Little kids: check. Middle school and teenage kids: check. Twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties: check. With my in-laws and the head of my teaching department (who keeps reminding the rest of us she’s not as young as we are), I’ve even got the sixties covered.
But I almost never have contact with truly elderly people, men and women whose bodies are clearly on the downward slope, whose wrinkles and age spots remind both themselves and us that the body was not meant to last forever. It’s merely a shell, and it’s breaking down.
In the sophomore English class I teach, we are reading Tuesdays with Morrie, the nonfiction bestseller from a decade ago about a man in his late seventies who died of ALS. Last week we also watched a video made by Jim Harrell, a former WA parent who was diagnosed with ALS several years ago and died in 2010. Though the two men are very different–Morrie is facing death as an agnostic; Jim is a firm believer in his after-life eternity with Christ–they have one very similar message: “Our bodies are approaching death; so are all of yours. What is most important?”
It makes me think that I am not reminded enough of the mortality of humanity. I spend my days with young children and young adults, all full of energy, all focused on TODAY! My 83-year-old father lives too far away for me to visit him regularly. Every time I see him, I have to adjust to the greater slope of his back, to the fact that I can now put my arms around my formerly barrel-chested father, to his conversation being more and more focused on heaven than on earth. I do not live with this every day.
Two weeks ago I had my eyes checked by our new eye doctor, who is near my father’s age. Like my dad, he is sharp-minded and focused. While he examined my eyes, he talked to me about the complexity of the universe, the amazing intricacies of God revealed in the number and scope of the galaxies. It was exhilarating to listen to him talk about a God he knows better than I because of the years upon years he has followed Him.
But as he leaned in close to check the lens in my eye, his bushy white eyebrows brushed my cheek, and one veined, knobby hand grasped the chair arm for balance, and I was reminded that time will do the same to my body. Three days later, as Dave and I drove the family to church, I saw an old man on the sidewalk. His shirt was neatly tucked in, and he was clearly on his way someplace, but his pants were wet with urine, and he walked with his head down as if ashamed. Dave reached over and held my hand. We were both reminded.
I sometimes wish that we had an elderly relative in our home, as families in many cultures do. Perhaps then we could see that life is fleeting, that youth and vitality eventually fade, that we are not immune to decay, that our bodies will cease, and our spirits must go on to something very different. Perhaps then we would see that the “life” Christ referred to so much is not defined by the limitations or abilities of our bodies. It is not defined by the death of the body.
Each Sunday a group of older women gather at our church. Most have outlived husbands; a couple totter along with walkers; nearly all have glasses. They shift down the hall together, ease into chairs in the fellowship hall, get the youngsters to pick up things they drop on the ground. They are not as “alive,” in one sense, as the five-year-olds that climb and jump in the playroom in the church basement. Yet the life at their table is tremendous. It sparkles from eyes that have seen both heartache and joy; it gleams from mouths that gather in everyone with warm smiles. Their warped old hands grasp the arms of all who pass by. “How are you?” they ask; they really want to know.
Their bodies get noticeably closer to death each year, but their souls have spark, and when you watch them, you get the sense that when those bodies drop away, those women will rise up, fully alive.
It is time, I think, to get more “age” in my life.