Nine Theories of Time8 min read

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Cancer, Death of a child


Time is absolute. My son is born and there is blood, screaming sweet as rain, tears, and joy. I hold him. Things precede. Time is a straight line that exists independent of observers. My son’s second birthday follows his first. He walks shortly after his first and talks two months before his second. His hair is blond at first, but by the time he is five it is a dark brown. One step comes after the other. It is immutable and steady, one second then the next, then the next. He runs to his friends and I swell with pride, even as the tears come. There is nothing that changes time, not speed, not love, not distance. It slips, moment by moment, by. I try to hold it. I take a dozen pictures at his ballet recitals. I record his giggle as he rips the wrapping off of his presents. Still, time marches. I cannot pause it, try though I might. I cannot live in any single moment, as desperately beautiful as they are.


Time is relative.


As an object accelerates, or moves quickly, time moves slower. The car sped down the freeway, faster than I’d ever driven before, as my wife held his head in the backseat. He fainted on a hike and his body shook for minutes as we tried to help him. An astronaut travelling close to the speed of light will return to Earth much younger than all of her friends who stayed on earth. Time depends on motion. The freeway stretched forever. I got the SUV over a hundred miles an hour for the first time since I’d bought it. It didn’t matter. Time stretched open, a wide gaping mouth of forever. We skidded into the hospital and I left the car blinking at the front door, carrying my son into the waiting room, back on Earth.


The stronger the gravitational force acting on an object, the more slowly it experiences time. The doctor spread the scans on his mahogany desk. Gravity is caused by an object’s mass bending spacetime. Like a bowling ball on a quilt, the fabric of reality bows under the strain of massive objects. The words fell heavy, careened out of his mouth. They crashed through the table, splintered the wood, and cracked the floor tiles. The closer an object gets to a blackhole, the slower time moves. It was millennia before anyone said anything. We hummed around the diagnosis, impossibly heavy, and time ticked infinitesimally by. Eventually one of us said something, but eternity had already passed. We left the room and everything had aged. The trees had shed their leaves and died. The buildings had crumbled. The car had rusted. Our boy was dying. Time stretched so long it hardly moved at all.


Time is an ouroboros. When it ends, it begins. Tail to mouth. Apocalypse to genesis, again and again. Each day folds into the next, a mirror. MRI machines whir endlessly, one day after the other. IVs stab into his arm, too small for this many pricks and bruises. His hair falls out again and again, back the next morning, it seems, only to fall out by the end of the afternoon. Radiation fights the tumor in his brain. It shrinks, then grows back, then shrinks. One day into the other. The universe expands and expands, time moving out and curving on non-euclidean lines, then gravity pulls it back until it contracts into nothing. Time swallows itself and spits itself back out and the whole thing repeats. We leave the waiting room then walk back in. We tell a joke before the procedure, he laughs, that smile crests like the moon through clouds. We leave. We tell a joke before the next procedure, he laughs, that smile crests like the moon through clouds. We tell a joke. It’s all we can do, hold one end of the tail, as the mouth swallows us, as tomorrows turn into todays, todays into yesterdays, yesterdays into tomorrows.


Time is like light. It is both a particle and a wave. It is both movement and matter. I watched videos of him pirouetting, tottering on one leg like a slightly misshapen top, gorgeous, whenever he went under. The first chronon particle was observed in 2047 in an experiment in the large Hadron collider. Time is specific, something you can touch and feel, specify and move. He was asleep when they brought us to him after the surgeries. There were staples on his temple. Time is also an oscillation, a transfer of energy. I pass his sleeping body to my wife. We sang in the car, our voices waves through the air. His prepubescent alto was candy. Scientists capture time particles, freeze them in motion, and watch the universe decohere in small vials. It takes the power of three-dozen suns to do this. I watch him dance on my phone in bed, while he murmurs on the monitor, talking in his sleep. Scientists map the motion of time in different environments. I watch life leave him, time moving in waves from him to the sadness in my chest. This means there is a set amount of time in the universe. Scientists ponder what this means. I hold time in one hand, while it moves through my son in the other room.


Time is quantum. I am with my son for the final day, and I am with my son on his first day. Chronons are superpositional. Time happens simultaneously. My son was crying, purple with surprise at the world, and laughing as I tickled his stomach with a feather, and coughing in the bathroom, and breathing quietly beneath the morphine blanket. Time is entangled. I heard the sound of my son’s voice at 1:35am, six months after he died, whispering that he was scared and could he sleep with us. He was just diagnosed and I said yes. He fell asleep on my chest, head rising and falling as I breathed. It is all happening all at once, everywhere. If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you do not understand quantum mechanics. If you think you understand death, you do not understand death.


Time is fractal. Time does not swallow itself at its end, but rather expands into a copy of itself, a repetition made of the same pattern. Grief opens into more grief, love into more love. The geometric shape of chronal arrangements is self-repeating. Each moment contains every other moment in existence. The shape of time is constant and eternal. There is no out or in. We lower our boy into the ground and it swallows everything. I throw myself into work and it swallows everything. Time is shaped like a Mandelbrot, twisting chevrons composed entirely of twisting chevrons composed entirely of twisting chevrons. My son is born and there is blood, screaming sweet as rain. Inside the screams, he is singing in the car. Inside the car, he is dying in my arms. In my arms, his smile is cresting like a moon through clouds. Inside his smile are the staples along his forehead. The staples fill the quiet house with nothing. Inside the nothing are a thousand ghosts, all shaped like him. Inside the ghosts, my son is born, and there is blood, screaming sweet as rain. All the same moment, really. All the same thing, really.


Time is a consciousness. Some laughed at this theory, fringe until the early 22nd century, until a unified theory of consciousness revealed the quantum structure of consciousness in the human brain. It is hard to sleep in the evening and impossible to wake up in the morning. Of course the structure of consciousness mirrors the structure of time. The mind folds into itself in infinitely repeating patterns. Time is a large mind, a phenomenological instance, that spans the universe. Time thinks and stretches and yawns and spaghettifies near black holes, because it is a deity. Time only exists when I acknowledge it. Some days I do not, the morning is a millennia of frozen grief. The milk should be bad, the earth should be ended, but it’s not, when I rise. I only exist when time acknowledges me. The thought changes and before I am downstairs, my son is braiding rows of daisies into his hair. My wife is singing as she plays guitar. My son is running through the field, chasing the wind-blown dandelion seeds. I am a little sweaty and an ant is crawling on my forearm, just one. Time can change its mind. We exist in the memory banks of the of time. Minds change quickly. I was a young boy and my grandmother died. My mother told me what she could before she left for a doctor’s office of her own. My sister was tumbling across a gymnastics studio. My father was at work. I did not know what to do with this sadness. I stole twenty-dollars from my sister’s drawer and hid it between the pages of one of my favorite books. If time is a consciousness, and we only exist in moments of interaction with time, then is it fair to call time a God? The days lord over me, bend me to their will and wants. Tuesdays I will not sleep. Fridays I will not be able to stay awake. Augusts I will stay inside, making sure the AC keeps my underarms dry. Afternoons I will miss him for hours and I will chew my cuticles until they bleed. Time thinks of me and I answer. Time thinks of me, and I wish it wouldn’t.


Time does not exist. Moments do not exist. Existence is a solid state, and nothing moves through anything else. Motion is nonexistent. Nothing is caused. The present is one hallucinatory moment, a single instance shackled taut with false memories and the diseased promise of a future. I am frozen, stuck, in the only moment that matters. A therapist tells me that I am ensconced, that I have not grieved, that I have not addressed the sadness as a partner, but have let it exist, unexamined, so it has not changed. A book on Presentism tells me that the past and the future are ontologically impossible. The universe, it argues, is really one single moment, dense with information suggesting time, but lacking any real substance making it so. I try to examine my sadness. My son has just died. I was holding his hand. So was my wife. This was all there ever was. I had experienced nothing real before, not by comparison, and have experienced nothing real since. How should I address this cocoon? This prison? Grief is an ontology, not a phenomenology. Time is a poor assumption to keep us sane. My son dies and this is all there is. Is this all I want there to be? Does it matter?


Time is absolute. My son was born and he was beautiful. My son got sick and it was rending. We found joy in the moments in between, stretched those moments as much as we could, which was never enough, but was more than I ever deserved. My son died and he was beautiful and there is no word worth uttering to describe it. I fell into time and my wife forgave me but needed more than nothing. I grieved and grieved until I was a husk. What else was there to do? Still, the sun rose and set. Still, the days marched, iron-booted into tomorrows. Wrinkles dug their trenches in my skin as sadness dug its trenches in my heart and when I looked in the mirror the absolute nature of time was impossible to argue against. I talked and it helped. I mourned and it helped. I filled in stupid worksheets and that helped, too. I was happy and in love, once. I was nervous and a father, then. I was breaking and smiling and hopeful and distraught and laughing and crying all the time. Then, I was heartbroken. I am still heartbroken. In the morning, I take time to look my sadness in its face. Some days it is overcast. Some nights it is a wide smile cresting through the clouds. Time is a straight line that exists. So do I. So did he. I’m grateful for each, when I can be. I suppose that’s enough.

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