History is a never ending series of beginnings, middles and ends. Sometimes we know something is beginning, like a first date. Sometimes we know we’ve reached a goal, like getting married. And sometimes we’re in the middle of it, like wondering where this relationship is going. But no matter where we are, we will always be in the middle of some line of history or another.
Franklin Roosevelt did not live to see the end of World War II. It’s history had not yet concluded. By the time he died he probably had a pretty good idea what the outcome would be. He probably realized that freedom and democracy would not be doomed. But did he know what was coming next? Where it would all end up? Did he expect the atomic age? The Cold War? The stockpiling of nuclear weapons? A nuclear war? How about the dissolution of the Soviet empire? He may have wondered about each trajectory and maybe countless more. But he didn’t get to see it all play out. History went on without him.
My mom died of cancer when she was 54. She got to see her first two children marry as well as the birth of her first two grandchildren. But, oh, the things she missed! She never got to meet Barbara, my girlfriend at the time. Maybe wondered if we’d marry, but, given my woeful history of dating, probably worried I’d screw it up. So she passed away hoping, but not knowing. Not knowing Barbara. Or Kelsey. Or Bridget. Or her great grandson Jack. Not knowing that I would have a good and successful life and not just be a ski bum who squandered a good education. Not knowing all the other events and people and history that have come since. Because as they moved on, she was left behind.
This was Barb’s biggest fear. She was even younger than my mom when breast cancer hit. Since then she’s never known if she would be there for life’s events. Would she see the kids graduate high school? College? Marry? Grandkids? So far, she’s made it. We’ll see about tomorrow.
And now, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought about this a lot. The idea of being left behind as the world moves on. When we were young, we just assumed that, no matter what’s going on, we would see the end of every journey. We had our whole lives ahead of us. Whatever beginning or middle we were in, we would be there for the end. Time was on our side.
But no longer. Looking up from nearly seventy years, how much time is left? And what will happen to the world tomorrow? And how much of it will I see? What will happen with climate change? With guns? Racism? Abortion? Russia? China? Democracy? Will “good” defeat “evil”? And what of the million possibilities we can’t yet fathom? The default is to believe it will all turn out okay. I tend to think that the arc of history bends towards justice. But what if it doesn’t? What if this time it’s different? If this is an American crossroads, which direction will it go? I am of this world. I’m invested in its outcome. Will it be, “gee I wish he was here to see it,” or “thank goodness he’s not here to see what became of us”? Regardless, there is a sense of sadness to think of being left behind.
And what about the ones I love? Kelsey and Jack and her baby to be? Seeing Jack as a teen. An adult. A man. Or Bridget? Will I be here for her best years? Families move on and grow. Some roads will be taken. Other roads will not. Futures will be crafted in directions unknown. After all this time intricately intertwined with their lives, the bulk of their living will happen after I’ve gone. Like moving on without my mom.
But I suppose that any sadness should be tempered by the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to be here for what has come. I had the first date. I wondered where it would go. And I got there! The three loves of my life (Jack makes four, and baby makes five). I’ve witnessed Barb’s incredible journey. And hey, I’m living on the ocean! And as bad as it sometimes seems in this crazy world, the arc of history has moved us to acceptances unimaginable 100, 50, even 10 years ago. Gay marriage. Renewable energy. Information access. Black Lives Matter. Progress, slow as a frozen slug, but still moving. FDR and my mom would be amazed.
And where will it go from here? Well, I hope the arc keeps bending in its usual direction, but I guess at some point, it will just have to get there without me.