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first person

Raz Latif/The Globe and Mail

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Every hour, there was a beep. An electronic chirp. Exactly 38 minutes 52 seconds after the hour. Every single hour.

At first, I thought it was associated with the home-theatre sound system, the aging gaming console or the cable box. Or maybe the new WiFi-connected power strip. All I knew was that this regular plea for help or attention (or both) was coming from somewhere inside the living room.

And no, I’m not sure when it started other than I’m pretty sure it was a blursday many, many months ago. I would guess the first bleeping beep happened during those early days of the pandemic when we were talking about getting back to normal. Soon. Like next week, or no, but next month? I think I first started to notice – and be bothered by and sometimes look forward to – the incessantly regular yet polite chirp was when the next day when everything would be normal was simply someday. You know, someday … we’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.

Fifty? This birthday feels like it’s happening to someone else

But someday isn’t here yet. I, like you, am still not going to my office. I am still not going to see friends. Not going to the bar around the corner for a couple of pints and some not-too-spicy chicken wings while I try to get at least one of the 15 HD flat screens switched to something other than college basketball. (I know many of us are doing our best to silver-line our way through the most trying period of our lives but, as a Canadian living south of the border, a year without having to feign interest in college sports is truly a blessing.)

So there’s just me, my family and our overly routine routines. The early morning grinding of the coffee beans in the basement so as not to wake anyone. The 8 a.m. Zoom homeroom for my sixth grader, featuring a chorus of “heres” in varying tones and volumes. The muttered “good morning” of my 16-year-old who is six months past needing a real haircut. The Amazon Prime delivery. The Zoom meeting. The Amazon Prime delivery. The Zoom meeting. The Amazon Prime delivery. The contactless food delivery. The search for something entertaining, age-appropriate and not dystopian to watch after dinner.

And, at 38 minutes 52 seconds, after every hour, the beep.

I knew I had to do something about it. As always, the first step was an internet search because that is the best way to take action without really doing anything. The search revealed suggestions like a dying smoke detector battery, a failing backup power source and a forgotten digital watch, which I admitted would have made sense if the chirp was happening at the top of every hour and not 22 minutes before. My search also linked to a post featuring Peter Bregman, author and leadership coach, recommending that you set an hourly alarm to force you to stop and ask yourself: “Am I doing what I most need to be doing right now?” My answer was, well, no, I am not; instead, I am googling unidentified beeping objects.

My family co-existed peacefully with the beep until the middle of January. My breaking point came with the news that an ailing and much-loved uncle had submitted an application to Alberta’s Medical Assistance in Dying program. Every kid has – or should have – a favourite older relative, and mine was Uncle Frank. Life was just more interesting when he was around. When I was 12 he took me golfing and while we were waiting at the 13th hole, an older woman asked us how our day was going. “Great! On the front nine I hit the best two balls I’ve seen in my entire life,” Frank exclaimed. “Oh really? That’s fantastic,” the woman answered. Next came Frank’s punchline: “Yeah, I stepped on a rake!” The woman was in hysterics, Frank was giggling and I was mortified. A few years later he took me downhill skiing in the Canadian Rockies where he led me to believe the black diamond runs were for beginners like me. Facedown in the snow, in the middle of the moguls, I heard him laughing as he skied by.

Quickly, his application was approved and Frank Richards, at the age of 79, had less than a week left to live. In normal times, I would have made the trip to Calgary to see him one last time but COVID-19 meant that just wasn’t prudent or even possible. Instead, I called him. I told him what a great uncle he was and he quipped, “If I was so great why didn’t you ever send me any money?” While I was prepared for the conversation, I wasn’t sure how to end it. What do you say? I was struggling to find the right words or any words at all when he put me out of my misery by saying that he was shaking too much and needed to put the phone down.

After the call, I sat in silence for a bit. And then, there was the beep. And I asked myself, “Was I was doing what I most need to be doing right now?” The answer was, finally, yes. I need to stop the beep. Life continued as before, but at 38 minutes after every hour, I ceased everything and stood in a different area of the living room to try to hone in on the location. Then I started unplugging a different component or appliance every hour.

And yet, the beep persisted. I finally resorted to removing all of the random electronics in different cabinets and drawers in the room. Eight hours later, that Hellish Tattoo of time was still there. (Did you really think we were going to get through this without a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart?)

Finally, 12 more beeps past, I was digging around in the cables and batteries when I found a digital watch I had purchased for my youngest son right before the pandemic. He never wore it because, well, he didn’t understand why he needed to know what time it is during a period where time itself had seemingly stopped. Of course, the watch had never been set to the right time thus the chime at 38 minutes after the hour. I sighed to myself and turned the hourly chime off. A few hours later, a physician did something similar to my Uncle Frank as he sat in his favourite chair, surrounded by his family.

I miss him. I don’t miss the beep. And yet, at 38 minutes and 52 seconds after every hour, I honour Frank Richards by asking myself: “Am I doing what I most need to be doing right now?”

Kevin Moffitt lives in Philadelphia.

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