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I’m a bicentennial baby. 1976. As a child I would tell my mom I wanted to live to see the tercentennial. I had images of my 100 year spry-self walking in a red, white, and blue parade. Of course, I was a bit naïve about the challenges of aging. These days I don’t want to live a moment past eighty. And I mean it . . . at least I mean it right now.
Before you dismiss my statement, hear me out.
First of all, yes I am well aware that saying such a thing is much easier when you are my age. I know I might feel differently when I am 75. When I was in my early 20s I knew I wanted to fully pursue my dual vocation: motherhood and the pastorate. It was much easier to envision this life in my early twenties before actually living the balancing act. Still, my naïve hope to fulfill two vocations guided me through the exhausting years of packing diaper bags while managing a pastoral crisis on the phone. It is deeply important to imagine our lives long before we live them. I want my forty year old self to be in dialogue with my eighty year old self, and I want my eighty year old self to remember the 40 year old that I am today.
Second, my four parents are headed toward their 80s. I am not eager to lose them. I am not eager to watch my husband mourn, watch my children experience death for the first time, pack up my mother’s clothes, her scent still lingering. Yet, this is a part of life. When it happens is not up to me. I simply pray my grief over them will be as true as my affection for them.
Finally, I know many 80 and 90 years olds living full and beautiful lives. I do not think life stops at 80. One 90+ year old man I buried walked to church well into his 90s. He was a delight, our conversations filled with history, faith, and laughter. I recently visited a dying 90 year old who continues to bring much love and life to her family, even though she is dependent on their care. She can’t believe she has lived this long, but hers has been a good and full life. Her end is near, but her life is still abundant.
So why do I not want to live a day after 80?
Part of my job is to walk families through the final days, months, and sometimes years of a person’s life. I have been present at many deaths. I have listened to the utterly exhausted children of the dying admit they prayed for their parent’s death. I have helped families find assisted living for parents with dementia and in-home aids for the incapacitated. I have helped pack up the family home and distribute treasured memorabilia. I have visited shut-ins and the hospitalized. Growing old is hard work, but it can also be pregnant with grace.
Unfortunately, so often these days growing old has become more about delaying death than living life. Medical technology has slowed the process of dying. Growing old is natural, but a painfully slow, dragged out, artificially prolonged process of dying sucks the life right out of everyone. As those dying await the final gift of death, life seems to stop for everyone around them. To make matters worse our cultures’ fear and denial of death distorts the natural process of dying. I have seen people with congestive heart failure kept alive, to lie in a hospital bed for months. I have seen bodies destroyed by cancer and chemo and radiation, yet more treatment is sought because the children were expecting their parents to live into their 80s. I have seen the elderly robbed of all dignity as family and doctors kept their bodies alive long after death would have been a blessing. I have counseled exhausted caregivers, mediated disputes about medical interventions, and—at their request—prayed with the elderly and their loved ones for God to take them.
I might be a healthy spry 85 year old. I might die at 70. I pray not earlier. I am not in control. If I have to hedge my bets, I’ll take 80. I would like to live fully up until my 80th year. I want hands able enough to fold laundry for my neighbor who might be exhausted from rearing her brood of kids. I want to be strong enough to hold babies and rock them to sleep. I want to be with it enough to preach on occasion. I want someone else, however, to do my cleaning, especially organizing my basement. I also want to eat pie for breakfast every day. But more than anything else, I want to enjoy my friends and family fully. And I want them to enjoy me. I don’t want their lives to stop for months or years because medical technology has kept me alive long after I have ceased to really live.
I want to live fully. I seek the abundant life I have been promised by my faith. But abundant doesn’t mean long, it means full—full of love, full of hope, full of activity. I don’t want years spent waiting for death—or running from death or denying death. I have no interest in seeing our countries tercentennial, let alone living forever. Instead, I hope that I will accept death as a natural order of things. Death, like life, is a gift. I plan to trust death is a gift from God when it comes, and that in embracing death, I will fully experience God as I fully experienced God in life.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.