THE gift of time is never more appreciated than when it's not a sure thing. Celebrate the approaching New Year with relish if time is still on your side. It's a confetti burst few people embrace with due gratitude. There'll come a time when you'll wish you had.
But by then you may be preoccupied with misgivings that surface when friends die young or even not that old. Those left behind inevitably agonize about the abruptness of time that harshly canceled what could have been. Even when one who is aged and infirm lets death win a hand, mourners struggle to resign themselves with running out of time.
When you are underage you can't wait for the time to be old enough. When you are old enough you wish you could turn back the clock. Time is a gift given so freely and without strings attached that we expect it to last forever, or at least until the second coming. But we're never quite satisfied with the time we have and griping about it has become a national pastime. We complain because we don't have enough time to do anything, or that we have too much of it so it drags on and on.
Mothers with young children lose track of all time. That's why people who have been there, done that, never tire of reminding harried moms to stop and smell the Happy Meals. Enjoy the best time of your life, they say. We don't always heed their advice when our cherubs are less than angelic, but deep down we know our once-in-a-lifetime moments are magic.
Still, we routinely take time for granted. We assume it is plentiful - like water - so wasting it is OK. It's an everyday occurrence for most of mankind. We waste a remarkable amount of finite time over the years with people we don't like at places we'd rather not be and with things we surely don't need to be happy.
But what's an hour or two or three lost to small talk and petty affronts when we have time to spare? There's always tomorrow to spend time with whomever we please and to be wherever we choose. A few poor choices won't hurt the abundant time quotient, will it? Of course, there are abundant signs that it will - but we ignore them.
People our age or younger may be suddenly dead and gone, but they're not us. According to our presumptuous calculations, we'll likely live to a ripe old age sustained by the best medical care in the world, cost notwithstanding. If we must die, we'll go peacefully in our sleep surrounded by generations of doting, sorrowful relations. Funny how time can play tricks on the mind.
The time of our lives is slip-sliding away, to borrow from Paul Simon, and we're impervious to its gathering speed. The little boy wearing the Batman mask and cape he got from Santa into the restaurant will be a self-conscious dude overnight. The smiles he coaxed from even the most jaded diners this holiday season are but a snapshot in time. No doubt my son will cringe when the memory is recounted years ahead.
I plan to be in on the good-natured ribbing that makes a grown Batman grin. But like everyone else on this planet, my gift of time has an expiration date. It could be tomorrow or 30 years from tomorrow if I'm lucky.
As another year winds down and the next one fidgets impatiently to start with furious speculation and fast-filling calendar dates, there is the briefest of pauses before the countdown begins.
In that seemingly suspended period when the earth, according to learned astronomers, spins a precise second slower this year, maybe someone will take the time to notice instead of anticipating what comes a second later. The new year may be fun to predict but only time will tell how human flaws and natural upheavals jolt the living and claim destined souls. Only time will tell who rises to the summit of the challenge and who recedes into the chasm of contempt.
The most we can hope for in 2006 is time to find out what happens. It's a gift we count on receiving with no guarantees. It's never more appreciated than when it gets hung up on circumstances and arrives late or not at all. If the New Year finds you alive and well with good friends and cordial family, thank a higher power for the gift you and they share through one more late December into early January.
More valuable than any passing favor or fortune is the time to yet behold the smile on a creased, beloved face or the serious stare of a small crime-fighter coloring a menu behind a mask and flowing black cape.
Happy New Year.