Two of the worst words of all: ‘Not now.’

(This column first appeared in the Greenville News, but I re-wrote and expanded  it for my EMN readers in the September edition.  So here it is with a few special thoughts for the medical community.)

Here’s the link to the EMN online edition as well:


If you were watching me, secretly, you would see that I sometimes do things that are decidedly non-adult. I can be seen dancing across the hardwood floor with my daughter, with no music audible (except inside her lovely head). She apparently aspires to be a choreographer, and though I am no dancer, I am the only male in the house who will dance with her. When she asks, what can I say?

I know many levels of the assorted video games my sons play, where they have ‘killed’ me too many times to count. When I am old, I am confident that in my senility, I will talk with them of places we went together which will turn out to have been scenic, snow-covered levels from the game Halo.

Sometimes I play with dolls, and other times I engage in combat with wooden swords (which is getting remarkably more hazardous as my sons become men). I am fairly good at throwing a knife into a stump from ten feet, but my oldest is far better.

I love going on impromtu dates with my darling wife; dates even more precious to me as she recovers from her recent illnesses. If she asks me, out of the blue, ‘do you want to go out tonight,’ my instant response is ‘yes.’ And when she holds my hand, I grip it for all I’m worth.

All of this brings me to a particular point. That is, as I have grown up and grown old, seen suffering and endured it, watched time pass and watched opportunity slip away, I have come to realize that possibly the worst, most regretted words in all of my beloved English language are these: ‘Not now.’

‘Not now, I have things to do. Not now, the phone is ringing. Not now, there are e-mails to check. Not now, I’m trying to advance my career. Not now, I’m tired. Not now, there is a committee meeting to determine something more important than you. Not now, I’m not a kid, you know? Not now, I don’t want to do that. Not now, we have to engage in disaster drills (or read obscure articles, or dissect traumatized mice). Not now, can’t you entertain yourself? Not now, there are blogs to read on the Internet. Not now, what about what I want? Not now, the game is on. Not now, that’s childish. Not now, grow up! Not now!’

Not now, you see, frequently translates into ‘not at all.’ In the same way as discerning children realize that ‘maybe’ is the shining doorway to ‘yes’ if played well, they understand with bitter clarity that ‘not now’ typically morphs into ‘never.’

The problem is, dear fathers and husbands, dear mothers and wives, there are last times. Do you realize it? Just as there is ‘a first time for everything,’ there is also a ‘last time for everything.’ A last request to play dolls, before dolls are tucked away in attics and teen romance replaces playtime. A last time to play ‘hide and seek’ in the warm, summer night before the game is lost to the oblivion of emerging adulthood. A last time to jump on the trampoline in the winter night, with static sparks lighting the air and everyone’s hair standing on end. A last time to cuddle, a last time to haul out the GI Joes, a last time to hold hands with a dear one, a last time to explore the woods with passionate curiosity, a last time lie together in the night and whisper words of love. A last time to make up silly poems on a car trip. A last bed-time story, prayer and song.

When we become accustomed to ‘not now’ we do it because we falsely believe there are really no ‘last times.’ We say ‘not now’ while genuinely believing that we can somehow bank all of our opportunities, store them a way in filing cabinets marked ‘wife,’ ‘son’ and ‘daughter.’ And when time allows, we can simply pull out the file and time will start up where (and when) we want. As if we could live forever, pulling out opportunity whenever we desired.

But we have a fixed span on the earth. While I believe in eternity, I don’t want to stand before God and ask for Him to return all of my ‘not now’ moments; at least not unless I made a valient attempt to use my opportunities well before my passage.

The ones we love have such eternal gravity compared with the lesser things we want. They are more precious by far than our own inflated self-importance. We may wrap ourselves in titles and positions, and in the certain belief in our importance to the world at large, or medicine in general. We may feel that our neglect of dear ones is justified if it improves the practice of medicine or helps us to attain yet another title, certificate or position. Or perhaps, a slightly higher customer satisfaction score and a few more dollars.

But in the end, we may find to our dismay that the ‘customers’ we most neglected were the ones we were supposed to love best of all. And that all the certifications and titles in the world will never recover even a few minutes of wasted time.

So if we would be wise spouses and careful parents, if we would fill our lives with love and use our brief passage on earth carefully, we should limit our use of the poison words ‘not now,’ and replace our excuses with the healing word our darlings all desire to hear: ‘yes!’

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