Tuesday, December 31, 2013

At the end of another year

The last day of 2013 is overcast and dreary, "a winter's day in a deep and dark December," as Paul Simon once said. It seems a fitting marker for a year that had its low moments. My sister died in July, just a month after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Nothing has made me feel my own mortality more than the death of my younger sister. My parents' five children are now diminished to two, and I am, for the first time in 61 years, the youngest again.

A year ago, after we had endured the loss of at least one close relative each year since 2010, my wife offered this New Year's hope: Let's have at least one year when no one gets sick or dies. It was not to be.

At the close of 2013, we put another year tainted by sadness behind us and look ahead with hope for a better year in 2014. It is the year when I will become eligible for Medicare and come closer to my anticipated full retirement age. For at least 10 years, my wife and I have talked longingly about the time when we would not have to go to work every day, when we could nourish the hobbies we have little time for while working, when we can travel to the places of our dreams, when we can better connect with our grandchildren and friends. That day is still years into the future.

This will be a whole new year, one for which we have made few plans yet, except for the plans we had forgone this year and earlier years as impractical. We plan to spend a weekend with all of our children and grandchildren at a date and time to be determined. We will celebrate birthdays and other milestones. We will try again to make those trips that have been just out of reach — down the length of Skyline Drive/Blue Ridge Parkway, to Ocracoke, to Kentucky and Tennessee, to Pittsburgh, to the Rockies and California. We will make a new to-do list for repairs and improvements around the house and hope to check off at least one or two items from the list.

Most of all, we will sit in quiet evenings before the living room fire or on the deck in the cool dusk after a hot summer day and breathe in the blessings we have enjoyed. We will breathe out silent thankfulness for this marriage, this house, this family, this (relative) healthfulness, this life. We will try harder than ever to savor every moment, to recognize joy and to be productive in every opportunity we are given.

I have never been one for New Year's resolutions, but I do look forward to a better year and to doing better with the blessings I am given, when even the difficult years are blessed.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve excitement endures

It's another Christmas Eve, and I've seen a few. For much of my life, Christmas Eve was a day filled with eagerness and wonder, first over the amazement of impossible gifts to be found in a chilly living room warmed by an open hearth fire, and then, years later, by the wonder in the eyes of little children as they beheld an assortment of gifts eagerly awaited.

This Christmas Eve is a quieter day marked by a day off from work and a day of toil at home to prepare for visits from younger generations. And there is, as usual, a bit of shopping to do to wrap up the preparations for the morrow. I have reached that certain age when wonder and excitement have been dropped aside. I recall the most troubling Christmas Eve of my life, when my wife and son and I decided to spend Christmas Eve night with my aging parents along with my sister and her family. It would be, we thought, a fun and nostalgic occasion. We would eat and sing carols and recapture the joys of childhood Christmas Eves. But my sister and her family canceled their plans, and my parents seemed to have no energy for celebratiion. The evening, which we thought would be joyous and exciting, was dull and bland. We trundled off to bed with no sense of anticipation or excitement; it was just another evening in an old house in the country.

In the morning, we will arise early enough to sit quietly and enjoy the twinkling lights and the fire in the fireplace. Christmas music will play on the stereo, and the room will fill with happy memories and gratefulness for blessings. Grandchildren will bring their excitement, sparking more memories of what it had been like to be young parents in a house filled with squeals of joy and breathless excitement.

Christmas will have come again, and my wonder now is how many more I will be blessed to experience.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Grandchildren help revive old memories

It was something akin to lopping 30 years off our ages. For the weekend (or at least for part of it), my wife and I watched over two grandchildren. The inventive playing, in which a few chairs and a few blankets can be a fort, the discussions of dinner and snacks, the reading of books at bedtime, the tucking in, the resounding quiet after they fell asleep all carried me back to the time when these two's mother and her two siblings kept our household in high gear.

On Sunday afternoon, we delivered the grandchildren to their home and hung around for a Christmas program at their church. This event carried me back even further, to the time when I was the preschooler on stage for a children's program. In my infantile mind, I was not persuaded that my voice was needed on the songs, so I attempted a child's version of lip-syncing as the other children sang, and my fakery was so inept that I merely opened and closed my mouth, as if taking big bites from the air. I even tried to get the boy next to me to follow my lead. Punishment fed by embarrassment awaited me when I got home.

I'm happy to say my grandchildren were much better behaved than I had been in that memorable church program. Although this day and night of reliving what it means to be parents brought back memories of what our lives were like decades ago, the experience did not revive my energy or wipe the years from my face and scalp. The years pile up without notice until some event registers the toll. You can recapture the memories or make them more vivid, but you cannot recover the years or correct the mistakes.

The grandchildren, who are the bonuses of a long life, help their grandparents keep alive the memories of all the good years of their own childhoods, the joys (and awesome responsibilities) of raising young children, and the satisfaction of seeing your own children mature and build lives of their own. 

As Bob Hope would say, "Thanks for the memories."

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Rain in winter offers few benefits

The rain is falling again. It rained yesterday. It rained Sunday. It will rain tomorrow.

A winter's rain offers none of the cooling refreshment of a spring or summer rain. There are no green plants, no flowers to soak up the blessed moisture and nourish the vegetation. This rain falls on a dull, brown landscape that doesn't brighten from the new moisture.

A winter's rain is chilling and makes the temperature, no matter what it is, feel 10 degrees colder. If the temperature dropped a few degrees, the rain would turn to snow or sleet. The snow falls softly, the flakes drifting gently to earth and piling up to cover the ground like a perfect, white blanket. Sleet comes down hard, harder than the rain, and hits with a tinkling sound that cries out, "Danger! Beware!" A heavy snow might close roads and schools, but the sleet will make any outdoor movement hazardous. Ten years ago, I slipped on a sleet-covered step outside my back door and crashed my shoulder blade into the edge of the concrete step. The shoulder blade cracked with a pain that made me scream and then pass out.

The steady rain chills me and annoys me after so many wet days. I long for a lovely but short-lived snow to blanket the brown landscape. But I dread the possibility of sleet, and my shoulder still aches when I think of it.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

King never got the opportunity to grow old like Mandela

As the world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela, his courage, dedication and persistence are being extolled. Undoubtedly, he was one of the great figures of the 20th century, a man who fought for decades for equality and justice for the native people of Africa against a racist and often-brutal European colonial government. But his greatness will be remembered not just for his dogged determination and his willingness to die for his cause. Mandela might be best remembered for his humility and his willingness to forgive the oppressors of his people.

After being elected president of South Africa in the nation's first multi-racial election, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — a panel that heard sworn testimony about the travesties of the apartheid regime. The deal was simple: Confess and be forgiven. Witnesses told horrific stories, but there was no retribution, no revenge, no violent outrage. The panel sought the truth of what had happened in secret in the decades before the cruel apartheid system was dismantled. Only after facing the ugly truth could the nation offer forgiveness for what had gone before.

South Africa is far from a idyllic country. Huge disparities in wealth remain. Millions of poor black citizens have little hope of upward mobility. Crime and violence persist. But South Africa is a multi-racial democracy that has put its apartheid past behind it, and it owes its success largely to Mandela.

Mandela is sometimes compared to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Both men were inspired by Gandhi. Both condemned violence. Both were maligned as communists or worse. Mandela spent 29 years in prison and was admired for his willingness to forgive his oppressors as well as those of his own race who opposed his policies. He was elected president of his nation. King, tragically, was cut down by a sniper's bullet just as his civil rights campaign was achieving success.

On MLK Day each year, speakers extol King's non-violence and proclaim the wisdom and compassion of his "I Have a Dream" speech. Some other speakers will remind audiences that King was more than a quotable preacher of love and equality; he was also an advocate of wealth redistribution and labor union power and a harsh critic of the Vietnam War. Had he lived, some say, he would have grown more radical in his politics and more critical of an American system too skewed in favor of the wealthy and the politically powerful.

But Mandela's example suggests a different perspective for an aging King. As he grew older, Mandela forgave those who oppressed his people and imprisoned him. Mandela became more conciliatory, more forgiving, more willing to work within the political system to achieve his goals. As they grow older, most people mellow. Young firebrands often become more understanding and conciliatory.

One can never know, but it seems reasonable that King, too, might have aged into a more forgiving, less radical elder statesman role, as Mandela. King, too, might have led a movement to uncover the secret horrors of segregation and to allow forgiveness for all the wrongs committed over the decades. King might have lived to become the universally admired champion of justice and forgiveness in his old age, he might have even won the presidency, had an assassin not killed him before his work was completed.