“I never got to watch my parents get old,” my friend told me as we sat at his kitchen table. His parents both died when they were in their early 60’s. Cancer was the executioner. And although he’s outlived them now by several years, he feels like he missed out on watching them age.
I remember at the mortuary, looking at his body there on the table. My ex-husband. He was at the mortuary by choice and his own gun. He and I sorta grew up together since we had been high school sweethearts. We started dating when I was 16 and he was 17. But after 20 years of marriage, it crumbled and he quickly remarried. Two years later, there I stood over this face I knew so well.
As I stared at the cold sheet draped over him, trying so hard to understand, I realized that I hadn’t really looked at him for the last two years. So I hadn’t noticed it. Grey. Just a strand or two in his black hair. I commented to myself that it was so sad…he’d never go grey. He was only 44 years old. I dismissed that weird and random thought for many years. (I sorta had my hands full with other things, like raising two boys on my own.) Until that day at my friend’s kitchen table when he talked about cancer robbing him of watching his parents get old.
Then it hit me. Like my friend, my sons would never get to watch their dad get old. They’d miss out on his grey hairs, his crows feet, his aching back, bad knees and open heart surgery. They won’t watch their dad rehab after some surgery, make it through chemo or go to a nursing home.
No bread crumbs for our sons to follow on life’s path.
Add this to the big list of things that dad’s should be there for: proms, graduations, weddings, grandkids…
But he’d also miss all the car accidents, break ups, job problems, money problems, the phone calls in the middle of the night from an ER room. The worry that never seems to leave a parent’s heart. Lucky him.
And so ever so slowly over the years, God has used that moment at the mortuary and the conversation with my friend at a kitchen table. He’d use those two things to re-shape how I look at my own birthdays. In one breath, I complain about “another birthday…uugh.” But there’s another part of my heart – a bigger part of my heart – that is delighted and thrilled that, thus far, I get to get older.
My kids are watching me age and looking at all the bread crumbs I’m leaving for them to pick up and examine and decide whether they want to include them in their life or not. Something they don’t have from their dad.
I, on the other hand, have been given the gift of watching my parents grow old. And they have provided for me an amazing vision and intriguing bread crumbs to pick up along the way.
In November, I visited my dad in Phoenix. He’s almost 85. He is a cancer survivor and 26 years out from a six-way heart bypass surgery. He texted me a few weeks ahead of time, to get the dates of my visit right. He had to be sure he took time off work. Yes, my 85 year old dad has a job. The big train park where he serves as a host and tour guide is in their peak season, so it was important that he block off that time at work. He greets people and tells them the history of the trains and visits with them. He is Mr. Hospitality. He loves it and he’s great at it. I can always expect an email or text after he hears a sermon on grace. He’s passionate about sharing the Good News with me, even though he and my mom are responsible for grounding me in God’s word to begin with.
Meanwhile, my Mom, who just turned 80 texted me about that same time to tell me that she had just gotten a job at Steinmart. She, too, is a cancer survivor. She couldn’t wait to be around all the beautiful things and help women pick up something wonderful to wear. She owned her own business for 35 years. She established this fantastic style and absolutely loves clothes. She’s worked hard over the years to stay in shape and so she’s perfect to “work the floor” at a clothing store. She is really loving her new small group at church because there’s young families in her group that she can host in her home.
Then there’s my father-in-law. He will be 89 next month. He’s been taking care of a sick wife with dedicated love and selflessness. Last time we visited him, he told us he couldn’t wait to get back to the gym. He wants to get out and about so he can find someone to pray for. But first, he has to set up the new apartment with his own wireless network. He needs to make sure his iphone, ipad and laptop are all in top tech order. And, “…no aches, except my knee sometimes hurts a little when I get out of bed in the morning.”
This is the delight I have in watching my parents get old. It’s a great vision and it encourages me not to be afraid. Their birthday breadcrumbs are inspiring and adventurous. I’m taking notes, learning some lessons and being careful about the vision I’m leaving for the next generation. Because they are still watching and learning from me.
And to top it all off, this…
On my very first date with my husband, he leaned in over the restaurant table and his eyes had the wonder and delight of a 9 year old boy.
He said, “I can’t wait until I turn 50!”
I said, “That’s probably the strangest thing I’ve ever heard,” wondering if I should be saying something like that on a first date.
He went on to explain that he was excited because he’d get to play softball in the competitive senior league. Since we were friends before dating, I added this to what I already knew about him. He was playing league volleyball and had just ridden his bike across Iowa on RAGBRAI. “Note to self,” I thought. “Park your life right next to that kind of thinking.” I want to be a part of those bread crumbs!
And he was right. Softball has been a blast for him. It gives him something to train for and has taken us all over the United States for tournaments. We’ve made some great friends and it has been so fun for us….with all the “old guys.” Softball is the only thing that can take the weekends away from our wonderful, long and hard bike rides. I love growing older with this man because he chases after life mentally, physically and spiritually with the guts of a 30 year old.
It has not been easy navigating life’s waters, particularly those single mom years. I had birthdays sprinkled in between all the lonely nights, sick kids, the mountain of bills, and the “quiet” time with God that weren’t so quiet amidst my sobbing and blowing my nose. “When will things get better?”
But it wasn’t all bad either. I got to witness some pretty incredible moments with my sons. I got to watch God show off in some of the most impossible situations. And I learned over those years that He really was my friend.
Yes, I get to get old. Yay. . . sorta. Every wrinkle, every grey hair, every ache and pain means I’m living. Oh sure, I’m not happy about those things. I’m paying “Eddiy” a lot of money to cover the greys. I have some wonderful moisturizer that comes in a pink tube to ward off the wrinkles. The magnification mirror makes me wonder if it’s working. I work hard at eating good and I go to the gym all the time. But the weight is getting harder to lose and harder to keep off.
And so it is. Next week, I turn another year older. Nothing I can do about that. But it’s something my sons’ dad finished experiencing at the age of 44. Soon, it can be said that I’ll be “pushing” the next decade. I say, I’m drop kicking it.
I’m asking myself questions like, “when did I start ending sentences with ‘…for my age.’”? And when is someone “older” and then a few years later just “old.” At what point do you start bragging about your age, as if you’re a child?
I’ll probably complain about getting old and whine, especially if something is hurting. I’ll probably talk too much about doctor visits and how many prescriptions I’m on. I’ll long more for Jesus for sure. But deep inside, I’ll be so grateful that I have the privilege of getting old. I get to experience all the scrapes and disappointments, and muddy waters. And the delights, the joys, the rewards, and all the things I have yet to experience.
Not everyone gets to do the full life.
And not everyone gets to leave behind birthday breadcrumbs.