Out Here on the Brink of Eternity


It’s lonelier than I imagined, this aging thing. I remember being impatient with my dad when we pushed my parents to move from their much-loved last home, built 15 years earlier, into a retirement community a little bit closer to us. He was suffering from Parkinson’s and atherosclerosis and my mom was wearing herself out as primary care giver. We thought the move would provide extra help for her, a bit of respite care. At that point in time they were 85 and 81. As I tried to help my mom get herself organized for the move, Daddy slipped into a quiet much deeper than his usual taciturnity, muttering, “Those places are where you go to die.” I tried to reassure him they were places you go to live before you die. He was having none of it.

I get it now.

I’m still a decade behind where they were then, but I can smell the 80s coming at me and I’m not a big fan of that scent, to be completely honest. This is not a culture that values elders, generally preferring those past 75 or 80 to stay out of the spotlight and keep quiet. Part of me is keenly aware of the reasons for that truth: I discover, on an almost daily basis, that the inevitable effects of time and life are sometimes painful and humiliating and not particularly fun to watch. And I get that, too. But still … it feels lonely from time to time, out here on the doorstep of eternity.

Don’t get me wrong—there are definite benefits to being “retired.” There are opportunities to travel, read more, binge on Netflix as needed, and serve in capacities suited to advancing years and garnered wisdom. These are the gifts of this season. But let’s face it, I am on the edge—the edge of the end—and everybody knows it. Maybe I’ll live past my 100th birthday like my maternal grandmother. Maybe I’ll be gone next month. Who knows? And which is preferable? That, too, is open to debate!

In the meantime, I am trying to practice saying “yes” to whatever life remains to me. My father’s choices shut him off from us. Part of that was disease-driven, but part of it was his lifelong pattern of choosing isolation when things got difficult. I don’t want to do that. I’d like to dance myself off the cliff, if at all possible, so I’m trying to figure out what that might look like in this aging body, with this aging brain.

Although I dread the possibility of dying as my mother did—at age 95.5 from the scourge of Alzheimer’s disease and its hideous, insatiable appetite for brain cells—I would rather die as she chose, long before the disease took over. The pattern for her final four years in a memory loss unit near me was set decades earlier, with every friendship cherished, every neighbor comforted, every party made more fun by her presence.

I adored both of my parents and was a daddy’s girl for much of my life. But watching him become almost completely self-absorbed at the end of his life was difficult. My mother, on the other hand, kept on leaning into life and people and relationships, even when she hadn’t a clue who I was or who she was. Until days before her last breath, she was able to use her increasingly limited vocabulary to reach out, to offer a compliment, to spread that radiant smile all around the room. I believe this difference goes deeper than their respective introversion/extraversion, though the temptation to keep the labels that simple is real.

No. It had much more to do with choices they each made, long before they became frail and elderly. In the end, my dear dad chose to let resentment about death win the day. My mom chose life, period. She stood there, sometimes faltering and falling down, barely able to see or hear or think, and she chose to smile into the darkness. Oh, that’s the edge I want to die on, please God, the one that leans into life until the very last breath.