good grief

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Mom’s cancer, with relentless, rapacious appetite, spread from her lungs to her brain, then to her brain lining. Her decline, swift, over the sparest number of weeks, and savage, instant by inexorably passing instant, stripping her of bodily function and proffering only pain.

On April 28, 2017, Geneva Theodosia Reynolds Mack Watkins, the mother of my wife, my mother in law, a proverbial force of nature, yea, verily, nature itself in the immensity of her love, died.

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Since then, I have watched and continue to watch Geneva’s daughter, my wife, Pontheolla, grieve, embracing her sorrowing, weeping heart and soul…

through those initial moments of her acknowledgement of the inevitable; the oncologist saying those dreaded, yet essential and candid words, “There is nothing more we can do”…

through the calling of family members and friends, receiving, responding to their questions, “How?” “When?” “Why?”, accepting, answering their expressions of concern with a  gracious “Thank you”, a slight and earnest nod, a sympathizing falling tear, soon followed by a pitying flood…

through the planning of mom’s funeral, truly, justly a celebration of her life supremely, freely, fully, faithfully well lived; the testimonials from persons from ev’ry path of her earthly being and doing; the songs of praise and the prayers to God, all bidding, believing in her gladsome greeting in the heavenly habitations…

through engaging mom’s affairs – initiating probate, closing accounts, and cleaning her home, sorting through the years of the daily accumulations of living, but more, existentially, spiritually, moving through her space still warm and welcoming with the manifold memories of times spent luxuriating in the wealth of her hospitality…

and through every day and counting since, Pontheolla hails as blessed her ev’ry reminiscence, honors as the bounty of her holy sorrow her ev’ry tear, holds fast to her ev’ry thanksgiving for the nonpareil grace of God incarnate in the life and love of her mother…

Hers is good grief.

more on aging

Clevedale front porch, 5-30-17

On a sultry South Carolina afternoon, following a hyper-busy, exhilarating, but also enervating past two weeks at our bed and breakfast and near the end of a day of chores (this demonstrably repetitive reality is why I term my retirement “my rehirement”), I plop my aching body into a comfy rocking chair. Sipping from a glass of my favorite Sauvignon Blanc, I consider that in a week or so, I will reach my 65th birthday (which, in truth, means that I simultaneously will have completed my 65th year and will enter my 66th year in this world). In light of this life’s milestone, at least, as humans reckon time, I contemplate mine aging (truth to tell, daily I reflect, not morbidly, but rather matter-of-factly, on this inexorable existential state of being).

Three immediate thoughts…

One, I don’t like aging. (Who does?) I’d prefer that my body was as supple, my mind and vision as sharp, my potentialities as boundless as my imagination as in my yesteryears.

Two, this said, I accept aging. I am neither angry about it nor discontent with it. Verily, there are moments of gleeful recognition that only an older one can know.

Last October, I went to the hospital for a pre-op visit in preparation for my November colon surgery. The intake nurse, a 30-something, bright-eyed, warm-hearted, highly-skilled, and unreservedly kind soul, among many questions, asked me, “Mr. Abernathy, do you have any pain?” Though I understood her intent in seeking to discern whether I was experiencing any discomfort in the subject area of my procedure, I couldn’t restrain myself from bursting out in raucous laughter. She smiled, I surmised, waiting, wanting to be let in on the joke. I replied, “My dear sister, I’m sixty-four years of age! Of course, I have pain!”

Three, I am fairly well assured (with no need or hope of refutation) that, as I’m wont to say, I have more life and labor behind me than ahead of me. As such, with the instant of my dying far closer than the day of my birth, I don’t have enough years of life left to try to remember all the things that I’ve lived long enough to have forgotten. In this awareness (perhaps enhanced by a second glass of wine), my soul is warmed by a spirit of the peace of the release from one more care, the relief from one more worry. And that is not a bad thing, not a bad thing at all.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 37, Wednesday in Holy Week, April 12, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On dying & death in the spirit of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (subtitle: I believe):[1] O Lord, I believe in mortality…

Daily, I examine the progression of life in this world and, e’en when peering through a lens of light and joy, there is, undeniably, “change and decay in all around I see.”[2]

And, daily, I experience the inexorable procession of mine aging; the “change and decay” in me of slower thought and shorter memory, sinew less supple and strength swifter spent.

Yea, so it is I believe that this life in this world is an inherently terminal proposition, and, one day, I know that I will die.

Yet, O Lord, I believe also (and more!) in You. I believe that You have not brought me this far to leave me.[3] I believe that on my dying day, as I have known what is temporal and spatial, physical and perishable, I forever finally fully will know what is spiritual and eternal.[4]

O Lord, by Your Spirit, grant me greater faith that, on my goin’ up yonder[5] day, I, with gratitude undying, fail not to fear not coming to You to behold You by sight face to face. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Saint Thérèse of Lisieux Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), Roman Catholic Carmelite nun revered for the simplicity and practicality of her approach to the spiritual life, on her deathbed was heard to have murmured, “I am not dying. I am entering into life.”

[2] From one of my favorite hymns, Abide with me, by Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847). The full text of verse 2:

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;

Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;

Change and decay in all around I see;

O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

[3] From the gospel song, I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired (1978) by Curtis Burrell:

I don’t feel no ways tired,

I come too far from where I started from.

Nobody told me that the road would be easy,

I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.

[4] This prayer is born out of my understanding of two of the Apostle Paul’s teachings: For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens…For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee (2 Corinthians 5.1, 4-5) and Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable…For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15.50b, 53-54).

[5] My reference to the gospel song Goin’ Up Yonder (1994) by Walter Hawkins, especially the words: As God gives me grace I’ll run this race until I see my Savior face to face. I’m goin’ up yonder to be with my Lord.

theologizing & learning about aging & ailing

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a personal reflection…

Pierre Teilhard de ChardinThe great 20th century French polymath, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,[1] believed we are not so much human beings in search of spiritual experience, but rather spiritual beings immersed in human experience. Teilhard de Chardin’s view, verily, vision of our ontology helps me, a Christian believer, understand that God, who is Spirit,[2] became incarnate in our flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and through the same Spirit, in us. His perspective also liberates me from the Platonic dualism, still evident in some Christian circles, that perceives humankind’s truest self as the soul, which, in this fallen, broken world, has been imprisoned, entombed, however temporarily, in the physical body.

Rather, for me, all of creation, including this world and our human bodies, is God’s handiwork and, therefore, good.[3] With our bodies, when our physical senses are operative, we can hear, see, smell, taste, and touch; perceiving, delighting in the riches of the world around us. Through our bodies, we are recognized and known one to another; sharing and delighting in the joys of companionship.[4]

Yet, through it all, one thing remains ineluctably, repeatedly demonstrably true. Our bodies are mortal (or, as my namesake, the Apostle Paul would say, “perishable”[5]). Our experience of, in this life is transitory. (As a wise soul – or souls, for the bon mot has been attributed to many – expressed, “No one gets out of life alive!) We are born and we die; in between we age.

Perhaps because a week or so ago I celebrated my latest birthday (one more to go and I’m eligible for Medicare!) or because 2015, in its entirety, was the sickliest year of my life or because 2015 seems to have been but a prelude to another year of major health concerns (or because of all of it and more than of which I am or can be conscious), these days, I think a good bit about aging.

So far, I have learned or, better, more truly said, I am learning more about gratitude and compassion…

I am grateful I am alive, aging and ailing and all. I have compassion for the lives of the dying and the souls of the dead, especially as the evil act of one man in Orlando this past Sunday hideously reminds us of life’s uncertainty and fragility, and some of the dead and wounded being young enough to be my children and grandchildren. (Indeed, whenever I know or hear of one who died young, I mourn and realize anew that no matter how my life is and is not, I have the luxury of its ongoing experience, now four years into my seventh decade.)

I am grateful for Pontheolla who, among many things, loves fiercely and cares about me deeply, even and especially when I don’t care for myself. I have compassion for those of my sisters and brothers in this life and world who do not enjoy the marvelous grace of companionship.

I am grateful for having health insurance and a number (ever increasing!) of fine physicians. I have compassion for those who do not.

As I live, I continue to learn. As I learn, my compassion for others deepens. For this and for more, as my Momma would say, “than I can say grace over”, I am grateful.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (May 1, 1881-April 10, 1955), over his richly varied lifetime, among many things, was a paleontologist and geologist, professor of chemistry and physics, Jesuit priest, philosopher and theologian, cosmologist and evolutionary theorist, and mystic.

[2] “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4.24)

[3] “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1.31a). Nevertheless, I do not disregard the reality of sin and evil and that humans can and will conceive and commit bad acts.

[4] Here, I do not, cannot deny that there are difficult aspects of all relationships that through our bodies we endure, and, sometimes, suffer!

[5] 1 Corinthians 15.53