My precious granddaughter and I enjoy life together.
Friday night as I lay beside my baby girl on the air mattress at the foot of the bed in her small room upstairs, deep in thought, she began picking at my hair with her thumb and index finger, pulling it up, letting it go, pulling it up, letting it go, strand by strand.
"Why you got gray hair, Grandma?" she innocently asked.
"Because I'm getting old," I said, teasingly.
Her little face grew quite serious.
"I don't want you to get old, Grandma. Then you will die, and I will miss you," she said in a sad, whimpering voice.
Taken aback, I said, "I'm not THAT old, Baby Girl!"
"But I don't want you to get old, Grandma," she said. Forlorn, she put her little arms around my neck. "I don't want you to die, Grandma," she said again, pushing her face between my chin and my shoulder, as if in her not wanting it, she was willing that it would never happen.
I lay there in silence for a few minutes, holding her and letting my tears dampen the pillow. Regaining composure, and glad for low light, I said, "We all have to die someday, Baby Girl. Then we get to be with God in Heaven!"
"But I don't want you to be with God in Heaven; I will miss you!" she exclaimed.
"Well, Grandma plans to be with you for a long, long time," I said. "We're gonna run in the fields, swim in the pool, walk down to the creek and throw rocks in it!"
Lying there beside her, though, I realized that life isn't always what we plan. Just Wednesday, a beloved 21-year-old student died tragically and unexpectedly. Just today I visited my 80-year-old aunt as she lay dying from pancreatic cancer. So just now I'm realizing even more the brevity of life.
And, yes, life isn't always what we plan.
I have been blessed with an uncanny ability to envision myself no longer here. Saddened at the thought of leaving those I love behind, I fully realize that earthly life is a "skiff" (as my father would say) in comparison to eternity...we're withering flowers, fluffy seed hairs of milkweed tossed to the wind, autumn leaves soon covered by snow, fading into the ground. Life is a second in a decade, a year in an era, a century in eternity. It's short. So very, very short.
And, yes, we all age from the moment we're born. No choice in aging except to die an untimely death. No choice but to watch the vision blur, the hearing dull, the arthritis set in, the mind forget. No choice but to know the heartbreak from haunting hurts, the loneliness from lost loves, the wrenching despair from devastating deaths.
But those are realities of life well lived...for unless we are vulnerable and open hearted, we build walls to block pain. Unless we know and deeply understand others, we can't grasp the concept of loneliness. Unless we love with extreme love, we can't grieve in the depths of sorrow.
"You're as young as you feel," isn't necessarily the truth. For although I am akin to pain, I am very much the 5-year-old who climbed the path to Grandma's house, ever looking back to see if Mom was watching; the 12-year-old standing on the sidelines at my first junior high school dance. I'm the girl who swayed to "Color My World" in the arms of a good friend at my senior prom; the college student from a town of 500 on a campus of 30,000. I am the young bride who married right out of college; the 23-year-old who sat at her dying grandmother's side and reassured her that she was "good enough" for God.
I am the young mother who played guitar and sang "One Tin Soldier" to her toddler sons; the teacher who watches her students walk across the graduation stage year after year, wondering if those to come will be half as good as those leaving; the friend who strives to see and help meet others' needs.
We are who we are because of those segments in our passing lives, because of choices we've made along the way, because of people we've allowed to grip our hearts. And though aging brings pain and heartache, it also brings overflowing love and joy, which tend to keep our spirits young. Aging takes us a step closer to God and gives us a pressing sense of squeezing a little tighter, hugging a little longer, laughing a little more. It makes us turn to say "I love you" one last time before walking out the door.
Having an aging body doesn't mean giving up or giving in. It simply means I may move a little slower, think a little longer, grasp new concepts with a little more difficulty. It means I realize even more the importance of scooting a bit closer to this 3-year-old lying beside me, putting my arms around her and holding on like nobody's business.
Yesterday morning, I awoke with little fingers poking my cheek. "You old yet, Grandma?" her whispering voice asked.
"Not yet, Baby Girl," I responded, rubbing her nose with mine. "Not quite yet."