Today I turn 49 years old – the same age my dad was when he died. Any of you who have a parent who died at an early age will understand. That “year of death” can be pretty creepy.
You start re-evaluating all your health habits (or lack thereof), reassessing where you are in life, how much you’ve accomplished and what it would be like if everything just stopped right there and you never accomplished anything again on earth. You find yourself doing weird things like repeatedly taking your pulse, measuring your breath, and rushing to the mirror several times a day to look for signs of paling. Suddenly relationships start taking on a whole new importance and you begin sorting people into the “will miss me” and “won’t miss me” category. Cemeteries aren’t something you just mindlessly pass by on your way to do errands anymore. Everything takes on new significance because this is the year.
I laughed my three older siblings through the year, calling them superstitious and superficial. “God will take you when he wants you, no matter how old you are,” I chuckled smuggly. Yeah, I ain’t chuckling no more. Now it’s my year.
What’s worse is that my year has a few added dimensions. When my dad died, I was 15 years old, the youngest of four siblings – three girls and one boy – who preceded me by 7, 9, and 11 years. They’d all moved out of house by the time Dad died and I was pretty much the only one home most of the time. My oldest brother was 26 when Dad died.
Our youngest son will be 15 this year, the youngest of four siblings – three boys and one girl – who precede him by 5, 8, and 10 years. The first two are completely out of the house and the third is pretty close to that, since he works mega hours and is barely home anymore. So, number four is pretty much the only home most of the time. My oldest son will be 25 this year.
The parallels are a bit uncanny at best, and I’m already itching to head for the mirror to do a complexion check. I already measured my pulse. It’s fine, if not a little slow for lack of enough morning coffee.
I may be somewhat flip, but there really is something to the year. You just can’t help but wonder what it would be like if you died at the same age as your parent, and when that year is staring you in the face your mind heads in interesting directions.
When I was 15, 49 seemed pretty old. Now that I’m 49, it seems pretty darn young! As I look around and see all the unfinished projects, all the waiting obligations, all the responsibilities, my friends, my family, my husband, my children…I realize that Dad was at about the same stage in his life when he died as I am in mine right now. His life was in full swing when he passed away.
A couple of months before he died, Dad sat down at the dining room table with all of us kids and had a frank, heart-to-heart with us. Whether or not he sensed he was nearing death at that point, I won’ t know until I meet up with him again in heaven. He spoke to and about each of us, citing our gifts, strengths, and talents and encouraging us in whatever goals we’d want to pursue in life. I remember distinctly one line of the conversation:
“If I died right now, I wouldn’t have to worry about you kids because I know you’ve got what it takes to make it.”
Whew. That’s a high standard to live up to, but one I’ve continued to keep before myself all these years.
When Mark and I celebrated our 25th Wedding Anniversary, I still had nearly three years before the year. But, I didn’t want to wait – I took the occasion to do the same for my kids as Dad did for my siblings and I. Being a writer, I put it in a letter that the priest con-celebrating our Anniversary Mass read right before we repeated our vows. Almost everyone in the church as crying by the time Father had finished reading. I think I might have embarrassed the kids a little, but I’m glad I did it nonetheless. Now that it’s the year, I’ll find a way to do it again.
And again, because I have a feeling I’m not going anywhere for a good long time. Of course, depending on how crazy I drive them, my family may or may not see that as a blessing. But I do, because I have the example of my father to follow. I know from experience that life can end ever-so-abruptly. I also know the astounding impact a parent’s simple statement can have on a child’s heart. I’ve carried Dad’s in mine, and I hope my children carry mine in theirs.
Just to be sure, I’ll be repeating it again and again – until they get sick of it. Because, even when they do, once I really am gone they’ll appreciate its importance. I’d do anything to hear that gravely old voice tell me again about my uncontainable “moxie”.
The same goes for the other people in my life. Rather than spend the year in fretful expectation, I’m going to spend it in joyful anticipation. God has given me so very much for which to be thankful and I often forget about it all in lieu of that one miserable thing that’s eating at me. I forget about all the fantastic people in my life because I’m grumping about the ones who’ve ticked me off. I forget about all the good things I have because I pout about the things I don’t. I forget to show appreciation for my family’s awesome qualities because I’m moping about my own shortcomings. I forget to celebrate all the wonderful things I have done and can do because I’m focused on the things I can’t.
One day I really won’t be able to thank, appreciate, and celebrate and I want that to truly sink into my thick skull during the next 12 months. I don’t want the year to go by without having somehow been positively changed by it. The same goes for the people around me. May they be changed by my year so that they can be changed by theirs.