Getting Old: Not for Sissies
It has been a cold spring in Seattle. Made a little colder by the significant number of friends who are struggling with major illnesses or sudden changes in their own health or that of a loved one. It’s hard. And sobering. Things can change very quickly.
I remember my Dad, probably about the age I am now, lamenting the number of their friends who were sick or dying. He was, though neither he nor I knew it at the time, a couple years away from the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. “You never know,” said one of my ailing friends the other day.
That’s always true, but when you’re younger you don’t really believe it. Now, you do.
My mother-in-law was fond of saying that “old age isn’t for sissies.” And she was right. Whether it is the illness itself, or the treatment — or both — life is no longer what it was. And — and this is the real kicker — it may never be so again.
“So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom,” wrote the Psalmist.
Mostly what impresses me, though, about friends facing various slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and mortality, or even just garden variety aging, is their courage. I’m sure they all have their moments, but most don’t spend much of their precious time or energy complaining.
Some specialize in darkish humor. “Not buying any green bananas,” quipped one. They make friends in strange places, like the clinic room where chemo is administered. With those new friends they share a two-fold bond: a common experience, but one that no one else particularly wants in on.
Others come up with rituals they enact with loved ones. A cousin took a cross-section of a fallen tree, calculated the years, and marked the important moments in his life and that of his family on it. Others do what we used to call, “putting your house in order” in the usual or their own particular, even peculiar, ways.
Then there are the caregivers. The family members, often a spouse, whose world also shrinks. I’ve seen sick people, people in pain, be pretty tough on their caregivers. Not all by any means, but it’s not uncommon. Mostly the caregivers understand that it isn’t really about them. It’s their loved ones dealing with loss. Loss of power, of control, of activity. Still, it’s wearing. As my mother-in-law said . . . “Not for sissies,” includes the caregivers. Mostly I see immense courage, patience, steadfastness in tough situations. If it’s not “the golden years,” there is nonetheless a refining that takes place in such seasons of life. The dross is burned off. The gold refined.
Somewhere along the way in the years of my pastoral ministry I memorized a prayer of John Henry Newman and would sometimes pray it when I thought it fit. It goes like this:
O Lord, support us all the day long
till the shadows lengthen
and the evening comes
and the busy world is hushed
and the fever of life is over
and our work is done.
Then in your mercy,
grant us a safe lodging
and a holy rest
and peace at the last.
It’s a beautiful prayer, I think. Part of the beauty is the realism. Shadows do lengthen, evening does come, the busy world is hushed. So much denial of all this in our world and culture. This prayer doesn’t deny our mortality, but accepts it truthfully and beautifully. Doesn’t mean we don’t fight for life. We can do that and still accept mortality. We have to.
This brief prayer of Cardinal Newman does two other things as well. It grants to each of us our particular dignity by speaking of “our work.” When “our work is done . . .” We don’t just live until we don’t. We each have our work to do in this life. Sometimes figuring out our work takes a lifetime.
Some of our “work” others see and know, and may honor. Some of it no one knows but us, or maybe us and the one or two closest to us. But our life has, has had, purpose. We have our work. That’s important.
And second, Newman’s prayer puts our life and present challenges in a larger context, a “horizon of hope,” as a friend terms it. “Then in your mercy, grant us safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last.” I suppose some would call this sentimental. I think of it differently. “We do not,” as St. Paul wrote, “live to ourselves alone, nor do we die to ourselves alone. Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
It’s been a while since I first committed Newman’s prayer to memory and my memory of it has grown a little rusty. Time to scratch off the rust, to lay hold of words that provide comfort in a cold spring.