How I Met Your Mother and the Linear Passage of Time

Time to kill
was always an illusion

Time is love
Gotta run
Josh Turner

It’s now been five years since the final episode of How I Met Your Mother aired and I watched it and cried but only a little bit with Will and Ellie in the old apartment which he and I called the Wolves’ Den. Our place was situated just north of Campus Corner, from which busy noises often used to flutter, the sounds of students going out and getting drunk and forgetting themselves, dancing sweaty and alive in tiny bars we never felt comfortable visiting. We preferred to do our drinking in-house, as they say, though sometimes we’d walk to the tobacco lounge to watch a game and come home smelling like a dumpster full of soaking wet cigars.

When those days were happening to me they felt like some sort of death sentence, and I was wandering through an endless, lonesome desert in perpetual night. I worked at a pizzeria and got home late, sometimes so late it was early. I smoked a lot of cigarettes and thought of her and me and all the ways I did wrong.

While the episode was airing live, the three of us were playing a concert opening for Judah and the Lion and Drew Holcomb. I don’t remember much about that show; I think we did alright. The event was one of those strange collegiate mixtures of fun and faith which never showcases faith in any good, real way. One of the songs we played, called “Roses,” was one I’d written about her, or more accurately, to her, telling her that no matter what, I’d always be a part of her even when she moved on and got married et cetera. I was pretty sure she’d be at the show with her new man who she’d started seeing Too Soon (for me) after we broke up, and sure enough, as we were sound checking, she and a group of new friends I didn’t know were walking up. I remember feeling a searing pain in my chest, anxiety unlike typical stagefright, at the idea of playing it. (Some of the searing pain was from the screwdrivers Will and I were drinking out of orange juice bottles, like idiots). I envisioned a scene like the one in ​P.S. I Love You ​where Hilary Swank sings karaoke and the crowd disappears and only Gerard Butler remains. But she walked away before the show started and later she said hi to me and asked me how it went. It was fine, I told her.

Since I am only 26, five years is almost 20 percent of my life, which is how long it’s been since that day. At the time, I felt like I was Marshall and she was Lily, and this was our breakup period which happened to those two on the show. But we never got back together, which was horrible at the time and Good now. Strangely, I feel more kinship these days with Ted Mosby than I do anyone else. And it’s not because I’m annoying like he is (I’m annoying in different ways) or because I wear graphic t-shirts underneath button-downs; it’s because I, too, spend a lot of time in my memories. But unlike Ted, I also spend a lot of time questioning the truth of my reflections.

For all its triumphs and faults, HIMYM is a unique show for its use of time; every scene is a recollection, told to Ted’s children by Ted using Bob Saget’s voice. As we listen with the children, we learn in the finale what we’ve sort of known all along: this story is not about their mother but about Ted’s lingering love for Robin. Over and over again, it’s a show about timing; how it often stings and burns us and rarely works out properly. But more than that, it’s a show about time — the way we are carried through it unwillingly, the way it affects every element of our lives, the way it saves us and ruins us.

In the days leading up to the finale, I was thinking about her over and over again, ripping through our story like Ted probably did with his memories of Robin, especially after the death of his wife. Something we don’t see in the finale during Ted’s warm, sad montage of memories is what happened between her death and now. How did he grieve? What kind of father was he? How were the nights with Marshall and Lily — which we’d seen so much of in the good times — after such a tragedy? What did they talk about? And, most importantly to me, how often did he sit, marinating in thoughts not just of his wife but of days with Robin, the girl he never quite got but who was still out there for the getting?

It’s been said that every time we visit a memory, we corrupt it, tearing at it piece by piece until it’s no longer anything close to what actually happened. Moments are unstable in our imperfect minds and despite all our longing we cannot actually time travel. I know, for example, that my time with her was not pristine and excellent; I know that there were some Very Bad Days where we were Very Bad to each other. But the more I looked back, the more desperate I became, the more anxious and frustrated that I’d lost her, the girl who at the time most closely resembled my own version of Robin.

Grief does unpredictable things to us, warping our morals and priorities. It is sometimes an illness, sometimes a nearly physical force. In P.S. I Love You, it literally is a physical force, as Hilary Swank sees Gerard Butler everywhere, talking to her in his gentle Scottish accent. Time is caving in on itself. If memories are already unstable, how much more unstable do they become when visited in the thralls of grief?

With all that in mind, can we trust Ted’s recollections? I know I can’t trust my own, even now. I have trouble clearly remembering a month ago, let alone that night five years ago. As I wrote this, I went back to look at pictures of our apartment and was shocked by how different it was. Knowing that his wife died, the mother of his children, lost to some sickness, how can we possibly believe that when Ted went back to the old days, the best times of his life, he was able to bring us an honest, accurate representation? Of course, it’s a TV show, and it doesn’t really matter; they’re not real people, they’re pretend. For the purposes of the story, sure, Ted’s memories are crystalline.

I think a lot about how much I was hurting and how much pain I was in back then when I think about Ted’s memories and how happy he was, how he talked about his old apartment, “where so many things happened.” That line is in the episode “The Time Travelers,” in late season eight when Ted is at one of his lowest points. All his friends are busy planning a wedding and a big move and doing Life Things. It’s nighttime in New York and the windows of all the buildings are glowing in the evening as he sits in their usual bar, talking to Barney and then talking to future versions of he and Barney, and then revealing to us the viewer that no, actually, he’s drinking by himself. He tells the kids that if he were really back there, he wouldn’t be sitting in a bar alone; he’d be visiting Barney and Robin as they fought over something stupid or going to see Marshall and Lily, or, most importantly, going to tell his future wife that he loves her and refuses to wait to meet her, especially considering what he knows now. It is perhaps the show’s best episode, as future Ted laments something every single one of us has lamented: that we didn’t spend more time with our loved ones, worry-free, absorbing the moment like a sponge.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim experiences a phenomenon wherein he becomes “unstuck in time,” and he moves through his life in a nonlinear fashion, flickering back and forth between his youth and his old age and his time in the war. Later, we learn there’s a good chance his trauma and crisis have caused this (or aliens, that is another possibility). Either way, I think of the phrase “unstuck in time,” often. How badly I wish I could be unstuck, for just a day or even an hour, like Harry Potter dipping his face into the pensieve, viewing my best and worst memories with genuine clarity, remembering who I was, who I am, how everything fits inside of me.

Two weeks ago at his bachelor party, I cried but not just a little bit this time while telling Will how much he meant to me; what our friendship is and was and will hopefully be. I told him I didn’t think people got to have what we have very often. I guess the thing about HIMYM is, nobody gets to have what anybody has. All we really have is who we are, right now. I think the show gets under people’s skin because all of us have the Good Old Days somewhere someway back there, the time when we were the most carefree and unsure, living alongside others who were also carefree and unsure, all of us scared and weirdly happy but even if we didn’t know it. We have all looked back, frustrated that we didn’t take hold of the moments more, that we didn’t love as well as we could have, that we used our emotions imperfectly, that we hurt people and that we allowed ourselves to be hurt.

The truth is we’re all very forgetful. How many times do we viscerally learn the lesson that we should be better utilizing the time we have and forget the lesson almost immediately? How often do you look back and feel the deep, weird pull of nostalgia and in the same breath take someone you love for granted because they don’t live in the beautiful, nonexistent past? The only thing we have is time, and we have so very little of it. HIMYM teaches us, taught me, that almost all time is good time even in the worst times, but it’s hard to really notice. Things move so quickly away from us.

After our set that night and before we watched the finale, Ellie stood beside me while we listened to one of the following acts. The weather was lovely as the night settled in, that sort of warm, almost-summer spring feeling. Without looking at me, she asked, “How are you feeling?” even though she knew the answer. I told her, “Sad,” and she laid her head on my shoulder and said nothing else. There wasn’t anything to say. It’s one of my best memories, on one of my hardest days. Although, it doesn’t seem so hard now.

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