Two hundred and twenty five days was all it took for the history changing voyage. Christopher Columbus set sail with the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria from Palos, Spain on Aug 3, 1492 and by his return on March 15, 1493 had traversed round trip across the Atlantic Ocean, explored, named and claimed the Caribbean Islands for Ferdinand and Isabella, and opened the New World for future travelers. And as we say, “The rest is history.”
It’s been about 245 days since my last writing on May 11, 2012. I never meant to go that long in writing, but life unfolded in a way that has changed our family history and experience from this point forward. We have traversed uncharted waters for us personally and a new part of history is in the making.
My father-in-law died in late April, which little did we know would be the beginning of other events. By May 4, my wife had unexpected double bypass heart surgery with a summer spent recuperating; my in-laws’ house had to be cleared of all its contents so some future residents could make it their home; our daughter went off to college in August; and my mother -in-law moved further along the highway of dementia as she adjusted to her new home in a nursing facility.
Now with a full semester of teaching and administrative work complete at the graduate school I serve, all these things are reminders that my (our) world has changed significantly.
The older I get, the more I become aware that it is critical to savor the present moments because one’s “history” can be overwhelmingly reshaped in 200 days (give or take a few). Often we are lulled into a stupor of sameness believing that we have control over what will happen and we can guide the days to be similar in outcome from those of the past. But just as Columbus didn’t know he would lose two ships and survive a near mutiny, we do not know what each sunrise will bring in the hours that follow. A slip and fall three years ago which took nanoseconds broke my leg that now leaves me with a lifetime limp and daily ache. In a thirty second treadmill walk, my wife’s life changed with a rush from one hospital to another for open heart surgery. A telephone call in the night, a missed stoplight, being in the “wrong place at the wrong time” can change our worlds—our histories—forever.
I’m learning to hold each day as precious, not sweating the small stuff (as best I can), savoring each blessing I receive throughout the day, and spending time reflecting on the grace extended to me in a 24 hour period. It has made me somewhat more quiet and reflective—which I’ve been most of my life as an introvert—but now with a purpose, being more grateful and less judgmental of those around me than I had been throughout much of my life.
Christopher Columbus had a plan as do I. I have plans for the future that I hope will take me places that are good and the best for me, my family, and to those I am connected. But a lot of life is uncharted, providing adventure each day. So I’ve relearned the old “loose-tight” principle—holding onto things that matter as best I can but not so tightly that I edge into despair when the uncharted changes the course of life—at least for the moment.
Blessings to you all as you traverse open, uncharted waters of your own lives. May you mix courage to move forward in all life’s moments with the grace to learn all you can from each situation. May there be grace and peace in the next 245 days of our life.
There are a number of cultural milestones we embrace in the West to signify we are adults or at least moving in that direction. Sixteen gets us a driver’s license, 18 is the time of graduating from high school and obtaining voting privileges. At 21 we are legally able to drink, at 22 or so to graduate from college and maybe in those years between 25 and 35 years of age we might land a “real” job, get married, have children and secure a mortgage.
But it is within the last few years I’ve learned that much of being all grown up is when your parents die, and by the fact of life, you become next in line on that lonesome trail.
My mother died 1 ½ years ago, my father-in-law in April 2012. My wife and I were with them in the long physical struggle of leaving this world. These are the grown up moments when the course of existence places one in the middle of ongoing life and the realities of death. A foot in both worlds, so to speak. A foot planted in the ongoing tasks of working, paying bills, being involved in one’s community, and the other foot lodged in the decisions of end of life health care, funeral preparations, and watching loved ones exhale the last gulp of earthly air. Being grown up comes at that moment, I think. It was a time when routine activities of earthly existence continued flowing ahead, while the demands and necessary assignments of preparing to die get intermingled. It is in these days that we are grown up—balancing, like the scale of Blind Justice, the now and not yet; what is and what is yet to come; with an energy that is a mixture of human sweat and fortitude with an element of divine grace and view of eternity.
I am grown up, as is my wife. We can now accept our place as adults. Maybe there should be an ID Card for this transformation just as there are for all the earlier life milestones we celebrate. Maybe a card to carry in our wallets and share with people when they ask to see some form of identification; a card identifying who we have become. When we share that ID card, they will know that we have weathered a great deal in life and realize that the lines on our faces or our graying hair match the events that drew and colored them.
Blessings to you all as you travel toward the grown up phase of life. May you acknowledge its difficulties, wisdom, endurance, commitments, and realities that come with age.
Grace and peace to you.
Some time back, I wrote about what can happen in 100 days. It was related to how quickly life changes, how it moves on, and how we forget even in the wake of the horrible trial like that of Caylee Anthony. Life goes on and new lessons are learned in 100 days (or less).
Such is the situation with my family and the personal lessons we are learning over these past 100 days. In these months, my in-laws, because of significant health care issues and the medical supervision they need have been moved into a nursing home. Additionally in this time, my father in-law has moved into Hospice care following an unsuccessful heart surgery; end of life care for what is now a rather immediate terminal condition. Once again, I am made aware that we cannot predict the next 100 days of our lives—let alone the next minute.
There are lessons, however, I am learning in these days that are forever imprinted on my soul and conscious mind to use as guides for my own life and future. These are life shaping lessons that are ones I believe we must all understand to live well in the time we have on this planet.
Lesson One: Your material possessions should never define who you are
My in-laws’ 82 years of life and material accumulation have been reduced in the past 100 days to an 18 x 15 foot room (I know because I measured it). I have been responsible to help my wife clear out their house of material possessions. I have thrown away so much that they held sacred because no one wants it; Goodwill Industries is getting a large share or college students who need furniture getting another hefty helping. What we have and accumulate in life are tools to use but should not define who we are. Hold all the things you own loosely, not being afraid to give them away or discard them when not needed. What you treasure someone will ultimately discard as so much clutter or trash. Travel light in this world. (And thus by corollary don’t buy in the first place what you don’t need and use or invest your financial resources more wisely. Savings is a really good thing to have….it gives you options)
Lesson Two: Prepare for your own health future in your working years
Related to lesson one is preparation for one’s own health future and the options you are preparing to have in your later years. We WASTE, and I don’t mean this as a literary figurative image, significant financial resources while we are alive on stuff no one will want in the end; therefore using up valuable resources needed in old age for health care and living with dignity.
We don’t think about this when we are young but I have witnessed a full nursing home (with a waiting list to get in) where long life has been reduced to 18 x 15 foot rooms, normally shared with another person (thus a 9 x 7.5 foot cubicle separated by a curtain, if you are lucky). If you have enough resources available you might find space in assisted living or a retirement community, but that is a fantasy unless you spend your working life preparing for it. Wasting money on things one does not need or making poor financial decisions during one’s working years will leave very few choices when one is old. If you don’t plan now, you will reap the reward for that lack of preparation in the future. Take a minute to read Aesop’s “Grasshopper and the Ant” fable (and if you don’t believe me, take a field trip to a nursing home beyond singing there during the Christmas season for ½ hour). The delusion is thinking someone else will pay for this or Medicare has too. They will….but you won’t be pleased with the accommodations.
Lesson Three: Dying peacefully in your sleep is a fantasy we should hope will happen
In the last 100 days, I have witnessed that slipping away in one’s sleep is not the norm for the end of our lives. I have witnessed rooms of people who are alone, dying slowly by the tick-tock of the clock where a few minutes become an eternity of time. Most people I observe are in a slow, long, sometimes painful process of dying. We often lament those who die unexpectedly by a heart attack or accident. But in what I am witnessing it is the blessing not to be feared. What should be feared is the long, painful struggle toward death that I’ve observed by most people in the nursing facility that I am visiting regularly. (This too has a corollary: make nursing home visitation a part of your life choices of service. There are many lonely people in these places…no one visiting them. A place where the television or the occasional nurses’ aid dispensing medication or cleaning is your only companion. And by a second corollary, don’t tell people—or their families–you will visit them if you actually don’t take the initiative to set the time aside and do it. The most honest comment I’ve had to date is from an elderly neighbor of my in-laws who said, “I would tell you, call me if you need anything, but that’s not true. Best of wishes to you.”)
Lesson Four: In the US Western culture, we live in delusion by using nursing homes to keep us separated by the realities of aging and death
Nursing homes, at least for me and in my observation, have become a repository for the aging and sick, so that we can live a delusional state during our younger, healthier years. Somehow we believe we will never die—and keeping the aging and infirmed separate from us keeps us in this fantasy worldview. We are all going to die—you, me, everyone. It may be quick or long, but we are not living forever here on this planet. The US culture via media, advertising and all the books on a blissful heaven with streets of gold are a means of self deception to live “happily ever after.” (By corollary, I personally am in the camp of British theologian, NT Wright related to heaven and the afterlife. I don’t fall into the norm of the evangelical position here. If you want know my position, see the April 16, 2012 issue of Time Magazine, “Rethinking Heaven,” by Jon Meacham)
Lesson Five: People can rise to the occasion and exhibit the best of the human spirit and character
Lest you read this post and slide into depression or “doom and gloom,” let me end with a word of hope (which is also my conviction and belief about the afterlife as well–hope). I have witnessed the human spirit and the most cherished character qualities of humanity rise to the occasion for what is needed in times of struggle and heartache. Again in the West, we love our heroes. But I have observed the true heroes in this world over these 100 days; those who rise to the occasion over long periods of time and who are not a flash of heroism as we dramatize constantly (it has its place, instant heroism, but it is not the norm to be coveted or to gauge our lives against). I have watched my wife—and other family members in the nursing home–as my prime example. She has worked diligently to be present while being employed full time, giving dignity, and being an advocate for her parents in that 18 x 15 room. She has worked hard…there is no other descriptor—to do what is needed. I, too, have learned what being a husband is about. It is taking care of all the chores in the house so there is a place of safety when my wife does come home. It is hugging and loving as a companion or spouse and not as a sexual, romantic gesture—just being present. It is knowing to keep my mouth shut and opinions to myself on how to do something. It is just being there when needed, and engaging when asked….to bring some chocolate or a diet soda “just because” to that 18 x 15 room. To BE LOVE in the most important ways possible.
So my advice, dear reader? Evaluate your life now. Take stock of what is important and what is illusionary. Plan and prepare for your future (no one….I mean no one….will take care of that for you). Learn about aging and dying slowly….read some Hospice materials. Make nursing home visits a normal part of your life service, not just a Christmas feel good visit to sing a few songs and make old people smile. And learn about real love, commitment and fidelity beyond romance, so that relationships can be sustained and grow over a life time.
Blessings to you for this day, in the reflection, and the commitment to undertake understanding. Grace and peace.