I’m sitting in an airport in a state I have never set foot in, between flights, between where I live now and where I come from, a bag of time at my feet.
Before this trip, for several years my flying carry-on was a green nylon duffel, a gift for a donation to the Sierra Club. It often got unzipped and examined at security after something looked alarming in the X-ray machine. Early on I learned to remove the hollow metal tube from the bag and place it in the bin with my liquids and gels, where the TSA people could see it was merely a tin whistle. (One time I was asked to play it, and had practiced “Leaving on a Jet Plane” for just such an occasion, but in the moment I choked and went with some reel my hands knew by heart.) Once in Albuquerque, the items that resembled bomb makings turned out to be a travel clock and my reading light, nestled dangerously close in a zipped end pocket. A year later, at the same airport, a suspicious powdered substance turned out to be my souvenir bag of blue cornmeal pancake mix.
This year I’ve taken to flying with a red and black thin canvas bag. In the dozen or more years I’ve had it, it has carried necessities for overnighters and weekends; workout clothes for a gym where I no longer have a membership; swim gear and towels for a pool in a town where I no longer live; shoes; random small items during a move. It has sat, empty and crushed, in the top or bottom of various closets. On this trip, it’s toting odds and ends for a visit with my oldest relative.
If this bag were packed with my recurring dreams, it would have many of the common ones: it’s exam day at school and I am unprepared. I am in public wearing my pajamas, or something even more informal. My teeth are loosening as I speak. Something is chasing me in the dark and I can’t see where I’m going. The bag would also have some recurring dreams that are peculiar to me, one of which has settled into this form: it’s time to leave for a trip, and I’m still packing. Arrayed across my bed are too many bags, more than I can carry alone. None of them have wheels. Too much stuff lies waiting. I’m cramming things in, knowing I won’t need all of them, afraid to be caught without something essential. My ride is outside, ready to leave, motor running.
This particular bag has not appeared in those dreams, but it might as well. It is possibly my life’s single tangible reward for procrastination — specifically, for neglecting to renew a magazine subscription. It was a post-expiration incentive to renew, and the top is embroidered, in three-inch letters, without irony, with the name of the publication: TIME.
And a deadline for writing about this bag coincided with this busy trip. “Do you need more time?” an editor kindly asked. Well, don’t we all? I accepted.
This trip has several purposes, chief among them to help my 89-year-old great-aunt sift stuff from the home where she has tidily lived for most of my middle-aged lifetime. We sweep through several deep closets, culling several boxes’ worth, returning other items in neater order. As we rest, I sweep through the well-ordered closets of her memories, relishing her stories, asking for family history I was too self-centered and ignorant to care about when I lived in the city with her.
“How will you know,” I ask, thinking I am helping, “when it’s time to move?”
“It’s time now,” she says, surprising me. “But there’s just so much to do to get ready.”
During the layover on the return trip, a woman will get off the plane I’m about to get on looking stressed, impatient, rushed, carrying a large shoulder bag that says LOVE.
When I get home, I will ask for another deadline extension, and I will theorize that I can’t finish this until I finish something that my family has commissioned: this aunt’s obituary.
Six months pass. My bag of time has gone to Texas for my daughter’s wedding, to Massachusetts for a writing workshop. My father keeps asking about the obit.
I’m in the homeland again, chiefly to be roadside cheering and support as my brother pedals 100 miles in a fund-raising ride for cancer research, secondarily to visit the aunt and make another dent in her stuff. It turns out I’m there the day she visits a retirement community yet again, this time choosing an apartment and making a deposit. One of the books in my carry-on — books I will have time for only on the airplane — is a book I wore out my first copy of: Harriet the Spy, and not until just before this trip do I realize it is my ur-text in the ever relevant subject I like to call “Writing About People Who Don’t Know They’re Being Written About.”
Last time, I worked relentlessly. This time, when she says she has to take a break, I’m glad to too. That’s when I get to pore over old photos and soak in some of her stories, especially stories of her father, the ancestor I would most like to meet. The subjects of death and funerals come up, and what I’ve been holding spills out.
Dad has been asking about your obit. Let me tell you why I haven’t finished it yet. The last time I was here, you said you hoped to go like your dad did, in your sleep. And I would like to keep you around for a long time. So in my crazy thinking, finishing your obituary is crossing one thing off on your ready-to-go to-do list. So if I don’t write it, you won’t die.
I’ve packed and unpacked and repacked this thing a dozen times, and it still doesn’t feel ready for takeoff.
If time were a tote bag, how much could you fit in it? How much would you pack? What does yours carry?
On the return trip’s layover, I can see the answer for the small blonde-headed girl whose family is waiting for the same plane. Her clear plastic backpack holds Barbie, Ken, and Skipper, crowded against the seams to fit themselves around something that fills the rest of the interior: another, scrunched-up backpack, a tan furry one, the kind that doubles as a stuffed animal giving the wearer a hug.
Here I am, suspended, between where I come from and where I live now, a bag of time at my feet.