Unhappy anniversary

It’s hard to believe that exactly one year ago my father died.

Not long after that, I began this blog, feeling the need for a place to think out loud about life.  About death.  Yesterday morning, I went back and reread that first post, immersing myself again in its story, asking if I would change anything.

The only change is that now, a year later, I might add things that I hesitated to say before.  At the time, I felt the moral and cultural pressure to eulogize–literally, to “speak well” of the dearly departed–to edit out or reframe anything that seemed the least bit disrespectful.

No, I’m not about to trot out some sordid, gossip-worthy tale.  There isn’t one.  Dad was a generally uncomplicated man who lived a largely uncomplicated life until his body, mind and memory began to fray.

But I have a continuing sense of loss: not the sharp, jagged loss of cherished things that have been taken away, but the vaguer and emptier loss of things that might have been and weren’t.  I wish I could say that I walk through life with a treasure trove of Important Lessons My Father Taught Me.  I wish I could tell stories of wonderful things we did together as father and son.  I wish I could say that I looked to him as a mentor or even a hero.

But I can’t say any of those things.  Not because he was a bad father.  Not because he abandoned the family.  But because for a man of his culture, time, and temperament, it wasn’t part of the job description.

The time to change any of that is past.  It is what it is.

If you were to ask me what I’ve learned in the past year, it would be this: life is shorter than we often think, and it matters what we do with the time we have left.  Signs of our mortality are all around.  In assisted living, my mother watches anxiously as her neighbors become increasingly confused or forgetful, and wonders if and when her turn will come.  For my own part, I am less energetic, more likely to stumble, and getting deafer by the day.  Then there are the stories our friends tell.  Why have there been so many more medical crises and family tragedies in the past year?  It’s because we are, together, at that stage of life.

I promise that not all of my future posts will be this depressing.

Over the past year, my wife and I have talked often about end-of-life issues, musing about what we should be doing now to be people who can finish as gracefully as possible.  It’s not just about retirement or estate planning, though we have made sure to take care of these as well.  It’s about telling our kids things like, “If and when it comes to the point where you think it’s dangerous for me to drive, you have my permission to take away the keys, and to remind me that I told you to do it.”

Not that I can guarantee that I would listen, of course.  But I want both to unburden them as much as possible, and to work toward being more and more the kind of person who will listen to the wise counsel of others, even if it means admitting that I am not the person I once was.

It’s the hope of heaven that helps me do this.  If the story of my present life is the only story I have, I will more likely cling to it with both hands, fight against its downward turn.  But as a Christian I need to understand, deep down at the root of imagination, that there is more–that my past, present, and future are given meaning by being taken up into the story that God is writing even now, a story of glorious transformation.  And restoration.  And peace.

To put it another way: the more I am aware of living within God’s story now, the more I can trust that he is the one who writes the ending, including the one that we see only by faith.

Dying well and faithfully usually requires living well and faithfully first.  And even then, the relationship is not guaranteed.  Even if I spend the rest of my life daily cultivating a heavenly hope, there may come a time in which I no longer understand what that means, nor perhaps much of anything else.

But then, my prayer is to pass out of this life borne along by the faithful ministrations of those who can hold that hope for me.

By God’s grace, may it be so.  And may we do the same for others, now, while there is time.