The end of one life reminds us that our time is always too short
By Frederick Niedner Valparaiso University professor of theology March 2, 2012 11:36PM
Updated: April 4, 2012 8:02AM
On a recent Saturday, I joined in giving thanks for the life of a gracious, spirited woman who had died at the age of 96.
Born before World War I, she’d come of age in the Great Depression, wed as World War II began, spent her first years of marriage praying for a husband serving somewhere in the Pacific, and raised her children amid the tensions of the 1950s and the growing tumult of the 1960s. In more recent years, before a stroke slowed and finally stopped her pen, she made certain no grandchild’s or great-grandchild’s birthday or special achievement went unnoticed.
We sang her favorite hymns and listened as her pastor and family members told stories about her cooking, her courage and her love. As at every funeral, voices choked and eyes filled with tears. Mostly, these were tears of thanks.
This is how life should proceed, going through a span of threescore years and 10, plus a bonus decade or so, with children and grandchildren singing a tired old soul over to the other side at the end.
Years of practice at reading between the lines on the obituary pages serves up repeated reminders that not far away, perhaps at the same hour, other families found words hard to come by as they gathered to say their good-byes and console each other. There, the tears tasted of heartbreak and bewilderment. The stories bore words of gratefulness and courage, but they also searched for threads of meaning that for the moment seemed far away.
Perhaps by some measure we scarcely comprehend, all the lives celebrated on that Saturday, or any other day, had reached completion. Still, when we must bury someone whose story spans only a few summers in the sun, we feel betrayed. The universe has tipped over, a sacred promise seemingly broken. When it falls to parents and grandparents to remember a suddenly absent child’s fleeting sweetness, first words, and small steps of exploration that should have led much further, the world’s gears have somehow lurched into reverse.
What does life mean when one of us witnesses a century while another sees but a few days — and all the safety measures in the world can’t guarantee which life we get?
On the Wednesday following that Saturday of funerals, Christians throughout the world knelt to have ashes smeared on their foreheads while hearing some of the oldest, truest words of scripture addressed to them one by one: “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
With each passing year, I get nearer to believing that sobering reminder. Its intention, of course, is to prompt the faithful to “number our days and apply our hearts unto wisdom.” The mystery of our exquisite joys mingled with knowledge of our certain mortality makes a particular piece of wisdom worth pursuing in this season, one that could be part of any religion.
Half consciously, we let ourselves assume that everyone around us will live to 96. In truth, however, any one of us could sleep away this very night. We’d likely drive each other crazy by making every meal a last supper and each farewell a final good-bye, but in these next weeks, what if we imagined, especially when annoyed with someone whose life intersects with our own in complex ways, the stories of gratitude we might one day share at a funeral?
Even if we never get to tell them, forming and pondering those stories may prevent our thanklessly wasting whatever precious moments we still have together on this side of that dusty boundary line.