By Audrey Stallsmith
The recent deaths of two elderly pets have forced me to think about aging, when--like most people--I would much rather avoid the subject! Only days after I had to have my old Border Collie put down, our equally ancient fan-tailed pigeon also got sick.
Although she'd always been a somewhat proud bird, she took the indignity of me trying to feed her with an eyedropper with fairly good grace. She gave me a few speaking looks, however, like the sharp-tongued dowager who says, "All right, I'm as old as dirt and going to die soon anyway. So just what are we hoping to accomplish by all this?" She did manage to hang on a few days longer, however--perhaps so as not to seem ungrateful.
I recently turned fifty myself, with the accompanying realization that my own remaining time is getting shorter. Of course, I still seem like a kid to my parents' generation, who have to cope with even more imminent disease and death.
Dorothy Sayers reminds us in Creed or Chaos that what we really need is anticipation rather than resignation. "Except ye become as little children, except you can wake on your fiftieth birthday with the same forward-looking excitement and interest in life that you enjoyed when you were five, 'ye cannot enter the kingdom of God.' One must not only die daily, but every day we must be born again.”
When digging the collie's grave in the garden, despite the dead leaves showering down on me, I had to keep helping living creatures--a wooly caterpillar, moth, etc.--out of the hole. And, after I'd dug the bird's grave and went back inside to fetch her body, I came out to find a sleepy toad in hers. I'm not sure whether he was looking for a place to hibernate, or had already found one which had been disturbed by my digging.
He did make me smile, however, as he climbed grumpily out and hopped away. And I realized that, with all my self-pity, I was in danger of making myself old before my time.
There's actually not too much danger of that on a farm where new life keeps popping up--and popping in!--all the time. Somehow, after the deaths of our other two pets, we've now ended up with three kittens in the house when we only intended to have one. As I watch their antics, it's often hard to believe that--because animals age faster--they will likely die before I do.
"Let me advise thee," Hannah Whitall Smith writes, "not to talk of thyself as being old. There is something in Mind Cure, after all, and if thee continually talks of thyself as being old, thee may perhaps bring on some of the infirmities of age. At least," she adds with a sparkle, "I would not risk it if I were thee."
After all, old age should be a climax, not an anticlimax. It's when we finally know our strength. "Youth is the period in which a man can be hopeless," G. K. Chesterton notes in Charles Dickens. "The end of every episode is the end of the world. But the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle-aged."
Young people are only half developed too. As George MacDonald notes in The Marquess of Lossie, "Age is not all decay; it is the ripening, the swelling, of the fresh life within, that withers and bursts the husks." Old age is when the fruit matures and ripens, proves to be either full and sweet or wizened and bitter--when we finally find out what we are. It is the point where all that we've learned--or refused to learn--comes into play and either delivers or destroys us.
Wise old people, I've discovered, care much less about what other people think of them than the young do. That allows them much more freedom. As Sayers points out in Clouds of Witness, "Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force."
And that doesn't only apply to females! C. S. Lewis confesses, "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret. Now that I am 50 I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness."
Chesterton agrees. He even posits that old age will give us more time to really live. In his poem, "A Second Childhood," he writes
When all my days are ending
And I have no song to sing,
I think that I shall not be too old
To stare at everything;
As I stared once at a nursery door
Or a tall tree and a swing.
After all, there is no reason for us Christians to be afraid of what is coming. Elisabeth Elliot reassures us in her program Gateway to Joy that, "There's no fear for the future; God is already there. Isn't that a terrific prospect?" And Scripture reminds us that He will look after us, even if we get to the point where we can't look after ourselves. "Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he. . .who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you. . ." (Isaiah 46:4 NIV)
Even the oldest of us, after all, is still ridiculously young to the God who has always existed. So he will still pick us up when necessary, much as a good father carries his sleeping child in his arms on the way home after an exhausting day.
In fact, because we humans are eternal creatures, our three score years and ten are just--as C. S. Lewis points out in The Last Battle "the cover and the title page." Only at death will we truly begin "Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has ever read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."
Smith notes in The Unselfishness of God that "the prospect of leaving this life and of entering into the larger and grander life beyond, is pure bliss to me. It is like having a new country, full of unknown marvels, to explore; and the knowledge that no one and nothing can hinder my going there, is a secret spring of joy in the bottom of my heart continually. Often and often, when some pleasant earthly plan is spoiled, I say to myself triumphantly, 'Ah well, there is one thing about which I can never be disappointed, and that is dying. No one, not even an enemy, can deprive me of that!'"
As she realized, death is more like spring than winter, like being born again into a much larger world. MacDonald asserts in his poem "To My Aging Friends:"
It is no winter night comes down
Upon our hearts, dear friends of old;
But a May evening, softly brown,
Whose wind is rather cold. . .
At our poor smoldering earthly fire;
And talk of wide-eyed living ones
Who have what we desire.