Friday, June 15, 2007

Old Friends

Can you imagine us years from today,
Sharing a parkbench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy
-- Paul Simon, “Old Friends” (1967)

MONTREAT, N.C. - Ruth Graham, who surrendered dreams of missionary work in Tibet to marry a suitor who became the world's most renowned evangelist, died Thursday. She was 87. Graham died at 5:05 p.m. at her home at Little Piney Cove, surrounded by her husband and all their five children, said a statement released by Larry Ross, Billy Graham's spokesman.

"Ruth was my life partner, and we were called by God as a team," Billy Graham said in a statement. "No one else could have borne the load that she carried. She was a vital and integral part of our ministry, and my work through the years would have been impossible without her encouragement and support. I am so grateful to the Lord that He gave me Ruth, and especially for these last few years we've had in the mountains together. We've rekindled the romance of our youth, and my love for her continued to grow deeper every day. I will miss her terribly, and look forward even more to the day I can join her in Heaven."

My daughter Katryn is home for the summer and working at an assisted living facility, which is a polite euphemism for what used to be known as a nursing home. She returns from work and regales us with tales of what happened on the job that day. Almost all of her stories involve old men who bellow out their thoughts.

“WE TOOK A POLL, AND WE VOTED YOU THE PRETTIEST!,” one of them told her. Apparently the old geezers fancy themselves the judges at the Miss Bedpan Contest. Another, a confused old man who sometimes can’t remember his name, seemed to wake from a stupor and roared, “DO YOU EVER THINK ABOUT BEING CREMATED?” She finds these stories hilarious, and we do too. At least until I start to really think about them.

When I was a kid my parents used to take me to my visit my dad’s aunt, Aunt Annie. She was an old, old woman in a nursing home when I met her, and she didn’t know who I was. I remember passing open doors full of old people in bed, dozing, or staring blankly into space. They were tiny, shriveled, more than a little scary, and as alien as Martians. I couldn’t wait to go home. And when Aunt Annie died it was a relief. There would be no more trips to Pleasant Valley, or whatever that hellhole was called. Pleasant Valley had about it the stench of death, and I wanted to avoid that at all costs.

Our former pastor in Mount Vernon used to preach regularly about the twin themes of holding on lightly and letting go. He told us, Sunday after Sunday, that we would either learn the lessons the easy way, as we incorporated those notions into our day-to-day lives, or the hard way, when we were old and had no choice. Getting old, he informed us, was hell. You lost your youth, your good looks, your career, your friends, your spouse (or your spouse lost you), the use of your limbs, your bladder and sphincter control, and maybe, perhaps mercifully, your mind. Forget the movies, he told us. Ignore what our culture tells us about the slow, glorious coda of the American Dream. Old age was a cruel mockery of the notion of the Golden Years. Maybe you could delay the inevitable for a while by riding in a golf cart in Florida, but your prospects were dire. You started out in diapers, and you ended up in diapers, moving from dust to dust.

So I think about those things, and pray for Billy Graham, a man I greatly admire, and for solace and hope in a loss I cannot really fathom. It’s too painful to contemplate for long. And I pray for old guys named Harold and Marvin, judges in the Miss Bedpan Contest, who cannot remember their names. But I remember them for them.

Kate and I watched our youngest daughter Rachel graduate from high school last Saturday. I don’t feel like I’m ready for Pleasant Valley, but you can’t go through something like that and not be astonished. Our kids are all grown up now, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what happened to the time. The unfathomable becomes all too real, and all you have to do is keep waking up in the morning. Paul Simon, who couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be seventy years old, is now sixty-five. And an old man of God, walking hand in hand with his closest friend for six decades, is now bereft of the love of his life. “If our hope in Christ is for this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied,” the apostle Paul wrote. Those of us who have ever known that kind of loss, that dizzying and horrifying sense of the loss of relational equilibrium, will know that his words are true.

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