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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Terminal velocity

by Philip Martin | May 25, 2021 at 3:01 a.m.

Time is different when you're old.

They say it moves faster, as each moment represents a smaller and smaller part of the whole. And that's true, she thinks; the past 20 years have gone by in a rush. She rifles through the seasons like pages in a magazine. She remembers an idea from school, which feels like a dream she once had, about how gravity pulls on everything.

Being born is like leaping off a cliff at night and falling through the darkness. You know it's not forever, but you can't see the bottom. You don't know how long you have. But you fall faster the second moment than you do the first. You accelerate at 32 feet per second per second. Which means, you fall 32 feet in the first second, 64 feet in the second second, 96 feet in the third second.

But if you fall far enough, you reach terminal velocity. You don't fall any faster after that. You don't fall any slower either, but if the cliff is high enough, you might get used to it. Falling at that speed would just become a fact of life.

There are other factors too, she remembers. If you drop a cannon ball off the Tower of Pisa at the same time you drop a feather, the cannon ball will hit the ground a lot quicker than the feather. Because there are variables. Because it's not falling in a vacuum, because the wind can push around a feather while a cannon ball cuts right through it.

A feather could be picked up by the wind and waft along for hours or maybe years before it lights on the ground. A feather is too light for physics; a feather might never reach terminal velocity.

Some people, she thinks, are more like cannon balls, more or less immune to the world's buffeting. But maybe she is more like a feather. Maybe she will glide around awhile, maybe she will land soft.

Anyway, the past 15 months have not exactly zipped along; time has seemed to stop and start, to struggle to get going again, like a freight train struggling to overcome the inertia of a couple of hundred rail cars. It has herked and jerked and geared down but maybe it is starting to roll a little smoother now. The pause is over, the falling has recommenced.

She's been vaccinated. Everyone around her has been vaccinated except for her oldest daughter, who was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer right after New Year's and is undergoing chemotherapy treatments. She can't be vaccinated while she's being treated.

Everyone is optimistic, because you have to be, but she has seen this before. And while it's not as grim as it was in the 1980s, she knows it's not a matter of grit or courage or staying positive that's going to determine whether her daughter "beats" cancer. No one beats cancer; it isn't a sentient opponent looking for its next move.

Cancer is just one of the variables, another kind of sucking gravity.

All you can do is what the doctors tell you, to submit to a certain series of indignities and hope that cancer grows bored and looks elsewhere. It's nothing personal, it's just its nature.

What you do is try to distract yourself, to be more feathery, lifted by the petty industries of living. There are always things that should be done. That's why, even through the pandemic, she kept going into the office every day to answer the law firm's phones. She could have had them routed to her cell phone, she could have managed it from the house, but if no one else was going to be in the office, why couldn't she be there?

So they locked the door to discourage random walk-ins and installed Plexiglas, and she sat all alone on the first floor, redirecting calls to the lawyers who were working from home. She sorted the mail and wore her mask whenever she had to deal face-to-face with the paralegal who did the filings on the second floor.

Now they are almost all back in the office, though there are a couple of younger attorneys who still haven't been vaccinated, and they can't come back until they are. She remembers 1961, and the sugar cubes dotted with a few drops of pink polio vaccine. Back then, no one pushed back against the science, no one thought they knew more than the authorities.

But authorities could be wrong. She understands there are limits to what people can know and that we are prone to making mistakes. At some point you have to decide on your course and live with it. Sooner or later you're going to have to step off and trust in something you can't touch, taste, smell or see.

So she can go back to church now, after 15 months of watching services on her television. She can go to watch her great-grandkids play baseball and lacrosse. She can go to a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon. Maybe soon she will get on an airplane again.

Over Memorial Day weekend she will go with her sister Lois and Lois' husband Ken and their new pandemic camper to North Carolina where they'll meet up with her daughter Michelle and son-in-law Carl who are driving their new pandemic camper.

And she'll sit in a lawn chair in the Great Smoky Mountains and drink white wine with ice cubes with her sister and her daughter while Ken and Carl compare notes and swap stories about how they came to acquire their new five-wheelers and it won't seem all that different from how it did 55 years ago when she and Jack would drive into Joshua Tree or Death Valley in the Chevy pickup with the camper shell.

They'd lie on top of a campground picnic table and look up into the stars and marvel at the thing that had no ceiling, the vaulting blackness dusted with silver. You could just about imagine yourself falling up into infinity were it not for the gravity gripping you tight.

That time doesn't feel so far away; it's almost like she could wake up one morning in 1967 and feel what she had perceived as the second and third acts of her life receding as quickly and completely as some elaborate dream. Some dream of falling/flying that makes no sense in the telling but was the real thing while you were caught up in it.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at


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