“By God! I don’t Know!” – A Post on Aging


We were sitting Kurdish style on the floor, a kerosene stove pumping out heat to keep us warm in the solid concrete building, when the subject of age came up. We were all in good spirits after enjoying a hearty meal of Yaprak, assorted vegetables stuffed with rice and meat and cooked in a lemon sauce, and had begun to drink hot, sweet tea. In Kurdistan, it is not rude to ask someone their age. First it was our host telling us how old he was, then it came to my husband and myself. The younger members of the family all chimed in – 18, 21, 23, 33, 28 – the numbers were called out like a Bingo game at a Catholic Church hall. Finally it was the mom of the house. “How old are you?” said one of her sons. We all looked at her, waiting expectantly.

“By God! I don’t know!” She said. We burst out laughing. I repeated the words after her in Kurdish, marveling at them and wanting to memorize the phrase. The conversation quickly turned to much more important things, like the weather and when the pregnant daughter-in-law would give birth, but I kept on thinking about her response.

What a great response to the question of age! Age is so fickle and so contrary. Time is already a cruel dictator, why must age also be? This woman might not have known her age, but she sure knew that it didn’t matter. “By God! I don’t know!” So many things were said in that one statement!

It doesn’t matter!

Let’s get on with it!

Who cares?

Let’s talk about something else!

It’s just age!

There are a million ways to interpret that one statement!

I turned 59 years old yesterday. Unlike my new friend, I do know how many years I’ve lived. 59 years around the sun. 59 years of trying to figure out what this life is all about. 59 years of growing and hurting and laughing and loving. 59 years of eating, sleeping, and participating in the mundane of life, only to learn that none of it is really mundane – it’s all sacred.

59 years of learning to forgive and working to live at peace. 59 years of learning that discontentment creates far more wrinkles than the sun and envy rots the soul. 59 years of learning the value of friendship and family. 59 years of learning how to live out of abundance not scarcity. 59 years of laughter and joy, 59 years of sadness and tears.

I have birthed five babies on three continents and watched them grow into young adults with their own dreams and sadness and joy. I have lived in four different countries and learned to count to ten and bargain in several different languages. I have hurt people and people have hurt me. I have loved people and people have loved me. I have had days where my stomach ached with laughter and other days where my heart ached with tears. And the days have turned into years and they have both slipped away – sometimes with a lot of drama and other times quietly, like a background person in a television show. You see them, and then they’re gone.

Last night, after birthday cake and a sweet offering of presents from my husband, we watched a couple of episodes of a television show that we have been following during this rainy, Kurdish winter. During a dream sequence, the grandmother in the show is talking to the mom who died two years previously. She is talking about getting older. As they sit companionably on a twin bed in the grandmother’s bedroom, she contemplates aging.

The days slip under the closet and disappear.

Shtisel

These words describe so well the journey of aging. You blink and the days have gone under the closet, never to be retrieved. Unlike dust balls that gather unwanted but always present, the days turn into years and disappear. They slip under the closet and into the memories that each us have, creating tapestries of people, events, and conversations, each tapestry as unique as its owner’s fingerprints.

This past year has taught me much about faith, advocacy, resilience, hope, and joy. I have learned and I have grown. And then just like that, it slipped under the closet and disappeared.  

The Life of a Good Man

The life of a good man who has died belongs to the people who cared about him, and ought to, and maybe itself is as much comfort as ought to be asked or offered. And surely the talk of a reunion in Heaven is thin comfort to people who need each other here as much as we do.“*

It was a year ago today that I knew my father would soon die. I had seen him just one weekend before, but even through phone calls I knew he was nearing the end of his life on earth. The last time I spoke with him was a year ago today.

Usually he said a few words and then passed me on to my mom. He was tired, and we all know that phone communication is not easy in the best of times. This time my mom was not around, and I am so grateful. We talked longer than usual. I don’t remember all we said – when the relationship is good, the communication between a Dad and his daughter is comfortable and significantly insignificant. But I do remember that he said this: “It’s a strange thing, this dying. You don’t know when the Lord will take you. You just have to be ready.” They are sweet words of a man who loved his Lord. They are sweet words to remember.

On October 24, just four days later, my dad died. I received a text in the morning on that day. I was at work. The text was from my mom. “It seems that Dad has left us.”

And he had. It was not a dramatic death. It was just a leaving. My brother was walking him to the breakfast table.

“Just seven more steps Dad.”

“I don’t think I can go on”

And just like that, he was gone.

There are so many things I want to tell him. So many things that have happened. I want him to know that Stef and Will are engaged. I want him to know that Annie and Ryan are having another baby. I want him to know that Lauren and Sheldon are having another baby. I want him to know that Tim and Kim are in Saudi Arabia, that their family has expanded to include Baby Alina – Allie. I want him to know that we moved to Kurdistan. I want him to know that Mom is doing so well; that she is amazing and though she misses him more than she would ever let us know, she continues to love and pray and care for this big family scattered across the globe.

I piously want to let him know that his many Bibles are with various grand children, that one is in Thailand with Lauren and seeing it in a recent picture made me cry. I wickedly want him to know that his desk is gone! That his wife carefully went through his things, shedding tears and nodding smiles, but that the desk itself that we jokingly called the family heirloom is gone.

It’s not all good news. There is plenty of heartache to go around, but he would want to know those things as well. Because he didn’t shun heartache – he took it in, and it troubled him. But he knew where to take it. He gave heartache and joy to God, one for the burden lifting, the other for the gratitude.

I have felt his presence deeply this past month, partially through a calendar of family pictures, partially through those memories that naturally emerge during anniversaries.

In all this, I would not want to bring him back. My understanding of God and eternity tells me that though we may have beautiful glimpses of eternity in this life, we see only dimly. When we see face to face we will be astonished at the beauty that awaits us. Physically he suffered, his body was hurting and he is free from a cough that was painful and debilitating. He, who was always so strong, was weak and tired. And now, he who did not dance is dancing with angels. My heart grows larger just thinking about it.

Loss is a strange thing, and the loss of one who is old and has led a life of service, love, and forgiveness is not mourned as a tragedy, but it is still mourned. Mourned for the missing of his smile and laugh, of his prayers and jokes, of his elephant dance and his place in our big, extended family. He is mourned for the father he was – steady, principled, rock solid, with a smile that went to his bones. Mourned that his laughter is no longer our benediction at family gatherings. He is also remembered as one who first loved God, then loved my mom, then loved his family.

So today, I remember. With a grateful heart and some tears I remember his life and his death. I remember the last time we spoke, and I am so grateful that of all the words that could have been said, my last words to him were “I love you Dad.”

“I don’t believe that grief passes away. It has its time and place forever. More time is added to it; it becomes a story within a story. But grief and griever alike endure.– Wendell Berry


*Wendell Berry A Place on Earth

Losing My Umbrella – Some Thoughts on a Father’s Death

img_0490

I am looking through old pictures when my eyes begin to blur with salty tears. So many of the pictures I’ve been looking through are pictures of my father.

Whether summer or winter, there he is – his familiar face with his ready smile. My dad smiled from his bones. It was never fake, never false, it was who he was. I look at pictures from years ago and pictures from last summer with seemingly little difference. He is there, he is strong, he is fully present, he is smiling.

When your father dies, say the Irish

You lose your umbrella against bad weather.

This is the beginning of a poem by Diana Der-Hovanessian that describes how different cultures express what happens when your father dies. It’s a good beginning. Anyone who has lost their father can write their own when my father died moments. In honor of his birthday coming up on June 7th, here are mine.


When my father died, I lost a rock, someone who was steadfast and secure in a shifting world.

When my father died, I lost the offer of a bowl of icecream whenever I visited.

When my father died, I lost someone who asked me every weekend of the summer “Are you heading up to Rockport this weekend?” How he loved Rockport!

When my father died, I lost the ability to say “Hi Dad!” and hear his strong reply “Hi Marilyn!”

When my father died, I lost his well-worn jokes, told with so much laughter he could hardly make it to the punch line.

When my father died, I lost a piece of enthusiasm and love for life.

When my father died, I lost a birthday and a father’s day. There will be no more cards to send, phone calls to make.

When my father died, I lost one grandfather for my kids. I lost his earthly prayers, but his heavenly ones remain.

When my father died, I lost pieces of my childhood, now buried in a piece of earth.

When my father died, I lost my umbrella, my raincoat, and my hood. He was all those things and more.

When my father died, I lost his presence, but I kept the memories and they are sweet.

When my father died, I lost him, but I didn’t lose myself – because he never wanted me to be anyone else.

When my father died, Heaven became a lot sweeter and a bit closer.

When my father died. 


SHIFTING THE SUN by Diana Der-Hovanessian

 When your father dies, say the Irish

you lose your umbrella against bad weather.

May his sun be your light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Welsh

you sink a foot deeper into the earth.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians

When your father dies, say the Canadians

you run out of excuses.

May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Indians

he comes back as the thunder.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Russians,

he takes your childhood with him.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the British,

you join his club you vowed you wouldn’t.

May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Armenians,

your sun shifts forever

and you walk in his light.

Fearfully & Wonderfully Body Scanned

doctors-office-1944117_1920

“Take off all of my clothes?” My voice intonates the last word as a question, rather like a child who asks her teacher if she has to complete all of the homework assignment.

I am sitting on an exam table under fluorescent lights in a clinic.  I feel cold, not only because it is an unseasonably cold April, but also because there is a deep loneliness associated with clinic visits and full body scans.

You lie naked as a stranger examines every bit of your skin. They concentrate on freckles, moles, and imperfections with frowns and furrowed brows. A magnifying glass assists them on the troubling areas and a computer helps them document what they see.

I feel an indignity as I wait, a feeling of vulnerability and loss. An indignity manifest in a naked body, the words of Adam and Eve reverberating through the centuries “I was naked and ashamed.”

I am acutely conscious of my own frailty and humanity during these times. I am astute at covering my imperfections, at dressing and acting my part in the world where I daily interact. But these moments erase all of that.

And yet, I have come here voluntarily. I have come here because I know that a short time of discomfort is far better than a diagnosis of a skin cancer. I know this well because a few years ago I was diagnosed with a skin cancer. Caught early, I now bear a beautiful scar, a war wound of sorts reminding me that scars are evidence of battles fought and souls made stronger.

We live in a world where our aging bodies betray us and tell a different story than the story that we feel. We watch as through the years people begin to respond to us differently. First, we are masters of the universe, we are young, and we are beautiful in our youth, even if we are not beautiful in our looks. We walk through this time with little thought to the older among us, or to the ones who have bodies that do not work as ours do. We may interact with a grandmother or a cute, elderly neighbor, but in our age-segregated society, we do not really know them. Out of embarrassment, discomfort, or just plain ignorance we avoid those who are trapped in bodies that do not function the same as ours do.

Then middle age comes along and the jokes begin. “Look how she’s aged” we whisper with giggles, certain that we don’t bear those same marks. But then, we catch sight of ourselves in car windows, and we wonder who we are and how we got so old, so fast. We continue to live, but the reflection that looked back at us from the car window showed us a reality that we would rather avoid.

And then the phone calls begin to come. One friend has had a heart attack; another friend is given four months to live when cancer is found throughout their body. Friends are diagnosed with diabetes and heart disease, arthritis, and cataracts. Funerals that used to be for others are now for us and ours.

We are eternal souls in temporary bodies that will need a new heaven and a new earth to redeem a broken process.

We still think we are immune – except for those now yearly physicals or body scans, where we lie naked before God and a stranger. Perhaps it is in those undignified moments that we realize that we aren’t so different from our friends. Then someday, the phone call will be about us. It’s in those times that we realize the reality of our humanity. Our scars, our freckles, and our moles on our earth suits are more pronounced, and we wonder how it will all end.

My faith tradition affirms that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made”.  And I don’t think that just means the young and able among us. Even as those who are fearfully and wonderfully made, we still need medical exams and physicals, body scans and preventive health checkups. We who are fearfully and wonderfully made need to brush our teeth and wash our bodies, eat healthy foods and exercise. In coming to earth in a human body, Jesus too was bound by his earth suit. He got hungry, tired, and dirty. He needed food, rest, and soap. He watched people get sick and die, and he didn’t heal all of them.

We are eternal souls in temporary bodies that will need a new heaven and a new earth to redeem a broken process.

How does one embrace every stage of life, appreciating what was and what is? How does one move gracefully through these seasons, putting trust in the Creator not the created; believing that there is something profoundly beautiful in our aging bodies? What does a theology of aging look like? What does holiness look like as I face my birthday and my body scan every year?

Before I have figured out the answers to those questions, the body scan is over. I am told that I don’t need to come back for another year. I am left alone with my body and my thoughts in a room that is still cold.

I get up and get dressed, inhaling a breath of thanksgiving. I am fearfully and wonderfully body scanned, and right now, that is enough.

An Old Love

mom and dad

Every night before they went to sleep, my dad would kiss my mom. Even during his final month of life, when he was feeling weaker by the day, the last thing my dad did before he fell asleep was kiss my mom goodnight. They would pray and then he would kiss her. He knew that time was running out and so he got his kisses in before death came and separated them.

My dad was 91 when he died, my mom 89. “I’m so glad we had nothing between us. There were no regrets.” My mom has a far off look in her eyes as she tells me this. They were one in body and spirit, a tremendous heritage to give those who come after you.

Their love was an old love, but it hadn’t always been that way. Old photographs showed their young love, crinkled with time. A faded wedding picture, honeymoon pictures of a young couple by a lake and that same couple climbing a mountain are all evidence that they were young once.

But the years came, and with them five children, then daughters and son-in-law, grandchildren, and finally great grandchildren. Before they could catch their breath, they had an old love.

Old loves are free from the false expectations of youth.  Old love passes by newsstands featuring glossy magazines with covers that guarantee sleek, well-chiseled bodies, amazing sex, and “real love”.  While the images suck others in like dust in a vacuum, old love is oblivious. The world’s obsession with “young lust” and “young love” does not faze them. They travel as beloved ones in their own world, a world that knows better.

I will remember these love gifts forever.  The look my mom would give my dad, a look that whispers so confidently of care and shared understanding that even strangers would know this was born of a lifetime of loving. Or my dad, his formerly strong body broken, still looking out for my mom’s safety.

Theirs was a love that had died a million small deaths to self and false expectations. It was a love that saw others as better than self, and gave people bouquets of forgiveness, something far more costly than roses. It was a love that understood the hard process of aging, and the losses that come with it.

My eyes mist over as I remember their old love; wordless stories of a lifetime of sacrifice and trial; hurt and healing; misunderstanding and forgiveness. Their old love may have limped at the end, but it shouted of strength.

There are many times when my dad wistfully talked about an inheritance and how he wished that he could leave his kids and grandkids more money.  But he left us so much more. He left us a lifetime of loving my mom and that is enough.


 

This is 58

It’s my birthday. One week ago I woke up in a foul mood. It was a mood rife with I hate life and life hates me. I hated who i had been; I hated who I was; I hated who I would become. I began to believe my feelings were truth.

Thankfully I have people in my life who won’t allow me to wallow. (Things like “Snap out of it, ya big baby” might have been said by family members.) Sometimes you need empathy and other times you need to “snap out of it, ya big baby!”

So today I’m here to talk about 58.

What is 58?

It’s a massive thank you to a Mom who birthed me, nurtured me, and continues to love and challenge me in ways she will never know.

It’s a Dad whose memory is eternal; who lived life well until the day his body could no longer go on.

It’s four brothers who live around the world; who model tenacity, joy, and faithfulness to me and to their families. It’s four brothers who teased me mercilessly when I was little, and have my back now that I am older.

It’s four sister-in-laws who love well, who have raised amazing children, who continue to wrestle with the big and hard questions of parenting and faith.

It’s nieces and nephews who I would kill for; who are opera singers and nurses; diplomats and day care owners, who make the world a better place for you and me to live in.

It’s a husband who makes me laugh every, single day. A man who can make friends with an inanimate object like a wall and make that wall feel special, not to mention the people he befriends from around the world. A man who tells stories in virtual reality, prays for and loves his children so much it hurts, and will remember the names of refugees long after he has met them. A man who affirms my writing, challenges my faith, and prays with me every night.

58 is four (no five) adult children who are smart, passionate, and gifted. Who meet the challenges of life with stubborn resolve. 58 is the cutest grandson on ever earth who has a waddle toddle and is growing to be his own person.

58 is the dearest friends from here and around the world that a woman could ever hope for – friends who love the world and their families; who are not caught up in what culture says is worthy and instead fight for what is true, good, and right.

58 is cousins who live as far as Moscow and as close as Washington DC; cousins who are also friends.

58 is a creative job with often horrid bureaucracy; fighting for good healthcare for marginalized communities and pressing forward when it’s hard.

It’s colleagues who make me laugh hard, work harder, and allow me to get mad and cry.

58 is a body that sometimes betrays me, but responds pretty well when I treat it properly; it’s 10,000 steps a day because modern medicine allowed for a bionic hip; it’s wrinkles that I can only partially hide; it’s girlfriends laughing together because we never thought we’d have beards or boobs that hang to our knees. (The boobs that is)

58 is curling up on week nights and watching Stranger Things; it is knowing that grilled cheese served in candlelight with the man you’ve been through hell with is really great.

58 is a church community that I never thought possible; it is entering into Divine Liturgy with the blind, the lame, the deaf, and the troubled. It is working out my faith with a community of broken people, all desperately in need of the Eucharist.

It’s realizing that #metoo is no match for who I really am and no man can truly take away what God said is good;

58 is knowing in the depths of your soul that no matter what, you are God’s beloved and no amount of wrinkles, stretch marks, saggy boobs, or dementia will ever, ever take that away.

58 is you reading this and letting me know in a million creative ways that you care.

And 58 is a Mimosa, calls from Family and friends, and celebrating this thing called life — because tomorrow anything could happen.

58 is pure grace.

Also, I made a little video – watch it if you like!

Roll, Cut, Measure & Mix – Love, Legacy & Pie

 

img_3094img_3060

We celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend. Many of the extended family came from around the world to see my dad and get together as a family. Celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving was a great way to feed the family while we honored the Canadian side of our extended family.

All families have holiday traditions and ours is no exception. Every year at Thanksgiving my dad makes a winter fruit pie. None of us really know what’s in the pie. We just know three things: It is delicious, it is made with love, and it’s tradition. There’s also something about the fact that my dad makes it. He doesn’t generally cook or bake, so this makes it extra special. He goes out of his way to make this pie, and tradition has it that every year there is a secret ingredient, known only by the baker. We never know what that secret ingredient is (though some may say that the whole pie is one big secret ingredient.) We call it Grandpa’s Winter Fruit Pie.

As we were communicating about the weekend’s menu, my mom asked one question: Who will make Grandpa’s Winter Fruit Pie? 

My dad’s pie making days are over. He is on hospice and every breath he takes feels more precious. When I am with him, I watch anxiously as he sleeps in his recliner. I watch his breathing the way I used to watch my oncology patients, consciously noting the rhythm and depth, seeing how labored it is, watching for pain or discomfort. He no longer has the strength to roll, cut, measure and mix.

The task of baking this pie fell to me. The day before we left for Rochester, I rolled, cut, measured and mixed. With a bit of extra dough I cut out a small heart to put in the center of the pie. I then carefully traced a G for Grandpa in the middle of the heart. I brushed a bit of butter on the crust, and sprinkled it with sugar, just like the recipe told me to do. I put it in the oven – 450 degrees for 10 minutes, followed by a half hour at 375 degrees.

As I waited for the pie to bake I thought about my dad and about legacies. Legacies – those things that are handed down from generation to generation; a way to honor the past even as we live in the present. My dad is passing down a far greater legacy than pie. He is passing down a faith that has taken him through life and has not grown old. He is passing down trust in a God who he loves with all his heart, soul, and mind. He is passing down memories of loving and laughing well. But along with those intangible things, there are the tangible and one of them is Winter Fruit Pie.

Whether it be a legacy of pie or a legacy of faith, a legacy is not to be squandered. It’s to be taken reverently and used well. My pie will need a bit of work. It did not measure up to my dad’s. But that’s the thing with a legacy – we take it and we make it our own. We roll, cut, measure and mix so that we too will have something to leave to those who come after us.