The In-Betweens

I wake up every morning, unnaturally, with the sound of the alarm or the touch of my daughter climbing into the bed next to me, usually not rested and with a feeling of heaviness in my limbs - another day, satisfyingly predictable, but too full, always, always too full like a cloth sack stretched taut across its seams, bulging and swelling in places, oddly angular in others. It is those first few moments in the morning when I am still wrapped in my fleece blanket with one arm circling my daughter that I am filled with penetrating sadness and self-pity. There is no good reason for this. It is the idea of getting out of my bed that fills me with such dread. Those minutes with the world utterly quiet around us, the drone of the heating system starting and halting, the muted light of dawn filtering in patches through the window, all the worries of real life still so far away from my consciousness that they seem non-existent - it is these first few minutes of wakefulness that make me want to cry over the predicament I am in, namely that of being gainfully employed, because this singular fact dictates the interruption of my serenity. I know this must sound a bit ungrateful. I do love my job, but in the haze of broken sleep, I am simply not yet aware of this fact. By the by, however, strength returns to me. I rise. I move sluggishly around the house. Get ready. Get on the road. For an hour on the freeway with a good book playing in the car, I share the loss and elation of each protagonist while day breaks around me and mountains loom on the horizon. That's when I realize this will be another good day. 

I used to measure life in units of months and years. I used to think it was evident in accomplishments and failures, in daunting times, dark days, in celebrations, and milestones. I thought of life in discrete units of time pivoted on one or another focal point - the years before I came to America and the years after; the years before I had Jahan and the years after; the years before someone died and the years after; the years before I got married and the years after; the years of Davis; the years of Stanford; the years of Lahore; the years before my brother was born and the years after. I thought somehow life existed only in these focal points, these events, harbingers of significant change, and it radiated outwards from these nuclei, weakening in strength until its concentric orbit collided with another life event. Hopefully this picture will help in illustrating what I am trying to say.

The years are beginning to feel short now. If you asked me to name one major milestone of 2013, I would probably pause for a long time. A lot happened this year, certainly, but what of real significance? When you reach a certain age, late twenties, early thirties, I think you begin to get somewhat suspicious of significant events. By this time, you've witnessed death - someone close to you has died - grandparents, friends, family members. You begin to turn your ringtone off at night, partly because you want to sleep undisturbed, and partly because if it's bad news, you don't want to hear it. Then, if you don't answer the phone, it didn't happen. When one of my sisters gets the time difference wrong and I see her name blinking on my phone at an odd hour, I immediately ask, "Is everything OK?" By this age, one or both of your parents have probably had a brush with a serious illness. If your parents are living far away from you, the serious illness sounds even more sinister than it would if you could oversee their medical care yourself. You know, for instance, that dengue fever could kill your mother because her blood group is AB negative and the blood bank in Lahore never has it on site. You know that your father has had a TIA and if he doesn't take care of himself, another could follow. You know you mother has battled with cancer and won, and you know that the sneaky bastard could come back and there's nothing you can do about it. You also know that it could be waiting patiently inside you to proliferate at age 47 - when your mother was diagnosed - or sooner. It is at this age then, your third decade or thereabouts, that you start looking at cuts and bruises more carefully. What is this new ache in the small of your back? Was it there last week? Why does your daughter have a bruise on her leg? Did it appear for no reason, or did she take a fall? You observe her in school. She runs too fast and collides with things. You breathe a sigh of relief, but you don't stop worrying. You never stop worrying. Your perfect picture of the definition of life, that it ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, peaks and troughs, is disintegrating. Life could never be so clean, so predictable, so measurable. 

Life is not present in the major events your memory draws you to when you ruminate in quiet moments. Life, instead, is in the in-betweens. It is in the lull. It is in the time that stretches from one nucleus of an event in picture above to another. It is maybe not in the picture I have drawn at all. It is mostly absent from any recollections and stories you are able to create about the way you have lived. It really exists in the moments before the fateful phone call or after it, because inside that particular time capsule, the seconds or minutes or days or weeks it takes for you to fall into and rise out of a tragedy or triumph, there is a sense of time having stopped, and therefore life having stopped. Life exists in the unremarkable observation of exhaustion I make every morning. It is in the curve of my baby's small body as she presses her little head underneath my chin. It is in the long drive to work, the long drive back from work, when I smile upon hearing a good line or gasp at a turn in the plot. It is in the long phone calls with family during which we irritably ask each other, "Aur sunao" ("Tell me something else...") because we've told each other everything, and there is nothing else of note to discuss. Life is in the satisfaction of each other's company, just knowing that we are listening to each other, we are still here, everything is good. It is in all the days, back to back to back, that begin and end the same way. Life is in the sameness rather than the difference of things, and I am living it all the time. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue