An artist named Noah Kalina created a video in which he pieced together 4,514 photographs of himself, one he took each day for over twelve years. The result is an impressive physical documentation of the passing of time. The changes in clothing, the cycles of hairstyles, the way we were defined once as someone’s granddaughter, someone’s sister, someone’s lover, the trends and fads we move through and move past, the people that appear as shadows passing in the background, the spaces we live, and even the way our eyes once sat slightly higher on our faces goes unnoticed until we see a photograph of us from years before and it hits us that time passed without us thinking about it. It passes both quickly and slowly enough for us to forget we were ever someone else.
I spent at least three weeks of that summer packing up my life to move into my first college dorm. I spent thirteen years creating that room, the one with walls painted the perfect shade of blue, somewhere between sky blue and the classic Crayola crayon blue. The room with blue walls that were incidentally covered with thumbtacks and double-stick tape lining the corners of posters of indie bands, fashion magazine cutouts, and photographs that climbed from the floor to the ceiling. It was in that space that I created a sanctuary, the ultimate judgment-free zone, a space where it was okay to fall in and out of love, a space to mistakenly mix paint colors on a canvas, to squeak my way through impossible études on my violin, to write in journals no one would ever read. It was a space to escape to, a space to hide in, a space to both live and learn. It was there that I grew up. And as I packed up that room with the perfect blue walls, among the old notes that had been written and passed between friends that read “LOL” a few too many times than I’d like to admit, I found a familiar birthday card wrapped in a familiar pink envelope. Without opening it I knew what it was and who had written it. The envelope had appeared in my mailbox on my seventeenth birthday and it would be the last card I would receive scribbled in his faint black handwriting: “Love, Papa.”
Two and a half years later, I was sitting in a booth with a stack of books in front of me. A lukewarm cup of coffee separated from the cream I had poured into it earlier. My pen rested on the table and a paper eagerly awaited existence. In a college town like the one I lived, the perfect place to study was hard to find. The fluorescent lights of the library were harsh and uninviting and the coffee shops were saturated with twenty-somethings that seemed to enjoy flirting with the baristas and complaining about hangovers more than cracking open a book. So I searched until I found my spot, the perfect spot in a small restaurant, where coffee refills were cheap and power outlets were abundant, but all I really needed was a quiet table tucked in the corner. I glanced up from the English paper I was successfully failing to write and saw an old man pulling out the chair of a table near mine. We exchanged smiles. He held a small plate with a scone or a bagel, and in his other hand a cup of coffee. His hands were a little shaky until the porcelain mug found its place on the table. I had only one of four grandparents left, and my grandmother looked ten years younger than she actually was all my life, so I had no frame of reference for how old the man could have been. In the two years I worked in a retirement home during high school, I never asked one of our residents how old he or she was. Certain questions are simply inappropriate. The old man opened his newspaper and folded it in half to sit flat on the table in front of him.
In that moment I imagined the circumstances that had brought him there alone. I imagined the framed photographs that may have sat on his mantle, on his walls, on his bedside table, of curls and smiles and eyes that twinkled. Past tense. I imagined a life, a full life, one with many faces, ten times as many faces as I had seen, enough to fit in four of my own lifetimes. I imagined my own grandfather, his old brown Volvo and his even older brown coat that smelled of cigars my entire life. I imagined how he spent his mornings that year and a half he lived without my grandmother before he himself died. I imagined the spaces that he occupied and the newspapers that piled up in his car and the house on Curlew Street that must have been too quiet.
Adults seem to speak in clichés, saying things like “life is a series of letting-go moments,” and “time flies,” and “kids grow up so fast.” The world will do its best to remind us that one day we will be on our own, cut off from the safety and security of our childhood bedrooms and bicycle helmets with butterfly stickers. Growing up, they’ll prepare us to be independent, to have careers and make mortgage payments and drive ourselves to the doctor’s office when we get sick. We know about those things. We accept them as inevitable because growing up is messy.
We spend the first fifteen years of our lives blowing out the same number of candles as years we’ve been alive, an annual celebration of time and of course life, but most importantly, a passing life. We’re eager for each birthday partially because of presents and parties with cupcakes and balloons, or even simply the attention that the day brings. But more so, I think, we anticipated birthdays because of what it meant to be older. Ten years meant double digits, thirteen brought the ever-awaited “teenager” status, sixteen brought car keys, and seventeen meant rated-R movies. But no birthday seemed to top the one birthday many twenty-one-year-olds don’t remember the next day. I’m not sure when we stopped celebrating and I’m not sure what changed. All I know is that we lost this yearning to age as, well, we got older. You never hear an adult respond if someone (god forbid) asks her age with, “I’m forty seven and a half!” with the excitement that an eight-and-a-half year old does. We don’t like to think about the fact that time is passing and our bodies are aging and the fact that our hair is turning gray any more than our driver’s licenses remind us. And aging becomes more of a dreaded acceptance of time running out and missed opportunities than a celebration of life. Birthdays become something to fear as they point to an end. But maybe it only seems that way when you’re young.
The old man read his paper for twenty minutes before a woman around his same age joined him with a similar cup of coffee and a plate with a scone, or maybe it was a bagel. She took a section of the paper and they sat quietly together. My grandfather has been dead for almost three years. My dad looks more and more like him with each birthday that comes in and blows away. And I’m nowhere closer to understanding how time both changes everything and nothing at all, nor how clocks seem to have hands that spin backwards and forwards, both counting and counting down.