As I believe I've mentioned (!), my sixtieth birthday is coming up in a few months, and it's the first one that's made a significant impression upon me. As I ponder that big one, and decade markers past, I find that my thoughts are turning not to sixty, or seventy, but to eighty. I'm wondering who I will turn out to be, and who I will turn out to have been, should I reach that advanced age.
Herewith, some disjointed thoughts (maybe by July they will have formed themselves into a coherent whole):
*** At the beginning of this year, thanks to some RevGal recommendations, I purchased a couple of life planning books. On the whole, they've been more useful than not. One concept in particular leapt out at me ~ and when I find the book and the quote, I'll be delighted to give credit where credit is due ~ that being that we tend to accomplish little on a year-by-year basis, and we should think in terms of longer time periods. The Quiet Husband and I were discussing this last night in terms of recognizing that decisions and actions have long-term consequences, some of which we were intuitively aware when we were in our twenties, and some to which we need to be more consciously alert in our sixties.
There's an Ignatian means of discernment connected to these concepts of long-range planning and consequences. Ignatius suggests, among other things, that when we are considering alternatives, we imagine ourselves many decades hence and ask: What will I wish then that I had decided now? That may have been the key to my decision to leave my job and go to seminary, and perhaps also to my decision to return after Josh died. Both times I was sure that, as a frail ninety-year-old sitting in the sun on the nursing home terrace, I would be grateful if I had changed course and gone to seminary, and very sad if I had not.
So ~ five or ten important years, not one, or a few months. A crucial consideration for someone like me, still operating under the tremendous weight of grief and very easily discouraged by the slightest negative comment or outcome.
***It's been my privilege to spend a lot of time with Old People. My brother and I were four and seven when our mother and baby brother died, and our grandparents next door became THE key figures in our lives. (Of course, they were younger then than I am now! But they seemed plenty old to us.) They adored us and were heartbroken for us and exerted themselves in every possible way for us but, most importantly, they were very real to us. We always got to see, up close and personal, the triumphs and defeats of the last several decades of life (and my grandmother lived to the age of 100, twenty years past my grandfather's death), and as we grew up, they became increasingly open with us about their experiences and feelings.
These days, I spend a lot of time with elderly parishoners and their relatives. I am always asking about their hopes and their disappointments. Many of them are not too forthcoming. I don't think they're asked too often about how they really feel. And so I remind myself: Think long term, not short term. Maybe they will open up a bit more. Sometimes, already, the long term has not been long. But others may be here a good many more years, and I am slowly beginning to feel my way into the spirituality of the elderly.
I consider it a stoke of either remarkable good luck or more Holy Spirit delirium that spiritual director emeritus was ~ well, he must have been 73 when I met him, because he is about to turn 83. And, like many of his Jesuit brothers, some of whom I have also come to know, he continues to take on new assignments and to travel the world. I remind myself sometimes that there are certain advantages to life without the responsibilities of home and family, but: still. Those men, and the Catholic sisters I know as well, are all beacons of light in the form of engagement with the life of the mind and the life of the world, long after many people have settled for the golf course.
***So: Eighty. Who do I want to be?
Some things are certain, irrevocable now. One morning in seminary, a few months after Josh died, a guest lecturer made a joke about suicide. (Yes, really; that did happen. And he is actually a minister of word and sacrament. There is no explanation for some things.) I lasted about five minutes before realizing that I was in no way required to sit there and listen to any further drivel coming from his mouth. I exited for an empty classroom, whereupon I burst into tears. Two of my friends showed up almost immediately, and I wailed that I simply had no idea who I was anymore. One of my friends said, "You are a woman whose son has died of suicide. That's part of who you are now."
He was right. I am that now. And some other things that cannot be undone. But there might also be some time ahead of me, maybe even two decades worth.
Who do I want to be, at eighty? What do I want people to say, if they are describing me when I am not around? For what in the previous two decades, the two just ahead at the moment, will I be thankful? What blunders will I have made, and which ones will I somehow have steered clear of? Will I be able to say that I learned one or two important things, and how to act upon them as well?
Will I be grateful to have made it that far?