Meet my father. This picture was taken in his home the day he came home from rehab following back surgery. Looks pretty good for almost 90, doesn't he? His physicians, nurses, physical therapists, and other health care providers were all astounded at his age and said they guessed he was much younger. Of course, he is delighted with those compliments, but still, he knows that living alone in his large home is no longer the best option for him. He has made the decision to move into a new senior living complex in the fall, and while this will be a major change for him, he is expressing eagerness and even excitement about the move. Ever since my mother died 10 years ago he has stated firmly that he wanted to stay in the house, so I wondered if he might have second thoughts the day after making the deposit for his new apartment. He assured me that was not the case and furthermore, he said, "I will not make this hard on you."
Amazing! Believe me, I know how fortunate I am to have an elderly parent who is undemanding and also willing and able to make good decisions for his own health and wellbeing. I know of too many cases where that is clearly not the case. True, there may be days ahead of negotiating, but his outlook is positive, and he is open to this next stage of his life.
The thing is that not only is this the next stage of HIS life; it is also the next stage of MY life, and I need to be at least as open to change as he is. As I think about the last few weeks, I am aware of so many moments of learning and flashes of insight. I will share three:
1. Do the next thing. There were moments when I felt overwhelmed and remembered why I chose teaching as a profession and not nursing, but a friend told me I could do anything. She reminded me I am the woman who wrestled a sheep in the ditch, after all! When we lived at Sweetwater Farm, we had three sheep, Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, and one of them escaped from the barn one morning after Bruce had gone to work. I heard cars honking on the road in front of the house and what option did I have but to go charging after it? Amazingly, I tackled it to the ground and then wondered what to do! A passing motorist took pity on us and helped me restore Blynken to its proper place, and all was well. Blynken was safe, and I had a great story. So yes, I am the woman who wrestled a sheep in the ditch, but I can't do everything. What I realized, however, is that I can do the next thing. These past weeks I did whatever the next thing was and then the next thing and the next. The feeling of being overwhelmed lessened as I reminded myself to focus on the next step.
2. Grow bigger and deeper. I have said for years that as I get older I want to expand my world. I want my world to get bigger, instead of smaller. Even as I have said that, however, I have been aware that in many ways one's world actually gets smaller with age--friends and family die, one's ability to be out in the world or to experience the world lessens due to health or financial issues, and even one's physical space, moving from home to apartment to nursing home, gets smaller and smaller. A friend commented recently that his father in-law's world has gotten smaller and smaller, and I suspect in his observation was a desire not to let that happen to himself and perhaps an unconscious fear that it will. I know people who are squeezing as much travel time into their lives right now, for example, because they know at some point travel will not be as easy a proposition. For many retirement represents a loss of interaction in the world, and there can be a feeling of diminishment and lack of purpose.
Still, I feel a commitment to the idea of an expanding world even into the late years. What I realize is that my definition of "world" is changing. Where I sense the expansion can come is in my inner world, my spiritual world, my knowledge of my essence, my True Self, my acquaintance with the God within and without. There are not limits to that kind of growth.
"A door opens in the center of our being and we seem to fall though it into immense depths, which although they are infinite--are still accessible to us All eternity seems to have become ours in this one placid and breathless contact." Kathleen Dowling Singh in The Grace in Dying, p. 15.
My father is a model for me in his dedication to his spiritual practice of reading scripture and other devotions, including studying a section of Luther's Large Catechism every day. He may not be doing all the things that previously gave him pleasure and stimulated his intellectual growth, but his spirit is getting bigger and bigger.
3. Let go and live. When it was time to say goodbye to Dad before they took him in for surgery, I was aware that this could be the last time I would see my father alive. Given his age and his past history of heart issues, surgery was a risky proposition. I thought about all the other times I have said goodbye to him or other loved ones, in most cases fully expecting that a hello would follow soon. This time the outcome seemed good, but was not a sure thing. I told him I loved him, said goodbye, and let go.
Letting go of hurts, of disappointments, of expectations, of hopes and dreams, of fears, of possibilities, of plans and routines, of viewpoints, of worries, of control is no small task, but it is one we are asked to do every day of our lives in some way. Each time we let go of our grasp on whatever binds us, we practice dying just a bit. We move towards an acceptance of our own physical death. With that understanding comes freedom, I think, to live in a way that can be transformative. A life full of the fruits of the Spirit--"love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control." Galatians 5:22. A life that provides evidence of an ongoing encounter with God.
Everyday it seems I discover opportunities to relearn the lessons that offered themselves so clearly these last weeks with my father. Do the next thing. Grow bigger and deeper. Let go and live. I welcome hearing how these lessons are alive in your own life.