Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An old year's meditation--the death of the ancients

The ones we talk about are the ones whose stories leave us in awe by nature of their sheer stubbornness--the man whose wife paid daily visits for years even though he never had a clue she was there or even who she was; the woman whose powerful heart simply won't stop beating. We use those stories to measure ourselves. They make us pause to shake our heads in awe.

Nebraska, the movie, features an ancient who gets a third-class mailing from some Publishers Clearing House come-on and simply won't be persuaded he has not won a million dollars. Nobody can talk him out of it, so he determines to walk all the way from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to pick up that cash. You can't help but love him, even though he's obviously running on an eighth of a tank. When his ne'er-do-well son decides to go with him, we've got a real story, a wonderful story.

In Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," a long night of boozing ends when one of the revelers finally brings up a story of an old man in a full body cast who found peace only when he was turned in such a way that he could finally, once again, see his ancient wife, because simply being able to see her in her own full body cast was enough to settle his anxiety. In Carver's story, that story sobers up even the most wasted.

Last night my wife announced that yet another relative of hers had been put into hospice care and was not expected to live much longer. That makes three as of late--two uncles and now an aunt, not to mention, of course, my own mother. But all of them made a different kind of departure, one that took them out of this world in something close to a twinkling of an eye. 

Today, friends of ours will bury a 90-year-old mother who sat there in church on Christmas Day, suffered a heart attack the day after, and was gone so quickly that my father-in-law didn't even know it, even though he and that dear old woman got picked up for church together every Sunday and lived in the very same home. Maybe I'm just callous, but I couldn't help thinking again, what a blessing she was given.

A couple years ago already, an old man was pulled out of a gravel pit by authorities after his body was found, face down, in shallow waters, his fishing pole beside him. He'd had a heart attack right there in his chair, probably stood and then pitched forward into water so shallow you'd hardly soak a knee. When my father-in-law told the me that story, he wore a smile. You could do worse than go while fishing was what he was saying between the lines.

Not long ago, another resident went back to the home place to ride along with his son during a bin-buster harvest. He got into the tractor cab, rode for a while, but the hum of machinery finally got to him, the warmth inside a blessed comfort. When his son tried to wake him, he couldn't--the old man was gone. If I know my father-in-law, he found that story a blessing too.

It's over now, but for a couple weeks after my mother's death, I felt almost dishonest taking people's truly heartfelt condolences. They'd look imploringly into your eyes, their faces in full distress, and say something like "I am so sorry." 

I wasn't. Not really. At just about 95 years old, Mom left without suffering. Not all that long before she went, she told her granddaughter she spotted her husband in the room.  I like that.

We're living so much longer these days. One of my grandpas never made it 70, and nobody thought it a shame; in 1956, he was an old codger. The other grandpa died at 76. Early on cold December mornings, when I walk across our new wood floor in my houseslippers, I hear him--that slow swish, swish, swish returning in my memory of an ancient, slow-footed old codger with errant hairs sprouting hither and yon around his chin. Won't be long and I'll be his age.

My father-in-law will soon lose his third in-law in just a few months. Can't be fun, just can't be. But he claims, as my mother did, that it's not death that scares him--it's how he'll go. I understand. He doesn't want to suffer, and doesn't want us to either. To a Christian, Flannery O'Connor used to say in defense of her often violent stories, death wasn't necessarily a bad thing at all. Praise God for those who, like Mom, leave almost like Elijah, in a sweet chariot of fire.

We may not talk much about 'em, may not measure our own lives by their persistance in suffering, but most all of us really and truly want to be like 'em.  

Lord Jesus, Calvin was fond of saying, come quickly.  

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