Hello from Starbucks in the Commons,
We are in the throes of the end of the semester, and I am doing a boatload in individual student conferences. The days have blended together so much that earlier today I was quite sure it was Thursday instead of Wednesday. Part of my cluelessness is the craziness of the overloaded semester and part of it is a combination of a lack of a vehicle, obstinacy in terms of asking for help, the closure and relocation of my medical clinic, which have all resulted in no B12 shots for four months. Then there is the vertigo, which has returned over the last couple days. Perhaps the good thing is it has compelled me to focus on my health a bit more thoughtfully than I have as of late. While I have flippantly noted growing old is not for sissies, it is a truism. And then there is doing what one should to maintain their health . . . it takes time and intentionality, and it requires a commitment. My reality has been that is is such a commitment that requires so much time that I find myself annoyed, and at times overwhelmed. Part of that means slowing down, and those who know me are aware that is not really in my nature.
For those who do not know, the most significant, or greatest, percentage of my ethnic heritage is Irish. The phrase that titles this post is Irish and it means “a drink for the door” or “the parting glass.” It might initially seem apropos because of the stereotypic Irish-person, but the lyrics of the song reveal something much more poignant, “and since it fell into my lot that I should rise and you should not . . . “ These words push us to realize the frailty of our lives. It seems that somewhere around this time each year, my body struggles to manage some homeostatic balance because of the long-term consequences of Crohn’s. My next week and a half or so is filled with numerous doctors’ appointments, seeing a variety of specialists. Nothing overwhelming, but the results of bloodwork and other tests offer some insight into a body my gastroenterologist describes as an upside-down jigsaw puzzle. At this point, initial bloodwork shows some treason for concern. The problem areas seem to indicate continued and perhaps elevated issues. I am pretty sure another appointment with a doctor is on the horizon. Additionally, perhaps more discipline and attention is also needed from me. The visit to the Balance Clinic was quite the experience. I detest nausea more than any possible thing, so 20 minutes of trying not to vomit was great fun.
This week I had a conversation with a graduating senior, a Marine Corps veteran, and an all round exceptional person. We were discussing at what age might a person be categorized as old. Even though I am probably four decades older than this student, we had a incredibly similar idea of who would be considered as officially old. For the student, it was 80 and for me, 90. I think what surprised me most, reflecting on this conversation, was the personal reality that old, regardless the age is getting more and more unavoidable. Of course, there are the arguments, it is a number, it is an attitude, and all of that is certainly valid, but each day the amount of time used or lived versus the time that remains moves indiscriminately toward the older side. I am reminded of my father noting that things will move forward and time will pass more quickly. As usual, he was more than correct! As I write this a couple of weeks have flown by, the semester is completed, grading is in process, and I am realizing the summer will be a whirlwind.
Last night I was shocked by a Facebook message about the health of someone for whom I have incredible care and appreciation. I have spoken of the pair many times, and I have been blessed to have them in my life for many years. They have never seemed to be their age, and certainly did not appear to be the age they are. In the period of 36 hours or so, all of that changed. There is progress, but that progress has taken weeks into months. And the health issue was profound. I am poignantly reminded of the frailty of our taken-for-granted daily lives. I am feeling confounded by the reality of mortality. It is not something I know nothing about; it is not something I do not even expect, but I am profoundly aware of how it always seems to take us by surprise. Certainly the loss of someone in a way or time that seem premature is always alarming, but even when someone has lived a full life (and I realize premature and full life are subjective), there is no less alarm . . . I often told parishioners and family members who struggled with even an expected loss, we are never ready. Why is that? Perhaps that is a moot point. Perhaps it is not the question. Perhaps it is merely we need to seize the fact that we are merely mortal and live with an appreciation of what the day offers. And yet, that seems so frickin’ (my half-hearted attempt to be rhetorically appropriate) cliché. It that all there is? Indeed, it seems my Irish heritage is more thoughtful about all of this than I might realize.
But since it fell into my lot That I should rise and you should not I'll gently rise and softly call Good night and joy be to you all Fill to me the parting glass And drink a health whate'er befalls Then gently rise and softly call Good night and joy be to you all
What are we guaranteed? Nothing, actually . . . what do we deserve? Nothing actually . . . What are can we expect? Nothing, actually . . . and I could continue, and some would argue I am merely being cynical or morbid, but I am not. I see this realization as freedom. If we have no guarantees, we are provided an opportunity to make something happen. What makes a life successful? What makes a life one that one might believe well lived? Easy questions, right? Perhaps they are more answerable than we often believe. I was once told if you significantly influence the lives of 10 other people you are successful. Certainly, there are a number of questions that one can ponder about that statement, but I prefer to take it as general face-value for the moment. If somehow people are better off, and realize that change that moves them into a new successful place, and then connect it to something they received from you, you can count that person. In terms of life and success, it is difficult to not equate success in our free enterprise world as something related to possessions or value, but I believe success is something that is way beyond what is found through a routing number of an account; it is something that is far beyond the stuff we have. For me success is related to contentment, to a sense of tranquility, to a feeling of accomplishment, not in some grandiose, overly-recognized manner, but as an internal sense of enjoyment of a peaceful process that allows one to go about their life without a need to keep accomplishing. Perhaps it is a reminder of that phrase, well done, good and faithful servant. Perhaps it is as noted above – – – good night (or day) and joy be to you all.
I am reminded of the novel, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak; he makes the narrator of the novel Death. Yes, you read that correctly. I have used this novel in my freshman writing class a few times, and it is always interesting to see how the students react to such a narrator. What I believe is so profound about the novel and its macabre voice is that you could easily find yourself feeling sympathetic to Death. That is not something most would imaging possible. I sometimes find myself wondering why death is so frightening? I understand the separation; I know what it is to feel the pain and sorrow of loss; I realize there is the complete finality of absence, at least in this existence, and if you have hope or faith in something beyond, we are told there is a reunion, but that does little in the midst of the loss felt when death comes to pay its visit. Perhaps death is only an event, the cessation of living. Perhaps it is something kinder than the Grim Reaper. As Zusak writes, Is death as amazed or haunted by us as we are of it? It is something to ponder . . . why you might ask? Perhaps if we can come to terms or some understanding of this event (this person?), our struggle with, our fear of, our fascination with and of could become somewhat non-consequential. Perhaps our often, non-successful attempt at a celebration of life would indeed be more appreciative life our deceased loved one or acquaintance actually had.
Perhaps the words “gently rise and softly call” offer the spirit needed. Again as my memory serves, there was a particularly poignant episode where the members of the 4077 believed Colonel Potter was ill because he had called them all together, but it was instead to toast the memory of his comrades of the Great War. He wanted to toast the memory of those who had passed with those who were living. In his gentle, wise, and caring way Sherman Potter reminded us that death cannot take away those memories, those experiences, this life-creating moments that are embedded into our being. Earlier this evening, as FB is so capable of doing, I was blessed to see images of my beautiful cousin, Suzanne. The images brought to life again the unparalleled beauty, the captivating goodness, and the wonderful empathy I remember of her as we grew up. She was angelic, almost other-worldly, and yet she was as strong and capable as she was gentle and ethereal. Those are the things I see even today in her eyes, her smile and her beauty. In early June, she would be 65. I know her sisters and Randy miss her deeply and profoundly, but she is part of them; they live their lives in a manner that provides more to enhance her memory than they might know. Suzanne, if you know from where you are what I write, may I offer this humbly: I too miss you and your kindness and beauty were more important to me as I struggled to find joy as a child. Your acceptance of your small, meek, and frightened cousin, and the love of you and your sisters did more to give me hope than I ever realized. I was in awe of all of you, but we (you and I) were closest in age. I remember your voice, your indefatigable smile, and your gentle goodness. I am still realizing how astounding you were. Thank you for those memories. Thank you for the goodness you imparted to your remaining sisters. They are incredible ambassadors of your goodness, and simultaneously amazing each in their own way. My life is profoundly better because they are back in my life. The choice of the video below, which is a from the group Celtic Woman, reminds me of listening to music that was not always mainstream with Kim, the now matriarch of the Pilgrim girls. What I have re-learned about them in the last year and a half is how incredibly talented and aware they are of their world. The intro to the sound is moving apropos. This is in that spirit.
In spite of all the health issues in my life, I continue to live. I have been blessed, for reasons unbeknownst to me, to continue on this side of the line between here and the other. Perhaps one of the reasons is to write about what crosses my mind about this life. As I finish this post, all I know is I believe we are all called to gently lift a parting glass. Suzanne, to you, your wonderful parents, Don and Virginia, and your beautiful sisters: good [day] and joy be to you all. I love you.
To everyone else, thanks for reading.