He was late again. As I waited outside the school, where I'd just put in a very long day, I was angry but not surprised.
My husband and time don't get along. He expects it to be flexible, to stretch or contract according to his needs. Time refuses.
When he finally drove up, I wanted an apology. Instead, I heard a list of all the things that had "made him late." Of course, I only got angrier. Why did he deny that he had a problem being on time? Why couldn't he just admit he was wrong?
"I wasn't wrong," he replied. "I just miscalculated."
Denial. Back when we were young, we raged against it. Raw truth! Savage honesty! Those were the things that made a life authentic and meaningful.
Now that we are old ... well, older. Not actually old. More like late middle-aged.
Wait. What was I saying about denial?
There's the guy who still believes he's in a relationship, even though she hasn't answered his texts all week. The friend who squeezes into jeans two sizes too small. The 20-something who swears living in New York City is a dream come true, without mentioning that she pays half her salary for a coffin-sized apartment. And that she shares it with three other people. One of whom just saw a bedbug. There's the old lady who deletes a photo because some trick of the light gave her a turkey neck and flabby upper arms.
An older lady. Not actually old. More like late middle-aged.
Sigmund Freud did not approve of denial. His daughter Anna characterized it as a mechanism of the immature mind.
Denial, she wrote, interferes with the ability to learn from and deal with reality.
In other words, it can make things a whole lot easier.
Sometimes, I've learned, it also makes things possible.
A young woman we're very fond of set her heart on a career in medicine. School had never been easy for her. Everything she accomplished was the result of diligence and enormous determination.
When she began applying to programs, my own heart quailed. The competition was fierce. The thin envelopes began arriving.
I cursed rainbow-tinted quotes: "Follow your dreams and the universe will open doors for you." The reality was, Not always. So many times, those doors stay padlocked and dead bolted.
Even after she was accepted, my worries didn't end. The program was rigorous and intense. Students dropped out. Whenever we saw her, she wore a glazed, hanging-by-the-fingernails expression.
All the while I rooted for her, but in the back of my head lurked the thought, Hard work isn't always enough.
Neither are good intentions. Or desire. Sometimes, it's best to face reality.
I should have remembered my experience while working at the public library and doing outreach at the nearby nursing home. The first time I went, I puzzled over what to read.
Something spiritual and inspirational, I decided. I loaded up on poems featuring sunsets and birds sweetly singing at dusk. I found essays about looking back, about legacies and profound last words.
The residents listened politely. A fair number fell asleep. Nobody seemed at all sorry to see me go.
Next week, the same thing. I looked around the circle of wheelchairs and walkers and wondered what I was doing wrong.
Lucky for me, the Dewey Decimal System shelves humor near poetry. Reaching for yet another collection of end-of-day elegies, I spied a joke book.
That week, I ditched the sunset odes in favor of "A horse walks into a bar."
Suddenly, everyone was wide-awake. They wanted to laugh.
The next week, we talked politics. They wanted to argue.
Dying was the last thing anyone wanted to think about. While they were alive, however tenuously, they wanted to be alive.
When our young friend graduated, I still couldn't quit worrying. The grueling national licensing exam loomed. Caving to test-taking anxiety, she postponed taking it. But the moment of truth could only be put off so long. She (and I) had to wait weeks for the results. Very early one morning, our phone rang. "I passed," said a small voice.
She was calm. I was the one who went crazy, first with relief, then pure, unchecked joy.
It's funny how a single letter separates "deny" and "defy." Sometimes, the only way to get what we want is to flat out reject all evidence we can't.
My husband will never win his argument with the clock. Yet as we grow old — OK, there, I said it — I'm starting to sympathize with his refusal to let time, that big bully, boss him around.
Denial has its pleasure — and sometimes its power.