Past Tense

Lived. Loved. Wanted.


There is very little in this world more hateful than the past tense. The verb is the word that grants motion to all we do, so that we can capture our energy and feel it in the space between our tongues and palates. The verb that names the action is the word that lets us be it. But weigh the word down with an –ed, or warp its spelling through some quirk of grammar, and all’s lost. She’s not running. He’s not laughing. They no longer smile at each other. Ran, laughed, smiled. Requiem for a state of being.

Of course, this deliberately ignores what the past tense frees us from. Wept and there’s no more crying. Healed and the injury is over. Some occasions are appropriate for optimistic pirouettes, and it can be a healthy thing to study the flip side of a coin. But too often we powder over the glare of a hard and shiny truth: that sometimes it’s noble to feel the moment, to let the ache gnaw all the way to the bone. That’s its job. Who are we to thwart its purpose?

The past tense hurts. The past tense skewers. And the past tense is the thief of hope.

Recently, I attended a funeral for a young woman. I didn’t know her well. I went because people I know and care for were heartbroken. I expected to be some small comfort; hoped to show her family that their daughter, sister, and friend was worth dropping everything for; that their pain warranted driving nine hours just to stand with them. The reality was that I got knocked sideways only two steps into the funeral home.

I’d been to funerals where the grief and loss had dragged over me in waves, but I’d never felt the press of shock heaped on top of those as well. It was crushing. Theresa was twenty-one years old, beautiful, healthy, and loved by many. It was far too keen, the reality of all that she would not do. So I took exception to the priest’s benign diversion from our wallowing with his directing our attention to the biblical story of Lazarus.

He seemed a very kind man, the priest. Sincere. I liked him. And he has a job to do. But so do I.

Neither the Bible, nor Christ himself, offers a reason for His resurrection of Lazarus. The man and his sisters, according to the story, were close personal friends of Jesus and when Lazarus fell ill, his sisters sent for the one person they believed could do something about it. The Gospel of John tells us that “Jesus tarried.”

Lazarus died and Jesus absorbed no small amount of rebuke from Mary, the more spirited of the two remaining siblings. Jesus shushed her, and the crowd, by having the tombstone rolled back and calling to Lazarus, who came shambling out in his shroud to stand blinking in the sun for all of their amazement.

God doesn’t do that anymore. It’s been accepted as an anecdotal one-off to prove a point, and the certainty of Mysterious Ways would have us no more praying for Him to wake the dead than we’d stand in front of a vat of water and plead for wine. Not these days.

So, unfortunately, Lazarus and his sisters enjoying an extended time together on earth does little to comfort modern mourners keeping vigil at a casket that will not rattle with promise. What’s done is done. That being the case, I submit there is a time to let the tide carry you away and that it is inappropriate to tell the newly bereft that there’s a bright lining  if they’d only look at it a certain way.

Time heals all wounds. All of them. Whether we want it to or not. Sometimes it feels as if the hurt is the only link we have to the thing we miss. Deep down, we know that the first morning we wake up feeling fine is the day it’s lost to us forever. And we won’t even notice when it happens, only realize it in retrospect.

There is no bridge from the time that life is a misery to the time life is back to normal. But there is a moat. It’s deep and it’s cold and the opposite bank’s upward slope is so terribly gradual. When we find ourselves wading into the water or thrown in, headlong and unsuspecting, I think it only right to shun the platitudes and pay full, wrenching homage to the disorder of the universe. I don’t believe clergymen or therapists or garden variety well-wishers should try too soon to distract us from the suffering. The one we loved was worth it. The sharpness of the pain will end in its own time, with or without premature stories of other people’s miracles or how life goes on.

The past tense is inevitable, for good things and bad. It’s omnipotent. As such, it deserves its due like any devil, and it deserves its deference like any god.

For Tica, RIP

May 19, 1985 – April 16, 2007


Author: jamiemason

Wrote THE HIDDEN THINGS, MONDAY'S LIE, and also THREE GRAVES FULL (Simon & Schuster's Gallery Books.) Might write something else if I'm not careful.

7 thoughts on “Past Tense”

  1. RIP. This is fantastically written, Jamie. All I can say is, you’re absolutely right, and you said it better than I ever could have.

  2. Jamie, I reiterate what I said on my first comment to you only days ago – you are a truly gifted writer. Thank you for spinning words in your brilliant way and taking me on a sensory journey that is captivating and – dare I say – genius. May Tica rest in beautiful, lasting peace…

  3. Well and so beautifully said, Jamie. And that’s pretty much exactly how I feel about grief. Mary Doria Russell called it “the awful debt of love” –the price for having someone in your life. It’s always seemed like a fair deal to me.

  4. Brilliant. There is such a difference between writing from the imagination alone and that which emanates from the soul — or the gut.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: