Once again I found myself in that same hallway. It's seemingly never-ending rows of foggy windowpanes shifted in and out of the corners of my eyes as I continued my anxious gait down the red-carpeted floors. These hallways were so long. Like instances and stretches of life. Hours flowed like seconds here. I was used to it by now, this dream had been with me since my father’s condition had gotten worse. I had become accustomed to gazing into these windows. I would stand there for what seemed like a lifetime in this dream watching the events play out before my eyes. Lives, people, things I knew, things past, and things to come, things that could have been, and things that will never be. My timeline stretched across this maze of windows.
But this time was different, I wasn’t pausing to gaze into the future. I had a mission, a drive. The last time I found myself in this hallway I happened upon a window and a scene I will never forget. A scene that is so branded into my mind’s eye that no manner of cognitive repression could hide it. In this window, I saw Death.
That was twelve years ago. I was fifteen when my father explained to me what ailed him. Since then I had been seeking the end to this dream. A way to save my father, its conclusion, and our resolution. From then on I ignored the windows and kept running down this hallway, trying to find its end. But the labyrinth never ended. Turn after turn left me more lost the deeper I went. I knew that if I found what was behind all of this, or maybe found another window, something that would make the outcome different, things could change. But I was running out of time; I never stayed in this hallway for more than twelve hours, I was constantly aware of how much I had left.
Left, right, right, right, left, left, right, left, right, left, right right. “What time was it?” I looked at my watch. I turned around the last corner and saw the end of the hallway. Something different, a white door. There. That was what I’ve been looking for. Eleven. I started sprinting.
I awoke with a jolt. It took me just a moment to remember that I was still in my bed. I was sitting straight up in my bed the sheets a mess around me. A cold sweat drenched my chest and my neck and I was panting with a racing heartbeat. Like I had been running for hours. After taking in where I was, I beat the bed with my fists in dissatisfaction. I was so close that time. Farther than I had made it before. I flopped back down onto my pillows and let my arms fall out to either side of me. I sighed and stared at the ceiling for a while thinking about that white door. What was behind it? Who was behind it?
It was Sunday and the soft gray light of mid-morning shown through my bedroom curtains. The window was open and a misty breeze made its way through my apartment. The light and window made the reveling shadows dance an eerie promenade across the walls of my room. I watched the deathly spectres as they reached their chilly figures around my bed and walls. I had no interest in their efforts. Not now.
I swung myself out of bed and checked my cell phone. It was eleven. I had a few text messages, one from my father, “meet you at The Square at 11:30, I’ll get us a table. Love, Dad.” I was happy to hear from him as he lives on the other side of the city and I worked downtown. My loft was in the heart of Toronto, in a space I had rented out above my studio. I wanted to be close to my work. I walked to the window and flung it open leaning over the ledge, looking across the Toronto skyline. It smelled like rain.
After I got myself ready, I walked into my living room and grabbed my things off of the coffee table along with my jacket. I recited my checklist “phone, keys, wallet, pocket watch...nope...where are you?
Following the sound led me to the floor, I looked like a frantic, young boy.
Another turn of the gear.
“Oh, there you are!” I exclaimed spotting it on the floor underneath the couch. I grabbed it and spun the chain around my index finger and caught it with cool grace. The pocket watch was a decaying. Worn, to say the least, and the glass panel covering the face was scratched and had a crack in it. When my father had given it to me, he informed me that it was from the 17th century and had carried on in our family. I seldom wore the watch fashionably but I always carried it honoring my father in my own little way. And, despite the cosmetic damage, it was a nice watch and it kept time for whatever reason, even after four centuries, it kept on ticking. What was odd about it was that it only had one hand. It only kept track of hours. On the inside panel it read “Every end, is a new beginning.”
The only downside to the trinket, it occasionally stopped. Now was one of those times. It had stopped ticking just as I found it, the hand rested at nine. I spent a few seconds rewinding it back to the current time, 11:25. I was late, something that I was also accustomed too, I was never on time for anything. As I opened the door into the stairwell, I glanced up at "The Persistence of Memory" that lingered on the wall above my door. Walking past my mailbox, I grabbed what little mail I had and skimmed through it. One notice was from my landlord stating that I was twenty days past my rent. I sighed. Frustrated, I pocketed the notice scowling at the overwhelming pressure of deadlines.
I found my father underneath the awning outside of the cafe reading the last page of the newspaper. It was noon, and he had just come from church.
“Hello Ben, good to see you! Have you seen this?” He said referring to an article, “a suicide; some guy jumped off the big clock tower in London. Crazy bastard. Hey, I already ordered for us, I remembered what you always got here. Potato soup with a greek salad, right?” he said.
I smiled, “Yeah, dad, how are you?”
My father was seventy-four years old. But he was built like he had been when he was young. He kept himself neat, clean shaven, and his white and gray hair styled in a classy, slick back do. But today was not one of those days. He looked worn, like someone had drained the life out of him. And when he spoke I heard the lingering doubt in his tone.
“Good, good. How is the gallery? Been working on anything new lately?” he asked.
“I’ve been commissioned by the city to paint a mural near one of the subway stations near the bay area. It's going to be a tree with all the stations around Toronto branching off on it. Like the heart of the city or something. Was supposed to have some sketches in by last week but I uh, haven’t gotten around to it,” I said, dodgingly sipping my coffee.
“Last week!? Ben, you need to be on top of these things! Jesus,” he said exasperatedly. “Well, what is this thing, the tree I mean, what does it mean?” he asked waving his hands in the air.
We talked it over as our waitress presented us with our food. The tree was supposed to represent how the subway connects all parts of the city. At the bottom are it roots, the foundation of the city, the trunk was the hub, where it all happened. And lastly the branches, all of the “what-ifs,” and “where-to's” that anyone could imagine in the big city, the endless destinations. As we ate, I continued to glance at the sundial on the outside of the patio, not like I could read it, it was too cloudy. While we ate I kept thinking about the dream, I was anxious to return to it. The last time I had that dream was so long ago, why today? Why had I come so close? I had so many questions that I knew would be answered once I reached that door. I felt the pressure once again.
After a while, I paused eating and addressed my father. “So dad, how are you doing? Really?” I asked him, my voice indicated that it was time to be serious.
“Well, Ben, that’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about, sort of the reason I called you,” he said taking a sip of his coffee. “I met with my doctors last week and they informed me that...well…” he paused and let out a sigh. “That I have somewhere around two months. The strokes are becoming more frequent.”
His words resonated in my skull with a sickening vibration.
My father suffered from TIAs, mini-strokes. I recalled the first time I saw my father have a stroke. I was twelve years old. I remembered only the panic and the confusion, as a young boy I had no idea what was happening to my father. I only knew that he would be sick for a while and when I looked at him, his side limp, his mouth drooping, I could tell he did not know what was going on. In the days that followed his mind would be in pieces. I would try to talk to him and he would sometimes forget who I was. I grew up always wondering if the next time he had one, he would come out of it. What if I never saw my father again? What if he never remembered who I was? What if I had to give him up?
And now I was running out of time with him.
“Dad…” I said stunned.
He held up his hand to stop me.
“Dad...no. You haven’t had a stroke in two years! Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“In my old age, the strokes become more severe. My body can only handle so many and with the increase in severity with each one, time has taken its toll on me. It seems as though the reaper has tipped the hourglass,” my father said letting the thoughts sink in a little. I could tell he was still in a little shock himself. I remained speechless. The most recent stroke my father had had him on the floor. He lost all movement in one of his legs. Luckily his neighbor found him on his back porch as my father had been watering his plants. Who knew how many strokes he hadn’t told me about. I think I took the last stroke harder than my father did. I took time from running the gallery and working to live with him to make sure nothing happened again. My father refused to live in an assisted living center because of the financial expenses and he refused to give up his independence.
“My days are certainly numbered.”
“Aren’t you scared? Of what’s going to happen?”
“I can’t really say right now, Ben.”
“What do you mean? You’re not scared of...dying?”
“I don’t know, never died before,” he said laughing.
“Dad this isn’t funny! You have to be scared. I’m scared. I don’t want this. I don’t know what is going to happen."
My father settled down a little and we went back to our food for a moment or two. The rain was still falling outside of the patio fence and I watched as the droplets clung to the threads until their very last ounce of strength failed them and they plummeted to the ground creating a splash in the endless pool beneath them.
“There’s that old school of thought, that somewhere along the line, God was some kind of watchmaker that set reality into motion. A popular one among those pseudo-Christians and people who are too afraid to be Catholic." He smirked with a joking wink. "There’s also that weird one where people think; that when God thinks this reality has served its purpose, a new one will be born with the flick of the reset switch. Like a rewind. Like we live the same life continuously without knowing it or something. Who knows. Sure puts a whole new spin on the idea of nostalgia though,” he said with a smile.
“Doesn’t that bother you? Thinking like that? What if that’s true? Would you want to live a continuous life of dying?”
My father let out a sigh searching for the right words to say.
“I can’t say it makes me feel one way or another. I’ve lived my life long enough to figure out that, whatever the reason is, it's something we were meant to do. Every instance, we are right where we are supposed to be. I find some comfort in that. Once you stop dwelling on what happens when we die and start helping others know they’re still alive, then, even if it doesn’t make sense, there’s some satisfaction in that,” he said.
“I don’t know what is going to happen, any one of those things could be true. Or none of them could be true. I have my doubts though. I don’t think God really works that way.”
“What kind of ways does he work then? ” I said looking down at the black patio table. It was rusting in places.
“In ways that we will never understand Ben,” he said lowering his mug.
“What do you think?” I asked him imploringly. My father recognized the desperation in my eyes as he lowered his coffee mug and the laughter left his face.
Growing up, my father had always told me that the strokes were something God had given him. Something that served a greater purpose. I would ask him how that all made sense because I never understood. He would say things like,
“If I had never had that stroke that new doctor would have never gotten to practice on me, maybe she will be a great physician someday.” I had a hard time grasping those types of things, I never really agreed with him.
He would tell me, “Ben it isn’t about mourning the things that happen to us, it’s about understanding those things as instances that make us stronger, especially the people affected by it. God always has his reasons.”
All of these little cliches came back to me while I stared down at my plate.
“Ben...I’ve accepted my fate. I want you to as well. I’m not bitter and I have lived my life the way I have wanted. I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything. I’ve been faithful to God, to your mother, and to you. I’m happy. And here is what I need from you. I need you to be happy. When I am gone, I don’t want you to be upset. It will hurt. Do not dwell, pray for me. Will you do that for me? Please?”
“How can I know dad? How can I know it will be okay? What if it is just like you said, a repeating endless suffering?” I asked.
“It’s strange, you know it's going to be okay because you don’t know. And we have no way of ever knowing, one of God’s great mysteries,” he said.
“We have to do the best we can with what we have. It is what it is? ” I asked looking up at my father, “that's what you told me when mom died.”
My father smiled, nodded and pointed at me confirming. This had always been one of his mannerisms. The waitress brought back our change and we thanked her. We emptied our drinks and stood pushing our chairs in. As we stepped out from under the awning of the patio we looked up to see the last of the rainfall from the gray sky. It was nice and cool, the storm was gone and the sun was beginning to shine in prismatic beams from holes in the clouds.
“Ben, I know one thing about this world,” he said pulling his hood over his head turning towards me. “And that is that there is a date and a time, stamped on every one of our faces,” he said tapping his forehead with his index finger, “and that is that, there is no arguing with the watchmaker,” he said. I looked at him and held out my hand, he grasped it and I smiled.
“Thank you for getting lunch with me dad.”
“No Ben, thank you. You know, after your mother passed I thought it was going to be the hardest thing in the world, losing someone who was helping you through the whole mess. These strokes. But you made that a lot easier for me.”
I was fighting back tears.
“I love you dad,” I said wrapping my arms around him burying my face in his shoulder like I had done so many times growing up. At age twenty-seven, I felt no shame.
“I love you too my son.”
As we parted ways, I promised myself that I would see him again soon. I watched him walk down the street weaving in and out of busy looking people, late after their lunch break, or the young kids getting out of class rushing home to enjoy the rest of their night. My father walked slowly, burdened by the weight of his life. Leaving the fence of the patio, I glanced at sundial resting on a small podium outside on the sidewalk, 3 PM.
Five weeks after our lunch I received a phone call from my father’s doctor. My father had died of a stroke in his sleep sometime Thursday night the doctor told me. Our neighbor had found him after calling him persistently over an hour or two with the intent of telling him that he had left his sprinkler on too long. When I went to the hospital I saw my father sprawled out on a gurney, quiet, and reposed. I could not be like him. I wanted nothing to do with it. Death cloaked my father with the illusion of peace and in that moment I knew, I knew that I would not let this down easily.
The rest of the day was a blur. I spent my time listening to doctors telling me useless medical procedures, listening to relatives and friends on the phone telling me what they thought I needed to hear. I sat through lectures from coroners and funeral directors. But I was not there. I didn’t want to be. I wanted to be as far away from everyone as possible. I left the hospital and the parlors walking deliberately to somewhere I had no real intention of going. I just wanted to walk until it made things better. It was 7 PM. I found myself at home and laid on my couch. I was too mentally exhausted to make my way to the bedroom. As the sun slipped behind the horizon, I slipped with it.
My eyes opened and I found myself back in my apartment. The sun was down and I could see on the coffee table my phone blipping a small, green light indicating I had voicemails waiting for me, surely nothing I wanted to hear right now. I sat up and rubbed my eyes keeping them there a little longer in the hope that if I just kept them closed, all the bad things would go away. I sighed and pocketed my phone trying to decide what I was going to do with the rest of my night. I sat up and walked into the kitchen grabbing a flask that I kept in case of emergencies. Moments when courage and wisdom were needed. The scotch burned the whole way down but after five or so swigs, the burn turned to a numbing console. I put the flask in my coat pocket and walked back into the living room I needed fresh air, my nap had made me groggy. I grabbed my keys off the table and reached for the pocket watch that gleamed in the moonlight shining through the window. While I had slept, the watch had stopped ticking.
I found myself at the bay area standing on the newly renovated greenway that the city had been working on. I looked around still a mess from the shock of the day. I didn’t want to be with anyone; not my father, not my friends, not even me. I watched the trees sway in the spring wind. The buds of new life slowly emerging and regenerating from the winter. The bushes too, a bright green having been rejuvenated by the rain from the days before.
I stood there staring out across the water the mist of Lake Ontario blasted across my face and made the flaps of my jacket collar wisp and beat my neck. I hung over the railway that separated me from the water and let out a sigh. During my wandering, I had stopped and bought a pack of cigarettes. Something I told myself I would never do as long as I lived. My father had once told me,
“I don’t care if you smoke, but I will tell you exactly what my father told me, ‘it is an expensive habit.'” Hearing my father’s voice in my head brought me to the end. Anger and despair filled my heart as salt water filled my eyes and nose. A wail escaped my throat and I sunk. I was lost in my own blackness.
That damn watch. It echoed. I pulled it out of my pocket and looked at it seeing that it still had not moved but the ticking remained. Resonating, gear and wench clicking, ticking, filling my head with sounds.
“Why won’t it stop? Why won’t it just let me think?” I screamed
The ticking grew louder and I grabbed my temples in pain. Tick-tock after tick-tock, it was endless and I would never escape.
“Damnit, damnit, damnit! Leave me alone! Why won’t you just die?!” I screamed as I launched the timepiece across the railing. It hit the black water of the lake quietly and together we quickly reached the bottom.
I don’t remember when I returned home, but the flask was depleted. I stripped and crawled into my bed. I was supposed to work tomorrow but to hell with it. I had no time in my life to work. No moments to give, they had been taken from me. That night I spoke with God. I asked him why. And I told him how angry I was. I told him I didn’t know what to do and how scared I was. And then He reminded me of my father’s words, to not be sad for him, but that he has asked me to pray for him. And so I did. I prayed for solace, for peace for my father. And in my murmurings, I entered into a trance. A trance in which God and I were the only ones left. All that seemed to matter was what I told him and what I knew he would tell to my father. I told him I missed him already and that even though I was miserable that I knew my father was better off than I was. As my vision blurred with tears I slipped once more into the hallway.
Again I found myself running. Hard, fast, I was determined. Back through all the hallways, I knew exactly where I was going; where He was. He was the one running out of sand in the hourglass this time. I was catching up I had him. I knew it. He’s there. I felt him. Watchmaker.
I grabbed the brass handle and threw my shoulder into the doorway, it burst into splinters on impact and the smell of rotten wood filled my nostrils. As I stumbled across the threshold I looked up at what I knew was the Watchmaker looking at me in surprise. But it was not him who held an expression of surprise, it was me. As I stood in a room full of clock faces, moving hands and winding gears above me, Time, stood still. We locked eyes and I heard his hands continue to move, the gears inside the watch ever so innocently spinning.
Neither of us said anything, there was nothing that could have been said. As I gazed into his eyes the greenness that comprises and contains all time drew me in. The faceless void. That which controls all chronological entities enveloped me. In that moment, it all made sense. I finally understood. I finally knew that I would never understand. He watched me, smiling as his hands continued to spin. I smiled back at him as we shared that moment. His gaze told me that I would endure and that it would all be okay. I glanced at the hands surrounding me as they approached twelve.
“Damnit,” I said as I watched myself rewind my silver pocket watch.