, whether stored in my cognition, or flat out in front of me like a red carpet.

Time’s gone by. 26.5 years for me, in fact. The passage of time will never stop. But like contrails in the sky, I’ll keep on flying this girl high on an airplane into the unknown freedom of a blue sky, gripping every minute in gratitude, lament, joy, life transcendent, documenting my flight, and yours too, for some other kid to look up into the sky and trace the contrails with her or his fingers. Together, we’ll dizzy up the sky with our vapor trails until we’ve lost track of time. Until we learned to live outside of it, freed of the obsession of time. Out of time, in one sense, and in another, having all the time we’ll ever need.



The saddest thing about life is you don’t remember half of it.
You don’t even remember half of half of it.
Capture memories, because if you forget them, it’s as though they didn’t happen;
it’s as though you hadn’t lived the parts you don’t remember.

~ Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Donald Miller- A Million Miles in a Thousand Years


Thoughts in the ICU.

I have her black and white newspaper picture hanging on my bedroom door. She’s 17, an exchange student on the beach in Brazil, riding a motorcycle. Her Brazilian community wrote a newspaper article about her in Portuguese. It’s probably my most favorite picture of her, telling me the story of my mom before she was a mother. She seems so full of life, so spunky. I bet we would’ve been friends had I been around during the ’60s. But I guess I got lucky; instead of just a friend, I got a friend and a mother.

She’s not “La Garota da Motocicleta” (The Girl On The Motorcycle) right now, but that spirit is still in her; I see it, even though there’s tubes and cords and a central line running through her body. I’m with my family in the ICU at Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia. It’s quiet, minus the steady beep of the EKG monitor, signaling life, and hope, and of the steady rhythm of another day to be alive. My dad touches her forehead and my sister pats her on the shoulder. I kiss her on her cheek, pausing, grateful for this moment. It’s been a long time since I’ve kissed my parents, especially on the cheek. But in this moment, I’m grateful to be close and at peace.

We sit there, in silence, with the occasional interruption of updates from the nurse. “We’re monitoring the blood pressure; as you know it’s low again. This is just more fluids to help aid in that process,” she says, changing an IV bag.

The first person my age that I knew to lose their parents was my friend Sarah, during the last month of our senior year in high school. Her parents died in a car crash and her mother was the art teacher at our middle school. It was the first funeral I’ve been to for someone’s parent, and shortly after, friends and I headed to Sarah’s home. That’s the first time I was introduced to “sitting Shiva,” a practice in Judaism in which family members receive visitors in the home of their deceased love one, for seven days. Shiva translates to “seven” in Hebrew, based upon Job grieving the death of his father for seven days. Traditionally, during the period of Shiva, mourners sit on low stools or boxes while they receive condolence calls. Often, doors are unlocked to allow visitors to enter quietly without knocking. Once in the presence of mourners, it is customary to wait until the mourner speaks before greeting the mourner. A minyan (prayer service) is held for the mourners each day during shiva. Shiva creates an atmosphere of condolence and support while allowing one to disengage gradually from the life of their deceased love one.* There’s something about this tradition that I find so beautiful.

Though I am hopeful for my mother’s recovery and personally not anticipating death, I think about Shiva. Sitting in this room in soft silence and occasional chatter between my family, I feel as though I’m celebrating a living shiva, feeling melancholy, and yet a very real, sincere peace.

There’s some connection I feel to my mother, as I think about all she’s experienced during her lifetime. My dad shows me a picture of the two of them, before they were engaged. My dad is on the left with dark, shaggy hair, and my mom to the right, in long, blonde pigtails and bell bottom jeans.
“Who is that?” we ask my 29 year old sister, who has Down Syndrome, while pointing to the photo.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s Mom and Dad,” I tell her.

“Looks weird.” She states, never having been a bashful one.

We laugh.

I watch her breathe with the support of intubation. Occasionally, she tenses and one of the tubes fills with liquid. She’s sleeping and under heavy medication, but still able to make small coughs that help bring the fluid from the pneumonia that’s gathered in her lungs. It’s strange to think, in this moment, that there was another time, and another place (not the ICU),  in which my mom and I were once connected. I feel as though right now, I’m a fly on the wall, or a shadow of my spirit, zoomed out, as I picture my mom holding my brother, then my sister, then me after birth. It’s a humbling experience to think about a day I can’t even remember, but a day that was quintessential to my very life. It’s in this moment I’m acutely aware of what a gift it is to have loving parents to bring you into life in this world. I suppose I may never know fully unless I become a mother one day, but here, in this moment, I’m as close to “getting it” as I might ever be. We all make sacrifices for each other. Fathers. Mothers. But right now, I see most clearly the amazing gift we each receive from a woman who uses her very body to provide life to another. Don’t get me wrong, women who choose not to have children can live every bit as sacrificially as those that do, but for right now, I’m looking at my mother in a hospital bed. And I’m so grateful that she, along with my father, made my life possible.

“Better get going,” my dad motions to my sister and I. Lauren, my Aunt and I are going to go home to make dinner, then head to the movies for a laughter break.
But I don’t want to leave.
I’m so sick of living my life focusing on getting tasks done.
I’m tired of half-listening to my roommate when I come home each day, as I tend to the dishes and listen to her talk in between my clanging of pots. She never does this when I talk to her. She stops what she’s doing and looks you into the eye…No, no, no. She looks into your heart.
Dinner can wait, I think.?We can order takeout to make it quicker. This time is much, much much more important. My sister and I linger over her bed for another twenty minutes. The nurse told us that even though she’s under sedation, she can still hear us, and encourages us to talk to her in short whispers as part of the healing process.

“Love you Mom,” I whisper softly and give her another slow kiss.

My sister and Aunt and I leave the room, and I glance back through the glass window to see my Dad, currently on furlough, sitting quietly beside her, where he’s been since her admission ten days ago. Last weekend, I watched him brush her hair, gingerly, especially at the ends where a few tangles had gathered. As my siblings and aunt and I talked in her room last weekend, he stood beside her bed, touching her forehead every few moments or so. As I walk further away from my mom’s hospital bed, I admire his love. He always knew how to keep people a priority and go out for a run when his head needed clearing. I love that about him.

I don’t think this is it, but I was told there’s always a chance. I think that spunky young woman on a motorcycle is going to beat the pneumonia, heal from the staph infection which triggered her initial hospital admission last week, and come back from this in due time.

But what do I know.

What do I know about death.

What do I know about what it must feel like, to be near it, or perhaps around it, or perhaps still far from it, but not too far.

I don’t know.

But I remember the words of my youth pastor who watched her own mother pass away:

“I will tell you all this–never be afraid when this time comes. You could actually see Mom’s spirit leave her body, hover a while, and go. She looked so happy, so peaceful. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.”

I cling to this hope, and the hand of my sister as I whisper “I love you,” steadfast with the optimism that I will be back here tomorrow, watching her chest rise and fall. But even if for some reason, I cannot, I let the words and experience of my youth pastor nestle deep into my heart until a satiated peace comes over me.

I’m sitting a living shiva.
And I’m so thankful for the prayers and support of friends and family like you.