Hugh Prather, an author who I’ve never heard of until just this moment, was quoted as saying “Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes.” You know, this just seems to sum up the jumble of thoughts running around my brain these days so perfectly. Lately I’ve been thinking about life and changes and how it doesn’t seem to matter what we think our plan is for our life, life has a way of making its own plan for us.
Twenty six months ago, I was sitting in a skilled nursing home attempting a visit with my mother. She was fading fast, and we were playing that waiting game of which many of us who have lost parents are too familiar. I guess the thing that sticks in my mind was that the experience seemed so unreal, like I was watching someone else’s life on fast forward. Just nine months earlier, she was frail but semi-independent. She was still driving, and we were moving her from her own home into an assisted living residence. Although we knew she was not in the best of health and was showing ever-increasing signs of dementia, we had high hopes that the social atmosphere would be a rejuvenating experience for her. We could not have been more wrong. She resisted being helped by the staff, resisted the schedule that was imposed on her for eating and taking medications, and she resisted socializing with the other residents. A particularly virulent strain of the norovirus was circulating in 2012 and it swept through the residence like a F5 tornado, knocking her flat for three weeks. She was never the same, and then the falls started happening. Our struggles with the medical system are a topic for another blog post. Suffice to say, we suspect that her final fall was the result of some sort of stroke or stroke-like event, but it was never confirmed. But afterward, she was completely taken over by dementia and was transferred into a skilled nursing facility. Two months and a broken hip later, her body was shutting down and there I was, wondering how we had come to this point this fast. The doubts crept in. What if we hadn’t talked her into moving into the assisted living residence? What if we had chosen a different residence? What if, what if, what if, what if, what if…
You know, when you’re coasting through life on cruise, you hear about this stuff happening to other people’s’ parents. You read about other people’s’ children dying from chronic diseases or cancer. Other people get divorced or struggle from substance dependence…. not members of our own family. And why is it that when these things finally happen to you or to those close to you, they seem to come on like a landslide, one after another? You scratch your head and wonder “Where did my life go? Will it EVER be the same?” Sometimes you even start losing your own identity. I’m an orphan. I’m not Mary’s daughter any more. Or, I’m not so-and-so’s wife or husband any more. Couples are often identified by their friends and acquaintances as “JohnandMarySmith”, “JaneandMichaelJones”. Take your hammer and chisel and drive them right through that nomenclature and feel the pain that it inflicts on that couple and the people closest to them.
The thing is, nobody promised us a rose garden on the day we were born. We are equipped with God-given strengths and weaknesses for just this reason. It is how we use these strengths and weaknesses in times of trial that often will determine how we survive them. The thing is, nobody is in possession of 100% of the strengths needed to survive life’s greatest trials. That’s why we were all created as unique beings. That’s right folks, we are all in this great journey of life together. It is the true measure of wisdom and strength to know when to reach out to those who can fill in the cracks of our weakness and ask for help, just as it is equally up to us to offer ourselves to others in need.
The thing is, for every Yin, there is a Yang. As horrible as you may be feeling, as heart-broken as you are, life also has a way of revealing beauty to us in our moments of deepest despair. The sudden death of my 10 year-old nephew in December of 2013 brought our family together for the first time in years to celebrate the life of a child who truly was beautiful. As sad as it was, I couldn’t help but think that he was smiling in heaven, watching us all together, with family members who hadn’t been close in years forging new bonds and new beginnings. As sad as it was to lose my Mom, I knew then and I know now that she is so very happy in heaven, reunited with my Dad and her sisters and her own mother.
Change. What will the rest of my life be like now that my only child is departing to another city for good, to start her new life after college graduation? The heaviness of thinking about missing her will be with me for a while. The challenge of filling the space, the “empty nest”, because somehow, four years of college in a city six hours away has not totally prepared me for this….. feels very real to me. And yet, I can’t deny the excitement I feel for her. Yin and Yang.
Life is about change. Change is the very definition of living. People get sick, people die. Couples get married, couples divorce. Jobs end. Careers change. Sometimes change is planned, most of the time these days, it isn’t. We are so goal-driven in our society that change can come crashing down on us out of nowhere like a ton of bricks. It can be scary, exhilarating or flat-out painful. Sometimes it just gets to be so overwhelming that we wonder if this life we’ve been given is even worth it. And then, just when you think you’ve reached the end of your rope, something amazing happens that turns everything around. Often, the amazing is not readily apparent. The Lord wants us to work for it, you know. If it were always that easy, we’d spend our entire lives in the Kindergarten sandbox. Nope. It will not always be handed to you on a silver platter, folks. Ask for it. Look for it.
So, then, I just figured that since I started this stuff off with a quote, I might end it with a quote and a dialogue from one of my favorite movies, one that is chock full of life lessons:
[Gil has been complaining about his complicated life; Grandma wanders into the room]
Grandma: You know, when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster.
Grandma: Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride!
Gil: <sarcastically> What a great story.
Grandma: I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.
Life is a roller coaster, friends. Ride it. Enjoy it.