When I was thinking about my retirement, Laura told me to get out while I was strong and healthy, so I could enjoy my free time. Even though I feel better than I’ve ever felt before, I know that my future holds diminishment and loss. One day Bruce or I will die. One day we may have to move from the farm to a smaller place or assisted living or a nursing home. Or cancer may grab one or both of our asses and torture us with all kinds of dread—did they get it all? Are the treatments working? Has it come back? And of course cancer can torture us with physical pain as well. Or, our minds might leave us. Our brains might fail to make our bodies work or we might not remember the people we love. This is not a bright future. I think of the creative ways death comes to us-cancer, the flu, Alzheimers, heart attack, stroke, ALS, broken hips and more.
I also think about all the creative ways life springs up. On 60 Minutes there was a report on the Hubble Telescope that showed there are as many galaxies as there are grains of sand. The magnitude of all those star systems stuns my brain. Life is so diverse on this planet. How diverse would it be in the universe? The thought of living forever, something the preachers promise, makes me feel very tired, though St. Paul says, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined what the Father has in store for us” (I Cor. 2:9). In other words, our future is as “other”, as unnameable as God Himself.
The problem with retirement is that we face diminishment. We don’t know when we’ll start to fail. Mortality tables don’t tell us much that is accurate. (Mine would have had me dead and gone awhile ago.) There is no deadline. We all suffer with death and taxes but with taxes there is a deadline you can write in your calendar. Not so with death. Sometimes there’s warning. Often there isn’t.
Aside from bucket lists there are things to get done like wills and trusts, like who gets what. My parents left my brother and I to terrible fights because they didn’t know how to divide their estate. My dad’s lawyer told him to get his things in order. My dad did not.
Right now I’m feeling pressure to downsize. My spirit lightened when I sent ten boxes of books out of the house. One friend talked about how she went from a 2500 square foot house to a 1500 square foot condo to an assisted living apartment. She worked through the hard work of letting things go. Another friend talked about how hard it was to move her mother out of her house into a 900 square foot apartment. It was painful how she could not decide what to take with her because she was on the edges of dementia. I look at my belongings and wonder what I’d take with me. I want to let go of stuff. But it’s hard. I looked at three dresses today, that are out of style, that I have not worn in a year, and could not bag them for the clothing drive. The New York Post even carried an article discussing how a person can declutter with death in mind. Margareta Magnusson, the author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning said, “My motto is, if you don’t love it, lose it. If you don’t use it, lose it.”
My parents left a tremendous amount of stuff, oppressive stuff, that my brother and I, both young, our deaths seemingly not imminent, fought over. I took a few things that bring my childhood into my home, but now in my sixties I am eyeing my china as well as a few antiques for sale. My lawyer wisely told me that I was just a steward of my parents’ things. They would go on to someone else, outliving me. He was right. And because of the way things worked out, I was spared having to clean out my parents’ home. There is treasure in heaven and it’s not the stuff we surround ourselves with.
But, I wonder if there is also something sacramental in our things, bringing memories of the people that used them to life. Even though I am sixty and look back on those fights with my brother as a waste, I’m not sorry that I stood up for myself, saying I too have a right to memories of our parents. Though there was mercy in taking less than my half because there were spaces that allowed Bruce to fill with his craftsmanship.
This pressure get rid of stuff, at least the stuff we don’t use adds to the overwhelm I feel simply living my daily life. Between being a wife, training my horses, writing, tending the farm and being a friend, my plate is full. I wonder if now is the time or if I should wait until it is time to move to a smaller place, so the estate sale or auction is worth having.
I know this is morbid, but I’ve been feeling the pressure to clean and declutter, get some things in order. The Psalmist says, “Teach us to number our days that we may apply ourselves to wisdom” (Ps. 90:12) which makes sense because each day becomes a gift when we do this. Every morning I walk down our road with the dogs and thank God for being alive another day in my body, with legs that can walk, lungs that can breathe, eyes that can see and ears that can hear. If we know there isn’t much time, and there isn’t much for any of us, we might relish those days.
While I was writing this, I was scrolling through Facebook and found a counter message from CS Lewis, “There are better things ahead than what we leave behind.” He wrote this in Letters to an American Lady challenging her to remember the glory she faced once she died. Even though fear and overwhelm are lapping at the edges, I need to remember one of my favorite Bible verses, “Now unto Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20).
This weekend the lectionary took us to a reading of Psalm 23. It’s after the walk through the Valley of the Shadow that the Shepherd prepares a table. And it’s in the presence with enemies. I used to think this was about gloating: Look at me. I’ve got the table, the feast and you don’t. But Pastor Hank said that we get to feast with our enemies because we are reconciled. They are invited to the party. I have thought this for awhile. I have thought that I will be sitting with my enemies at the Great Feast, and if that is so it might be a good idea to bless them here in this life, to make as much peace as possible. I think about how the Dalai Lama says that our enemies are our greatest gift. Mine certainly have been, showing me parts of myself I didn’t want to see, teaching me to bless, growing my soul. After all Jesus said, when the very worst thing humans could do, kill him, kill God, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
The psalm continues with a head anointed with oil that has to do with being filled with the Spirit or turned from a shepherd to a king. And that cup running over, wells filling up past the brim. Goodness and mercy follow. So even in this favorite psalm there is wisdom about what might come after we die and better yet, hope.