January 2, 2022

Five Years

It is five years ago today since my father died.

I remember the day well. It was the day we moved house. We woke early with the hot January sun streaming through the large sash windows of our old cottage, the light dancing across the walls, and onto the bedhead.

I had gotten home late, having spent the night soothing my dad’s flushed face with a cloth, unsure of whether he even knew I was there, listening to his laboured breathing, watching his shrunken body eke out its last few hours after four years being wracked by Lewy Body Dementia. I remember crying. Crying hard.

Yet it didn’t feel bad like that. It felt liminal – moving between stages of life. I remember that cry. I confess I loved the intensity of it. Haven’t cried like that since.

I remember that my wife and I made love. One last time in that house. A mixture of desire, comfort and meaning making. The last day in our first house.

Well, that we made love is a fact. But the emotions and reasons that lay behind that? Who knows. Five years of memory building means that the very events of the day are not remembered, merely the memories of them.

There are facts in there for sure. Facts that won’t change. The fact that ten men from church landed on our doorstep with trailers and vans to shift us as quickly as possible so that I could get back to the hospital.

The fact that as I drove down the road to the rental we would be living in until our new house was built, the phone rang and the soft African voice of the carer told me that “Mr Raymond has died during the night”. The fact of my wife’s wail of grief as I parked the car, and told her. The fact of the stoic removalist friends who hugged me, then continued lugging furniture into the house. The fact of dad lying there shrivelled even more in death than in the last few months of his illness, if that were even possible. Lying there so small with a red rose between his hands, a courtesy gesture from the nursing home. The fact of my mum and brother already packing up dad’s stuff, as the aged care facility gives you 24 hours to clear out.

Those are the facts from five years ago. The emotions and other interior accompaniments, have built up into an ecosystem of meaning and assertions in the time in between.

Five years. There is a stage in your life when you stop counting your life off in terms of one year, and you move to bigger chunks. Like five years. Five years ago I wasn’t yet fifty. Youngish. In five years time I will be in my sixtieth year. With two five year chunks to go before three score and ten. And two five year chunks to go before I reach the age my father was when dementia started to hit hard. He was dead less than five years after that.

We lay reflecting on that this morning. Five years on. We reflected on what we would feel if this is all we had. This life. We looked back at the five years with the joys and sorrows and the grind. Oh the grind! The grind of responsibility. As we age we are responsible for more not less.

Our capacity to absorb increases into our fifties. Until suddenly one day it doesn’t. Well it doesn’t do it suddenly. We come to the realisation that one day our capacity will shrink. And, like my father’s, it could shrink calamitously and we are suddenly not responsible for anything. Others are responsible for us – again – like in the early years. They call it “power of attorney”, or “administrator”, a nice set of legal terms to hide the fact you can no longer look after yourself.

In five years I have only visited my dad’s grave twice. Well, three times if you count his burial. I conducted his funeral, and as I committed his body to the ground I was caught again by the wonder and thrilling horror of death, that is was his body in that box going into the ground. It’s the point at a funeral when the reality truly hits. I know, I’ve conducted enough of them, and that’s when the wailing kicks in.

Is it bad that I have only visited twice? I don’t know. I don’t know what the norm is. Once a year? Twice? I watch the movies and see the oft-repeated scenes of loved ones setting flowers again on tombstones at birthdays and anniversaries. Perhaps it is because he was my dad, not my son. That comparison doesn’t bear thinking about.

Five years on and I’m next in line. All things being equal. Which, while they never are, are equal enough for us to see the pattern and prepare ourselves for it. To know that in a bunch of “fives years time” it will be us, if we are spared. My friends who are my age are starting to lose their fathers too. An increasing number of them. Deaths measured out across the years, sometimes in spates, but more often just the steady remorseless passage of time doing its thing.

I think about death a lot. Not in a morose way. But in a sobered, almost amazed, way. That I will die. And die, at best, in a handful of “five years times”. My favourite – if you can call it by that word – reflection on death is that of Ivan Illyich’s friends in the classic Tolstoy novella that bears his name:

Besides considerations as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from
Ivan Ilyich’s death, the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who
heard of it the complacent feeling that, “it is he who is dead and not I.”
Each one thought or felt, “Well, he’s dead but I’m alive!”

That complacent feeling. I’ve never felt it. Ever. Perhaps that’s my personality. Perhaps it’s because I had a brush with death myself some twelve years ago. But for me, to hear of the death of someone I know, stirs something within me. Not fear. Not dread. Sobriety perhaps.

And to hear of the death of someone famous? Betty White, the actress died yesterday. At 99. She was famous for being in The Mary Tyler Moore show, then famous for being in The Golden Girls. But if you were not of those two TV eras, then Betty White was famous for being, well, for being alive! At nearly 100. That she didn’t make it by seven weeks was the news. Not quite to twenty lots of five years. Nineteen lots of five years and that was it. Doesn’t seem all that much.

I googled the Golden Girls to see what ages the others had died. For died they all have. Bea Arthur died of cancer at 86 in 2009, Rue McClanahan died at 76 in 2010 from a stroke. Estelle Getty died in 2008 at 84. Died from Lewy body dementia. Like my father.

Betty White’s death brings the golden era to a close. In a statement, Betty’s agent said “Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever.”

The Golden Girls seemed so old when the series began back in 1985. In reality, two of the actors were 63, one was 62, and the other was 53. I’m less than two five-year blocks away from the oldest!

I’ve been reading Isaiah these past few days. What a great picture of God and his eternal glory in the midst of the mud, and the blood and the decay of our lives. Lying in bed talking this morning we were sobered reflecting on the passage of time – especially these five years since my father’s death – but not despairing. Where would we be without our God? Without our God, as we go into another year of who knows what. A third year of COVID. It could get to five years fairly quickly.

But those classic words from chapter 40:

‘All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures for ever.’

I cannot imagine trying to live in light of my own death without the deep comfort that comes from this truth. And a truth confirmed by the resurrection of the Word himself, a guarantee that death will not be the end. It’s not a vague wish, but a living hope, that by the time my five year blocks are completed and I die, that that is not the end.

And our increasingly secular culture scorns this idea, but is yet to offer anything other than denial or terror as a replacement. If the past two years has shown us anything, it’s certainly shown us the abject fear of death in this most deathly of cultures. I hope that over the next five years Christians just appear weirder and weirder to their non-Christian friends, not on the basis of their political views or whatever, but on the basis that they have a joyful hope unknown to those who are running out of time, and who deep down – though occasionally it comes to the surface – know it in their bones, the bones that will be the last vestige of their existence.

What’s the alternative? David Bowie, a man whose last album was all about his impending death, put it in his 1972 song “Five Years”:

Pushing through the market square
So many mothers sighing
News had just come over
We had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet
Then I knew he was not lying

We’ve got five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got

I was five when he wrote that. Fifty-five this year quoting it. Grateful to God for all those years. And grateful because of Jesus that we’ve got an eternity of five years to come with a God who will wipe away all our tears.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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