My father, had he lived, would have turned 80 today. In the summer of 2006, age 77, he died of stomach cancer. I’ll make sure to telephone my mother today as we continue to find ways to celebrate his birth and life. I’m not quite sure how communication is handled in the heavenly realms, but I’ve sent a message that direction too, in the hope it will get through: “Happy Birthday, Dad! We still miss you lots.”
I can remember a conversation with my brother David, when my grandfather was still living and in his 80’s. We were then young men and agreed it must be wonderful to be so old, purely for the liberty extended to the aged in saying anything they wish without concern for the consequences. One is considered to be either über-wise or completely off one’s rocker. Our grandfather seemed to be variously both. He could say the cleverest things sometimes, but to his dying day believed the football field at the Kingdome in Seattle was bright blue, merely because he couldn’t admit his American-made television had faulty color controls.
With better health-care and increased life expectancy, eighty is the new seventy. I personally know many people who are well past their eightieth birthday and are still quite active. I have people approaching eighty on my parish visitation team, weekly heading off on their bicycles to visit “the old folks”. The Dutch in general stay admirably mobile even as they get old – years and years of cycling and climbing stairs does have its benefits. When I worked at Schiphol airport I noted that American elderly tended more often to need wheelchair or golfcart transportation assistance than their European counterparts; North Americans just don’t walk as much as Europeans do, and their mobility in old age is noticeably less.
I used to regularly visit an elderly person who, after a life of trials, finally gave up: “Howie, can you come next Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. to give me Holy Communion? The doctor is coming at 8:00 to put me to sleep.” There are guidelines for such things, and the doctor knew more than I did, but it all seemed rather abrupt to me. The funeral was the most difficult I’ve ever done. For the family, most of whom knew full well how things had ended and did not concur, it was not an occasion to celebrate life, but a communal expression of anger and frustration at their loved one’s choice to end it.
But I’m not entirely unsympathetic to that person’s choice. Renata and I are undecided about whether we wish to get really old or not. Perhaps it is better to have an accident or a relatively swift illness and move on. We’re thinking that at age 75 or so we’ll buy a small sailboat and set off to sail around the world, maybe on the pretense of a new evangelistic call to the ends of the earth. Since we know absolutely nothing about sailing we’re fairly sure to fail quickly, and in the extreme. I’m sure we’ll think differently when the time comes.
I used to think raising children provided the ultimate pressure-cooker for my on-going formation of adult character. But now I wonder if a long-enduring life in an ever more limited body will provide a truer trial, a costlier discipleship, especially if and when the finish line becomes so tantalizingly near and yet so uncertain in its timing.
I can only hope I’m up to it. I deeply admire those who have shown they are.