Engaged Living–and Beyond
I named this blog series Liftthescreen to indicate that my postings would be part of my attempt to get a clear view of things. I made that decision at age 78 (in early 2011) when I moved into a retirement facility. Some cultures, the Hindu, for example, have clear concepts of the stages of life, as well as the activities and values that belong to each stage. I am at a stage of life where a clear sense is particularly important. Not that I have that sense, but that I strive for it. What I did not know when I moved here is what a special vantage point is offered by a retirement community–what we used to call an “Old People’s Home.” Of course, that term, OPH, is decidedly politically incorrect today. People retire, they mature, and they age, but never ever do they grow old, it seems. I try to avoid euphemisms, since they are strategies for screen-lowering. I have no problem saying that I live in an OPH.
The term “clear sense” reminds me of a lecture I heard 60 years ago, almost to the day. The lecturer was one of the wisest of my seminary teachers, Grady Davis. He recounted a visit to a parishioner, in the hills of Tennessee, who was in pain on his death bed. The doctor asked if the man wished to be sedated, to which the dying man responded,”I will not be deprived of what may be the greatest experience of my life–dying.” We may not agree with the man, and none of us can predict the moments of our own dying, but the story grasps me now, at age 83, as it did when I first heard it at age 23. Many of us–for reasons beyond our control–will not die with a clear sense, but we can strive for clarity in the days remaining to us.
The residents here are all in the same stage of life; we have finished our active careers, we have given our lives for whatever it is that we were called to do–whether called by our ideals or by circumstances we couldn’t control. The residents here are coming to terms with the worthfulness of their active lives, knowing full well that they are in a different, carefully controlled environment now with people they mostly did not know before they moved here. They wear with varying degrees of public expression their pride, their disappointment and grief, and their aspirations for the remaining time of their lives. In terms of economic-social class, the wealthy live alongside those of more modest means. The condition of their physical health varies from person to person. Those who were at the top of the local pecking orders in their previous lives often try to attain same top spot here. People whose lives were particularly lonely and difficult before are mostly grateful and even cheerful to be here living in relative comfort.
Religiously, you will find skeptical atheists, Jewish Holocaust survivors, those who go to Mass every morning, active Unitarian-Universalists, and even Lutherans (two of whom are ordained clergy). The full-time chaplain is provided by the Episcopal church. I believe there are a few Republicans here, but they are overwhelmed by a sea of liberal Democrats.
One thing that everyone in our community shares is that we will die here or in one of the local hospitals. We watch each other’s lives unfold, and we watch everyone on our journey towards death. At this moment, four photographs are on display of residents who have died in the last few weeks and whose memorial services are pending. Some of these people I knew quite well, while others were hardly even acquaintances. An acquaintance since graduate school sixty-five years ago and one of the most popular residents is clearly in his last few weeks, or days, of life.
Perhaps this sounds sad, even morbid. However, our residential community is not at all sad or morbid. There are sad individuals, to be sure, but the general mood is vigorous and often upbeat. My granddaughters talk about it as a resort hotel, since it is only 200 yards from Lake Michigan, with its parks and beach. I hope that none of you readers consider this piece to be morbid or sad. I intend it simply to be clear-eyed and in its own way, honest.
The psalmist writes : “How great are your works! How deep are your designs!”
Gratitude first, and then the unfathomable–what is the design of God’s mystery? In a way that I had not expected, living here provides a rich context for reflecting on the design of it all. A retirement community is a veritable laboratory for developing pastoral insight. Every year, senior medical students, in their family medicine rotation, come to talk for a couple of hours about how I view death and dying. Inspirational stories are here–my long time friend Clara, when, at age 90, she received the diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, shunned all treatment and concluded that she had lived a blessed life; she lived peacefully for more than a year before she died. At the other end of the spectrum is the woman so frightened of dying that I steer my conversations with her accordingly.
Last year the Chaplain organized a series of discussions of dying. Most of the talk was about filling out End-of-Life forms; there were complaints that “My grandchildren won’t talk to me about death.” Very little testimony about our personal views of death. I should say that the Chaplain is developing more productive conversations. As I write, she is attending a week-long seminar for this purpose.
The Chaplain is going against the stream. The national association of continuing care communities recently eliminated the term “continuing care,” because prospective residents don’t like the implication that they need “care.” My own OPH is following the advice of their marketing consultant to change our logo slogan from “redefining retirement” to “engaged living.” And they do not mean engaging the final stage of life.
Please carry on the conversation–with me here, if you wish. Perhaps (no promises) I’ll write a later blog that includes your comments. This is my last word–for the moment. I have written about this theme in previous blogs–see September 2013, for example. In the meantime, some of these thoughts were in my mind when I wrote this poem few weeks ago, as I watched an ambulance pull up to our front entrance.
frenetic frantic flashing lights
unsettling me nervous jumping lights
we’re in a hurry to move
in the night
there’s a wildness
about those lights
a deer frozen in place
yet wanting to flee
in a sheltered spot
porte cochere softened
from the storm for you
as you enter
to be driven now with
i do not want you to go
i am in the wagon
into the wild
(C) Phil Hefner
7 April 2015