Friday, May 18, 2007

"Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet"

It’s not particularly enlightening to point out that growing older is difficult. It’s happens to everyone; and everyone complains about it. But most of the things that make being human worthwhile are the same. Everyone is born – everyone breathes – most nearly everyone has children – most people get a job – the lucky ones get a job they love. Our culture has this notion that only the exceptional is meaningful: that you’re not worth writing about unless, say, you’re climbing Mt. Everest (as my cousin is at the moment). The reality, of course, is that it’s the universal things which are most meaningful.

I first encountered this notion in Chesterton. I could go on for pages with his quotes, but I’ll let this one suffice:

“It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, "Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe," or "Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet." They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complex picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority.”

And one of those universals which is always somehow quite particular and individual is aging: growing older: getting ready for death. I’m only 38 – not really there yet – but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I still have three grandparents left, but they’re aging, and watching them do so is an experience that is painful, sad, enlightening, and sometimes filled with remarkable grace.

About three months ago, my paternal grandfather (94) fell while carrying almost half his weight worth of scrap metal, and not unexpectedly, broke his ankle. In a fit of reasoning that exhibited perhaps more stubbornness than grace, he insisted that they wouldn’t have called it a “walking cast” if he hadn’t been meant to walk on it. The not-unexpected result ensued, his ankle refused to heal, and last week he had to have surgery to repair his brittle and suddenly uncooperative bones. This time the doctor’s instructions were devoid of ambiguity and left little room for interpretation.

His wife of 72 years – my 90 year old grandmother – has been doing her best to keep up with him, but we can tell that it’s wearing on her.

Following a sudden decline in her health, my 89-year old maternal grandmother recently moved into an assisted living facility. A good percentage of her 70 descendants descended onto Longview, WA, to help with the move and to get her situated in her new apartment; but then they left again, and she’s mostly alone in her apartment, too deaf to make friends, and too weak to walk anywhere but the dining room.

For a long time, I’ve felt like death is a fate to which only heroes should be subject: it’s too hard, too painful, too extraordinary to be required of ordinary people. But maybe that’s the point. It may be that death is God’s way of turning us each into heroes. In the Resurrection, not many will be able to say that they climbed Mt. Everest, or stormed the beach at Normandy, or plucked an infant from a burning building. But there will be one tragedy – and triumph – which will have ennobled us all.

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