There are many things that are a natural consequence of growing older. Our hair turns gray. Our skin wrinkles. Our bodies slow down. We find ourselves having more and more conversations over dinner with our friends that revolve around what medications we’re taking for various our maladies. We start worrying intensely about retirement.
And we start going to a lot more funerals.
At first, most of the funerals we attend are for the previous generations. It starts with our grandparents, then some older aunts and uncles, then sometimes it’s our own parents that we’re grieving for. Those losses are tough. It stinks. We miss them. Yet it feels like the natural flow of life – the ones who were here before us leave before us.
But right about now, in our fifties, we start losing friends. Friends our age. And that doesn’t feel natural at all. Yes, we may have lost a few unexpectedly when we were younger. Those are shocks, and even wake-up calls that life on this earth does not last forever. But we are able to “justify” losses when we’re younger as being the exception rather than the rule.
But now – – – now we start seeing how fragile life truly is for our very own generation. We start seeing each other more often in funeral homes instead of at happy hour. We plan the carpools to get to the memorial services. We bring casseroles to the house. We meet for dinner after services to commiserate and be together. We’re becoming “old hands” at the grieving business these days. And that just sucks.
I don’t like going to calling hours and comforting the young adult children of my friends. My heart breaks that their dad won’t be there to walk them down the aisle, that their mom won’t be around to give them advice about colicky babies, that the unborn children of these young people will never know their grandpa or grandma. I don’t like seeing the elderly parents of my friends, facing a loss that no parent should have to bear. And I really don’t like seeing broken-hearted husbands or wives, left alone at the stage of their lives when they were just getting their freedom back. The stage of their lives that they’d been saving and planning for through-out their marriage – the empty nest, the retirement community, the trips and adventures. The stage of life that I’m in right now.
Two weeks ago I lost a friend and co-worker to a stroke at 56. Billy was just the nicest guy. I mean he was truly, genuinely, completely nice.
Always smiling, always cheery, always a kind word to say as anyone walked by his workbench. He could take a tired or battered piece of wood or leather furniture and bring it back to life – not just life, but renewed life, like-new life. His workbench immediately became a flower, picture, and poem-covered shrine the day after his death. Before that, he had decorated it with pictures of his family, notes from children, his favorite golfers (he loved the game) and funny cartoons. He had put little reminders about work product written on masking tape and stuck onto the front of the shelves on his bench – “NS gets reboxed!”, etc. But one little piece of tape with three words on it summed up his approach to life “Do Unto Others”. That was the one that made me cry, and smile.
Tomorrow I say good-bye to a friend from our boating days, who became a friend for life. Donna struggled with escalating heart problems this year, but her death last week at 61 was still a shock. We had just spent some time with her over the holiday weekend, watching fireworks together, laughing and drinking and goofing around as always. Eight days later she was gone. We used to tease Donna about her “cleaning
frenzies” on the boat, jokingly calling her “Martha Stewart”. While our husbands golfed in the early mornings, Donna and I and another friend would gather on the back of her boat with our coffees and books in hand, listening to NPR and chatting while the sun rose higher over the lake. We vacationed together several times. Donna had an enthusiasm for life and a penchant for laughter that I will truly miss.
Two months ago it was a former co-worker, John. Months before that was another co-worker, Ray, whose wife is a friend. Before that
was the brother of a another friend. The parent of another. I’m starting to create a “funeral wardrobe” to have at the ready at all times.
And I know that this trend won’t be getting any better as years go by. Somehow I hadn’t really thought about the toll this would take – the losses so keenly felt when they’re contemporaries.
Making plans for the future is wise, but we can’t forget to enjoy the journey while we’re in it, instead of holding back for that magical “someday”
that just may not arrive.
The other lesson that has struck me is that I need to tell more people how much I appreciate them. I know it sounds corny, and it’s one of those things we tend to always say but never do. But I want to mean it this time around. It breaks my heart that I never told Billy how much his smile and his over-the-top-of-his-glasses gaze brightened my work day. Even on the holiday weekend, when I knew that Donna’s health was failing, I didn’t look her in the eye and say “thank you for being my friend.” Maybe that would have seemed melodramatic or even morbid. But I should have said it anyway.
I hope you’ll join me in looking around your life and really seeing the people that make a difference, even if it’s just the laughing girl behind the counter at Panera who remembers your name and your favorite breakfast sandwich. Tell her how much it means to you. Tell your friends, and your family, and don’t worry if they give you odd looks or ask if you’re okay. Make sure your spouse hears how much they’re appreciated. You’ll feel better for knowing that they heard those words.
‘Cause frankly, you really just never know what tomorrow will bring.