A few weeks ago our congregation lost one of its most treasured patriarchs, Lionel Haakenson. The following is a piece I wrote for the local paper:
“Thank you, Dana.” These words were issued with a smile from a man that I admire and respect. Less than ten minutes before he had lain in a recliner, dozing with his left hand limp at his side with a thin line of drool trailing down his lip. It had been months since he called me by or remembered my name, so I thought. I had assumed that his most recent stroke had left him with little of his memory or the ability to produce cogent thoughts. These three words from a dying, 93 year old stroke victim struck a cord with me, helping me realize how wrong I was about many things.
I am used to hearing of families that would put an aging parent, like this gentleman, in a nursing home. In fact, this is the norm more than the exception down in the lower 48. From a young age, my family has volunteered at nursing homes. I have witnessed the wearing down and death of both young and old. Nursing homes are not just filled with the elderly. I have known a man in his forties with AIDS, a 50-year-old former college professor with a brain injury, and a retired rodeo queen. The one consistent between these varied acquaintances is that for the most part, they are forgotten. They are forgotten by their families, forgotten by their friends, and forgotten by society at large. They are a grouping of the forgotten, the disposal of the dying. You see, aging isn’t pretty. It isn’t glamorous, and taking care of those that are in the twilight years isn’t glamorous either.
Now that I am a mother raising a toddler, I see the similarities between the beginning and the ending of life. Babies cry and are very emotional. They have a hard time putting words together to express their feelings. They need to be fed, clothed, diapered, and most importantly loved. The aging at different stages may have some of these same needs. Life is fragile in all its stages, in fact we all have needs that must be met. These needs may change depending on which life season we are in, but needs are still there. Those of us that are in the prime of our lives may delude ourselves into believing that we have it all under control and are completely self sustained. Why does our culture so easily mock the weak or the dying? I myself have been guilty of saying things like, “I don’t want to ‘go out’ that way” or “if, I ever get that bad off just ship me down the river.” It is easy for us in our youth, to ‘mock the dying bird.’ We have been sold the idea that the only way to “live” is in a blaze of glory…taking names and kicking butt. This message can be seen through movies like the academy award winning, Million Dollar Baby. As the young girl lay paralyzed from a tragic boxing accident, she begs her trainer to take her life. The message is clear: if I can’t live like I did before then life is not worth living.
This last week, as I heard my name from my nigonerian friend, I realized that life isn’t just about “living large”. In fact sometimes, life is just barely hanging on. However strong or fragile life is, life is beautiful and amazing. On the wall next to where this man lay was a framed photo of one of his proudest moments. At the age of 78 he confidently stands 6’2”, a muscular 200 pounds, with a slight smile on his face and an outstretched arm next to a 368 pound halibut. I look at the same man, in a much weaker frame, and I can’t help but smile. Our culture today might say, “How pitiful that this great man would die this way.” Yet, there is no need to pity this man. Instead I see joy in his eyes, a smile on his lips and appreciation for all that is done for him. He isn’t downtrodden in his last days or resentful of his condition. He takes delight in a song, truly feels the warmth in a hug, and finds comfort from a warm bowl of soup. I also look around and see his family and friends banding together to take care of his every need. I observe granddaughters coming to hold his hand, grandsons dressing him for bed, and friends from his church stopping by with food and lending hands. He is definitely not forgotten.
Just like a new mother cuddles, cares for and instructs her baby into childhood, and eventually adulthood; so we have the opportunity to aid the aging into life beyond this world. And through this work we can learn something. Society tells us that if you’re not young, lean, wealthy and good looking not only will you not win the latest episode of Survivor, but your life is not really worth living. What I learned from my time with Lionel is that life is worth living just simply because it is life. He also taught me that true strength isn’t being ashamed of weakness or bound by pride, but boldly stepping through the doors of life, even the door that leads us home.