“Rage against the dying of the light?” or “Let go?”

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Soon bears us all away;
We fly forgotten, as a dream
Fades at the opening day.
-Issac Watts, 1719; alt

It used to annoy me when someone use “passed away” for “died.” I am glad to say I have come to see that everyone can, and maybe should, use any euphemism that helps in grief.

Changing my mind may have to do with my age.

Thirty-five years ago, in a small group of Unitarian University clergy, I took part in a mini-debate about whether, as Dylan Thomas wrote, we should “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” or simply, as the 12 Step phrase reminds us, just “Let go, let god.” As I have hinted, I argued that we ought not “go gentle into that good night” while others, with the gray hair I now possess, suggested that faith, and a longer view, made them see that dying should be not a struggle but an acceptance.

There are certainly tragic deaths for which “passed away” seems a ridiculous description. School shootings, tsunamis, childhood cancer, just to mention a few, are events for which “died” is the only appropriate word.

But there are, every day, the examples of humans who have simply gone the way of all creatures. A stalwart church member in Hanover was over a hundred at the end. A dear Bailey family friend just went at over a hundred My mother was 96. It is just the way life is.

This concept is more difficult for those who are left behind. No matter how old the person may be we still never want that day to come. I thought this when we lost Bill Coffin and, in another way, when  George Carlin had a fatal heart attack. What they were to us and their closest love ones make the passing away to be filled with utter loss.

There never really is enough time and as we approach the end of our days, that becomes more poignant. For me, the concept of passing away which comes to us all, helps me to use the time I do have in a more meaningful way.

The days of our lives

dad, sisters and i cropped
My father and his children. c. 1956

On New Year’s Eve we had a funeral at 2nd Church Newton. We celebrated the life of a man who was 106 years old, born in December of 1912.

Had my father not died at an early age he would have been 106, too. In fact, his birthday was actually on December 31, 1912. He jokingly told us that he wasn’t sure how old he was, especially since was born near midnight. Born in ’12, at 11:30 PM, 106; born in ’13, at 12:30 AM, 107? Not really but fun to think about and no wonder it was confusing.

He had a short life ending with couple of heart attacks, the first at age 53 and the fatal one at 56. He smoked as most men did then and had a nerve disease that required him to start using a walker in his 40’s. Cardiac imaging and coronary artery bypass surgery were in their infancy but who knows how those advancements would  have helped anyhow.

I guess you could say that I was close to my father. I worked with him in his wholesale hot dog business in my high school years. Memories of delivering many seven pound boxes of bulk wieners on the Jacksonville Beach boardwalk are seared into my brain.

I have outlived my father by quite a few years but does more time mean that much? I have good quality of life, all in all, I have been able to take advantage of modern medicine. I share life with a wonderful woman who is the mother of our two great children.  They undoubtedly want me to stick around and I plan to do my best. So for them if not for me, added years would be excellent

I  have no meaningful answers but about the simplest yet most profound way to see it is this: “The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.” –Martin Luther King

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Afterthought: One memory I treasure more than others is when years later he told me that to the contrary, he hadn’t pushed me into the ministry. He had hoped I would take over Turner Distributing Company.

 

Slow and steady wins the race

No one would have ever associated the word “meticulous” with me. “Measure twice, cut once”? Ha, not me. Before the days of computers, I was a bank teller once and my claim to (in)fame was that  my drawer never seemed to balance at the end of the day. Can I ever find a tool I need for a little DIY? So what, just go get another one. Well, you get the picture.

The Tortoise And The Hare
That’s me with the carrot

But then something happened, the fault of the stairs.

From the summer of 2015 until this past August, we lived in apartment buildings with elevators. There were of course curbs, steps to a church entrance, and quite a few places where finding the accessible path was mysterious but mainly, I had no stairs to worry about.

We now live in a parsonage that has four levels and a significant set of front and back porch stairs. Oh and, as you might guess, no elevator or ramp. So, along with what might be called ‘normal aging’ unsteadiness, this house changed my approach. I now think carefully approaching the stairs, I make sure I have free hand to put on the railing, and take each step all by itself.

You see, I don’t want to fall. I’ve “been there, done that” as they say. Once a few years ago, I stepped down from the low stone wall in our driveway in New Hampshire and crashed. It always comes as an unbelievable surprise so, being unprepared, my forehead hit the asphalt. Fortunately, I was still conscious and could get to the kitchen for ice. On another occasion, in the Twin Cities, riding a rental bike I attempted to dismount and fell instead. A bit embarrassing but no too serious. Then there was the time, in our apartment parking space, when I tripped on some broken concrete and landed on my knee. The worse part of that one was the hole in my new jeans. (Luckily, my spouse is an expert seamstress so she patched them, at least)

After a certain age, falls become much more of an issue. It is logical but very annoying, if you want to know. The Notorious RBG fell recently and broke ribs. Leonard Cohen’s death was a result a fall. In our family, the person we call ‘Gma’ just fell and broke her collarbone. Not just annoying, but a dangerous thing to do.

Being careful goes against my grain but then again, so does killing myself. Now days, call me, meticulous.

Aging Together

How do you explain aging to a 30-year-old? It is, after all, something you have to experience.

On the other hand, you could learn from an “old” or, as I like to call it, an “aging” person.  Most of us –see what I did there?– are more than willing to share what we have discovered. (Caution: If you start us talking, it is tricky, in most cases, to get us to stop)

I pondered this quite a bit earlier this year as we saw our wonderful Eeyore-we called him Sorske most of the time- come to the end of his feline life journey. I often compared us, he struggling to breathe and I walking with arthritis pain.

We both used tried and true survival instincts, mostly unconscious, such as moving around, eating, checking out the weather on our iPhone. (I made up that last one. Sorske never got the smart phone concept)

I learned a lot from him because he kept doing the cat things like sitting in front of my recliner waiting for me to pick him up or finding some very hidden place to curl up for a nap.

On one of his very last days he did a very familiar thing, a poignant moment for me

Sorske helping

He came over while we were putting together an IKEA cabinet, walked out on the box and “offered to help.” I grabbed my phone to make sure I got the shot above.

It may sound cliché, but aging is not easy. Things that got us here like exercise, weight control, keeping humor intact, are harder and harder. One way I do it is to remember the last 6.2 miles of every marathon I ever ran. It was a lot more fun before I hit that wall but the race is a race. 20 miles isn’t the end so I didn’t stop.

Does all this help to understand, young people?