Columnists > Soul Food

Preparing to die

Teach us to number our days, oh Lord

Issue: "38,000,000 Children Killed," Jan. 16, 1999

The first round of Bingo was underway when an unrestful noise began to claw its way into the proceedings. The residents of the nursing home where I volunteer shifted uneasily in their chairs as it crept closer, a thin screech that frayed the nerves. Soon the caller could scarcely be heard over the noises coming from an ancient woman in a wheelchair, who could no longer walk or talk. Screech she could, and did, effectively breaking up the game until one of the attendants wheeled her out of the dining room and down the hall toward sedation.

This is not the kind of thing that happens in your average office building, school, or Main Street, but it's fairly common in residential care. In this surreal world, people yell for no apparent reason, divest themselves of their clothes, mistake strangers for Mama or Brother. Even those of sound mind carry on conversations with me from week to week without ever asking my name. Such details lack relevance in an atmosphere of transitory relationships.

When nursing homes come up in conversation among younger folks, somebody usually says, "I hope I never end up in a place like that." Perhaps, in the future, no one will end up in a place like that. Perhaps science will eliminate the worst effects of old age, or euthanasia will become the norm for anyone over 80. But if that doesn't happen, those of us now entrenched in our middle years might anticipate residential care as the place we end up: our jumping-off point into eternity.

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I doubt that many of today's nursing home residents ever imagined finishing their lives there. Many of them accept it with varying degrees of grace, making the best of things, as they always have. Others grow bitter, querulous, withdrawn, or hostile. The best and worst in everybody comes to the surface and expresses itself in startling ways, such as an angry screech that breaks up a Bingo game. Old age, I gather, is something that happened to them, not something they prepared for.

Death is not far away, yet most of them do nothing to prepare for that either. Instead of letting go, the tendency is to hold on. Little things assume huge importance: getting to the next planned activity or having Martha bring a new TV or finishing nine crocheted tea cozies. Little things occupy too much of our time at any age, but it does seem that anyone approaching eternity would give more thought to the state of his soul than to hurt feelings from breakfast. I don't see much self-examination going on. Instead of deepening, most elderly souls appear to grow thin and transparent, fixed upon the day.

"Grow old with me," wrote Robert Browning; "The best is yet to be." Our culture certainly doesn't believe this: What could be "best" about failing eyesight, slack muscles, the terror of Alzheimer's? We try not to think about it. Only the most farsighted among us make any preparation at all for old age, and then it tends to be financial and physical, not emotional and spiritual. I know some vigorous septuagenarians who intend to keep deterioration at bay through diet, exercise, and herbal supplements. Sounds good to me: to stack a load of wood in the morning and die peacefully in sleep that night is the way I'd want to go.

But ultimately it's not my decision. If the Sovereign Lord chooses not to honor my plans, how shall I honor his? If he wishes to loosen my grip on life by crippling my body, or even my mind, how will I take it-with the grace I asked him to supply, or with a wordless screech?

Old age is certain for most of us. Just as we studied our parents to sift ideas about parenthood, we should be observing the elderly around us to learn how to grow old-or how not to. In spite of our best intentions, we may end up in residential care among scores of declining individuals just like us. What kind of witness will we be? How shall we redeem the time when we suddenly have far too much of it?

Grow old along with me is the Lord's invitation to his people. Grow, however long it takes, however painful it may be to myself or family, in whatever guise old age appears. I pray now, while strong and sound of mind, that he grants me the grace to grow old well and wisely: to number my days, that I might apply myself unto wisdom.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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