One of today's more overworked clichés is "senior moment," a phrase apparently coined by Rochester's own Dick Dougherty. What he means by it I'm not sure, but for me it suggests that as we grow older we sometimes lose track of things - like our sense of reality. While one can debate whether or not the term is degrading to "senior" citizens, I have found it a useful way to remind myself of the inevitable aging process, which leads inexorably to death.
Now death is not a topic one wants to introduce around the barbecue, or at graduation parties or otherwise "happy hours." But it is a topic we ought to introduce in church, because our faith must sustain us through the whole life process, of which death is part.
As I grow older I confess I entertain a certain fear of death, especially the process of late-stage dying, but I am trying to integrate the reality of death into my philosophy of life. I want to make death friendlier - not an enemy, but a stage of the spiritual journey.
Memorial Day weekend seems like a good time to talk about ultimate and inevitable things - like life and death. As a minister I deal with death on a continuing basis. Not a day goes by but what I am reminded that human beings are merely guests of existence.
I think of a Jewish story from the last century, in which a tourist from the United States visited the famous Polish rabbi Hafez Hayyim. He was astonished to see that the rabbi's home was only a simple room filled with books. The only furniture was a table and a bench.
"Rabbi, where is your furniture?" asked the tourist.
"Where is yours?" replied Hafez.
"Mine? But I'm only a visitor here."
"So am I," said the rabbi.
While it is virtually impossible to realize what the world would be like without us, it most assuredly will be - it will go on - the universe unfolds as it should. We are then merely guests of existence, thrown without our consent into the Great Scheme of Things. Then we are left to make the best we can out of what we are given. All of us are visitors.
I've had enough "senior moments" lately to focus on my own mortality. While in Boston with our Religion in Life group we went to a fascinating and moving, albeit "R" rated movie on human relationships, gay and straight, "The Object of My Affection." I can't recall who it was who pointed out that I qualified for a "senior citizen" discount. I'm not sure the $1.45 was worth the shock of it all.
The "ravages" of age, however, are evidently coming home to roost. Helena and I were returning from the St. Lawrence District meeting a few weeks ago when we stopped at Wendy's. She placed her order and waited. I asked for a cup of hot chocolate. The young waitress, obviously confused, asked me, "will this be a 'senior drink'?" "What do you mean?" I asked innocently, until the truth dawned on me as Helena howled with laughter. Pennies or pride? I took my discount.
Recently I heard a report on National Public Radio by one of their crack young "twenty or thirty something" reporters. In the course of her story, which I've since forgotten I was so upset, she talked about "an elderly man in his late 60's." Whoa! Wait just a minute. I'm less than a decade from my "late 60's" and I certainly don't feel "elderly," whatever that means.
Finally, on Sunday, May 3, came the coupe de gras. I read the announcement I had been given for the last Coffee House of the season - "$3 for children and seniors, $4 for the rest of us." I confess I was stunned when the congregation burst into laughter, only seconds later realizing the cause. Some will say I am in deep denial that I am a "senior." But at least I can still laugh at the latest "senior moments". When I stop laughing, I'll know I'm in trouble. When life ceases to be "fun" in the broadest sense of being glad I am alive, I'll know the dying process has begun, though in a sense it had begun from the moment I was born.
You no doubt remember the sermon in which I quoted poet W. H. Auden to the effect that each of us imagines ourselves at a fixed age, no matter what the truth is. In case you hadn't already guessed, I'm 35.
Recently one among you sent me a thoughtful Native American myth that helps me to deal with my daily dying. The boy Anpao has a conversation with a solitary old man who likens death to Deer woman, who in all her terror, is so beautiful she is worth dying for. Anpao didn't want to think about it - as few of us do. As the old man says to the young, "You need not think about it ... it will think about you. It will happen whether you think about it or not."
Anpao doesn't want to hear any more, and says to the old man as he departs, "It is a wonder that you want to stay alive if you feel like that. Nothing makes any sense if everything has to end." "No," says the old man, "the wonder is that it has happened at all."
The wonder is that it has happened at all. I confess that in this strange business of ministry I get discouraged about death. I see so much pre-mature death - infants, youth, adults at the zenith of life - so much suffering, so much tragedy, that at times it weighs me down. I look at our Memorial Wall and Garden from my office window every working day, and while remarking at its beauty, I am reminded of so many wonderful people whose ashes are scattered there.
I stand for a moment at the memorial plaque in the Susan B. Anthony Lounge and read the names with birth and death dates of those same people - and I admit to moments of depression. Then my eye carries down to the lovingly prepared looseleaf notebook which has a page for each of those persons - with a characteristic picture and a short biography, reminding me that each of those brass plaques represents a unique human life.
Then I am reminded that my sadness at the loss of these people - and I knew them all - grows directly out of the joy inherent in their lives. I cannot say it better than has the Persian mystical poet Kahlil Gibran, "the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.... When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight."
This is the terrible paradox of loving to live and having to die. No matter how we try to redefine the meaning of life, it has these three elements: we are born, live for a time, and die. And while it is tempting to complain about the brevity of our existence, with Annie Dillard I say that the prayer of the dying - and in a way that's all of us - is not "please" but "thank you." "The wonder is that it has happened at all."
Now, there is an alternative to accepting one's fate - quarreling with it. And I have quarreled with Fate many times - mostly vicariously - for I have witnessed lives snuffed out much, much too early. I have witnessed the unevenness with which the scythe of death has cut down too many people in their prime as I could only helplessly stand by trying to comfort them and their families.
No doubt they quarrel with their fate too, though I have been so often moved by the equanimity and courage with which these people have ultimately accepted their fate and eased the way for those of us who must follow.
We all want to live until we are finished with life. This may at first sound obvious, but think about it. We have life tasks we wish to complete, life experiences we wish to have, relationships we wish to deepen, before we take our leave. Death is not tragic, but dying before we have finished living is. We cannot all say with Pope John the 23rd, "My bags are packed, and I am ready to go."
Our temptation as we age is to measure our lives, not so much from birth as from death. "How many years do I have left?" we ask, realizing poignantly that every day we awaken we are one day nearer to our final sleep. As we grow older, however, the meanings deepen and we come to understand time - not as a line with birth and death defining each end - but by the significance of each precious moment. In the linear understanding of life we live by the clock and the calendar - not by meanings. There is linear time and there is meaning time. As linear time shortens - meaning time deepens.
And what are the meanings that sustain my understanding of life and death? Well, I know I am privileged to be a visitor, a guest of existence, and I am grateful. I have come to more fully appreciate the wonder that it has happened at all.
I know I am an imperceptible, but miraculous part of a great stream of being which began long before me and will flow on long after I am gone. I can but add my little tributary to time's mighty river.
I know that the older I get and the closer to the end, my life grows in intensity - I feel things more deeply - I experience life more poignantly - I treasure moments more fully. In many ways life is better because I think I am closer to the heart of it.
I know that it is easier for me to say these things in the throes of relative health and happiness than in the coming days when health will fade and happiness will be challenged. I can only hope I will be as convincing to myself then as I am now.
I know that the coming years can be full of glory because I have observed so many people who live with grace and courage to the very end of their days.
If only all those people who die gracefully could know the gift they give to those of us who try to comfort them.
I know that I want to die as gracefully and with as much dignity as I can muster. I often fear that I may become an incalculable burden to others, as I become more dependent than independent. Yet I live in the hope that the meaning of my life will help shape my dying days and those who must care for me will find meaning in helping me into the Great Beyond. I have had the opportunity to care for those at the end of life and I need to accept the opportunity to be cared for as my turn comes.
I know that I do not want my life lengthened by heroic measures destined to postpone death more than to enhance life. I give thanks to those of the medical profession, to friends and family, who understand this. And I know that one of my great gifts to them is to inform them of my wishes now.
I know that death may end life, but not relationship. Those loved ones who have gone before me live in me still with memories etched in love. Every time I work at our Finger Lakes cottage, I remember those wonderful days when my father and I shared some of the best times we had together. And I know that what I am able to make of my life - here and now - will not be forgotten. At least a few will remember. I am assured of my immortality in words said, deeds done, and love loved. I ask for no more. I expect no more.
I know that my mission is not to fear death, but to fear the inadequate life. My best preparation for my ultimate departure is to live my life with intensity and joy while I may.
I know that the "paradox of life is to love it all the time though we ultimately lose it." These are some of the learnings from my "senior moments," which makes them feel not quite so bad. Unitarian Universalist author Peter Fleck had one such "senior moment" when he recalled the words of his oldest daughter at age 5 to her 4-year-old sister, who had anxiously inquired about dying: "It's nothing to be afraid of. It's just as if you were invited somewhere, and it's getting late and you go to the hostess and you say, 'Thank you for the wonderful party, I really enjoyed myself, but now it is time to go home.'"
Well, for us the wonderful party is not yet over. It is always time to enjoy ourselves, to make a difference, and to be ready to go home when it is time.