There’s No Going Back, Part Three

In response to a question about aging, Keith Anderson, former President of The Seattle School and friend of Dan Allender, wrote a reflection on turning 70-years-old this past summer. As we are exploring the theme of grief this month, it seemed an appropriate time to share this three-part series. It’s true, there is no going back. That in and of itself brings grief, along with the fact that, as Keith described, we are “finite, flawed, and failed” human beings. And yet, there is much to celebrate. Of wisdom learned, unexpected, joyous moments, and a God who knows us most intimately and does not turn away.

Today Wendy and I settled on “our final resting place,” as a gravesite was once called. We planned on having our ashes tossed into the sea, hopefully with some dignity rather than otherwise, but we came to read the needs of our children for a place where they might remember and celebrate or ponder what we might have done better for them and with them. The Old Testament had an uncanny knack for creating such holy places in unlikely locations—in the desert or on rocky mountains, in caves or just outside of town. Holy places were part of stories told that long to be told again. Our holy place is Whidbey Island, some 50 miles north of Seattle. We owned a house there, spent summers there, lived in exile once, and come back to it as often as we can.

The sea surrounds it, both the Olympics and Cascades can be seen when the “mountain is out,” and there is a prairie protected by current federal law as a historic memory of this holy island. Nearby is another site which remembers the racism of early pioneers whose names are now familiar as street names in Coupeville or Freeland or Oak Harbor, men who found ways to brutalize and finally force Chinese immigrants from the land. Up the hill from that place of memory is the Sunnyside Cemetery, which contains the resting place of many pioneers from the distant 19th century past and others from the more recent past. A few yards away is a columbarium of granite, which will be our place. Two urns of ashes can be placed within the sacred space where we will be buried.

It is a sure sign of aging, I suppose, to make arrangements such as these. My parents bought gravesites when they were young; we are doing it as we both reach 70. I have wondered why it matters to us now. Do we want to know there will be a place, above the ground, dry and strong, able to handle the storms and winds of this saltwater island? Or is it, as I mostly think, that we hereby make a declaration: We have walked this earth in general, and this land in particular. This is our witness. Our story may no longer be told by the living, but we declare that we treasure this place. It is a place that has brought us great joy and great pain. Three of our parents died while we walked this island. I first encountered Mars Hill Graduate School and hired Derek McNeil from a second-story room in this place. We listened as our first grandson was given birth in Vail, Colorado as we awaited his arrival, and later celebrated his first birthday with a face dive into a piece of cake…in this place. Perhaps this witness will also help our children remember they were fiercely loved.

The great teacher of aging is scripture itself. The Bible is honest about aging, mortality, and death.

14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. –James 4:14 (NRSV)

16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. –2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NRSV)

1 The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south,
and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.
8 All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
11 The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.
–Ecclesiastes 1:1-12 (NRSV)

Ouch. Where is the hope and love and beauty? It’s there, but comes disguised sometimes in realities of pain, despair, hardship, sorrow, and grief. It was Richard Rohr who wrote some years ago about four things we need to teach young men in their quest to become adult men. His words have a biblical tenor to them, and the theme is not popular in a culture of comfort, ease, self-fulfillment, and egoism: Life is hard.

  1. You are going to die. Young people need to be told the truth that older people know.
  2. You are not that important. Not that you are unimportant, but humility is essential.
  3. You are not in control. We live in the illusion of control, when reality and God are ultimately in control.
  4. Your life is not about you. “You must know that you are a part of something and somebody much bigger than yourself.”

Had I been initiated into such teachings as a young man, I might be more ready for what lies ahead. Aging is a season of diminishment, some will say. The occasional ache, the twinge of arthritis, or a temporary spasm in the back that delays the return of suitcases to the garage or boxes of books to their rightful home. Fair enough, but deceptive in its understatement. For many, there is pain that leads to debilitation. Not the province of elders alone, pain touches the young and middle-aged as well. My wife lives with the chronic pain of neuropathy, a nerve malady that sends shooting pain at random and sometimes embarrassing moments into feet and hands, setting off involuntary yelps of pain and paroxysms of hurt. There is no cure. What then? What now? And what do I do as the most beloved, necessary, and important person in my life suffers, not occasionally but daily?

Well, when her feet are “on fire” I carry ice. Not a metaphor, I fill her ice bags with crushed ice so she can try to stop the spasms of her pain. I fill her water glass, bring her food, get the mail, and do every small thing I can think of to do. But she doesn’t want to be seen as invalid. No, I didn’t omit the adjective. She is not yet an invalid, but she fights courageously to remain capable, engaged, strong, and aware, drugs and treatments notwithstanding. She is not skilled at complaining. It’s never been her way. One of Wendell Berry’s characters said of another, “He never complained. He seemed to have no instinct for the making much of oneself that complaining requires.”

“Don’t spiritualize” pain, some would say. They are correct. Pain is a tactile, physical reality that takes innumerable shapes in the later years. My mother-in-law is nearly blind, has an essential tremor in both hands which causes her hands to shake uncontrollably at times, and lives with extreme pain in her feet from a fall 30 years ago. At nearly 92, her body is wearing out. Redemption on the warranty will have to come later. To spiritualize pain is just denial, some will argue. There is no going back. Our bodies are in decline—all of us, but older people know it best I suspect. We can’t escape aches and pains, but like most adages, the opposite is frequently true. “Don’t spiritualize pain” is also trite. There is no purely physical way to live through the long nights of pain; sometimes we require faith as a way to cope. With music or scripture, a picture or poem, a story or note of encouragement, we can find strength to carry on. Spirituality grounded in scripture understands that pain is not only “in the body,” but affects the spirit and soul. We are not a set of components like my old stereo with speakers, amps, and woofers. When my body feels pain, my spirit knows it too.

On Sunday, September 15, 1963, three members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite near the basement of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Jackson, MS right at Sunday School time. Four young girls were killed, and 22 others were injured. The suffering of their parents, the church, the Black community, and many others was intense. Sheer violence aimed at children in worship—almost unthinkable, except that we continue to see this in all houses of religion. At the funeral, one of the older women began to sing—it is common in the Black church culture. Her words were the familiar tune of the Civil Rights movement, “We Shall Overcome,” but she changed the words and sang, “God is on our side.” Who can sing such words in a moment that called for anger, rage, and the deepest kind of grief? Only someone who has faith for the words to help carry them through grief and suffering. “God is on our side” even when death prevails, violence has seemed to win, darkness has had its day, and pain is felt as anguish? Pain is not to be trivialized, but there is audacious strength when pain remembers that God is near, on our side, and faithful.

Some Sunday afternoon, it may be,
you are sitting under your porch roof,
looking down through the trees
to the river, watching the rain. The circles
made by the raindrops’ striking
expand, intersect, dissolve.

And suddenly (for you are getting on
now, and much of your life is memory)
the hands of the dead, who have been here
with you, rest upon you tenderly
as the rain rests shining
upon the leaves
And you think then
(for thought will come) of the strangeness
of the thought of heaven, for now
you have imagined yourself there,
remembering with longing this
happiness, this rain. Sometimes here
we are, and there is no death.
–Wendell Berry, “1996, V,” from This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems

Spirituality meets us where our pain and beliefs intersect. Those whom I know who have suffered the most have pulled over them the blanket of faith not as mindless comfort, but as a fierce weapon to battle the pain. God is on our side in a time of grief, violence, fear, threat, and utter despair. Those mothers of faith sang themselves to hope. In the face of suffering, faith is a companion who walks alongside. “Some nights in the midst of this loneliness I swung among the scattered stars at the end of the thin thread of faith alone.” Wendy believes in a God of miracles: “How I get through the pain isn’t just gritting my teeth and enduring, it’s the little things of love you do, the comfort you bring, and my belief that God will give me the strength to do this.” In chronic pain we take relief wherever we can.

Caregivers know this well. We suffer our own pain, but doubly so the pain of our beloved. It is a level of agony that multiplies with our inability to do more than ameliorate their daily suffering. When their pain is intense it can’t help but create worry, angst, fear of losing the other, cries of prayer for healing to God and doctors, and moments of silent and often private tears and fears. The worst for me is the knowledge that I cannot stop her suffering. It is a private hell. I do the little things I can. I rarely offer advice (that tactic has not worked well a time or two),but an occasional timely question, “Would a hot shower help? Should we go for a walk?” can sometimes bring relief or comfort.

Humor is one of my best strategies. At two in the morning when I find her in heightened pain I will ask, “Shall we go out for potato pancakes?” In the right moment I may say in kind jest, “It’s time to quit hurting and get over this”—I will know quickly if I misread the moment. Music can sometimes break the mental hold the pain has on her. A distraction, an email from a grandchild, or news of the Seahawks might work to create a moment of relief. I’ll try anything once. She loves cold foam cappuccinos from Starbucks. “I’m going to take you to Starbucks. I’m leaving in 10 minutes. Chop!” That sometimes works. “Chop, chop” is not in my best interest. Pain creates a relational dance that is personal and creates an intimacy of shared suffering. Whatever works is probably as individual as each couple.

I have had three knee surgeries on one knee and four shoulder surgeries, and I have scoliosis in my back. My pain is intermittent with relief in between. How do I compare my minor league with her chronic suffering? Her answer is wise: Don’t. You can’t calculate and quantify pain, the famous “On a scale of 1 to 10, what is your pain today?” notwithstanding. Yes, we will all know pain as personal reality as we age. Small or large, occasional or chronic, physical or mental, it’s inescapable. Aging forces the question: How do I cope with the limits? It’s not a new question. It happened when I lost a job or took a pay cut or suffered the grief when my parents died. It comes to us all. We only live in the illusion we are above that fray. What is less healing but seems a survival technique for me is my lifelong return to my Swedish family practice of denial, compartmentalizing feelings and suppressing emotions; it worked to get me through before, perhaps, but there is no going back. I need others to help me just as Wendy does.

And what of death, the impending reality that awaits all but seems more likely to those aging than to many in their younger years? I find the elegy of Wendell Berry to his grandfather, Pryor Thomas Berry, honest, thoughtful, and surprisingly animating:

I stand at the cistern in front of the old barn in the darkness, in the dead of winter,
the night strangely warm, the wind blowing, rattling an unlatched door.
I draw the cold water up out of the ground, and drink.
At the house the light is still waiting.
An old man I’ve loved all my life is dying
in his bed there. He is going
slowly down from himself.
In final obedience to his life, he follows
his body out of our knowing.
Only his hands, quiet on the sheet, keep
a painful resemblance to what they no longer are.

He goes free of the earth.
The sun of his last day sets
clear in the sweetness of his liberty.
The earth recovers from his dying, the hallow of his life remaining
in all his death leaves.
Radiances know him. Grown lighter than breath, he is set free
in our remembering. Grown brighter
than vision, he goes dark into the life of the hill that holds his peace.
He’s hidden among all that is, and cannot be lost.

I believe that. And some days I live in anxiety, not so much about death but about the process of dying. My father died at 92 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s. He walked the long walk to death alone, not knowing us any longer. I hope it was harder on us than on him, but it was a painful time—as many, far too many, know. On most days I am learning about accepting the deeply spiritual meaning of those words. Death is something we cannot avoid, any of us. There is an option to fatalism or an invitation to acceptance. I don’t yet know which road I’ll take, but I find myself drawn with increasing frequency into the places of acceptance of what is, rather what I cannot prevent. “Start with God” is not just a beginning, but the portal to an ending that is also a beginning. I expect to walk through that portal to a time and place of Jubilee. A man in my church used to wax eloquent about heaven, or glory, as he liked to call it. I don’t know his source and never felt he had been there. But I think Mary Chapin Carpenter is onto something that I believe deeply and pray to be true, because I have already seen it here in this earthly place of glory:

And I can tell by the way you’re searching
For something you can’t even name
That you haven’t been able to come to the table
Simply glad that you came

When you feel like this try to imagine
That we’re all like frail boats on the sea
Just scanning the night for that great guiding light
Announcing the jubilee

And I can tell by the way you’re standing
With your eyes filling with tears
That it’s habit alone that keeps you turning for home
Even though your home is right here

Where the people who love you are gathered
Under the wise wishing tree
May we all be considered then straight on delivered
Down to the jubilee

Because the people who love you are waiting
And they’ll wait just as long as need be
When we look back and say those were halcyon days
We’re talking about jubilee