Living…and dying

My wife’s brother and his wife own a camp on Cane River in Louisiana. “Camp” is a misleading word. In Texas we would call it a “lake house”, but “camp” is the common term used in Louisiana. A camp can consist of a trailer squeezed on a sliver of land or it can be a large home (even a mansion) isolated on several acres. And Cane River is not actually a river but a 26 mile long lake, dammed on both ends. It looks like a narrow river, a brackish green ribbon with the gentlest of currents induced by the breeze. The last couple of Augusts, I’ve been making a weekly trek to the camp to mow their 5 acre property while my in-laws visit family in the Northeast U.S..

You might wonder how I was conned into outdoor labor in August when the temperature peaks in the mid- to high 90s intensified by 70% humidity, but I love being able to get out of the city and spend a couple of days each week in complete quiet and solitude, riding the big mowers, and getting caked in red dust kicked up by the spinning blades. The camp lies within a subdivision carved from a pecan orchard, and although there are neighbors within a couple of hundred yards, interaction with them is minimal and not unwelcome. At present I’m sitting in the outdoor kitchen and apart from the whirring ceiling fans overhead, the only sounds I hear are a few birds calling and a detail of cows protesting as they push through a stockade, no doubt against their will.

When I was at the camp to mow last week, I was walking down the stairs, and I saw a picture of “Papa” on the wall, standing in his driveway wearing a short sleeve white sport shirt and pleated trousers.  He sported white hair and the soft extra pounds that most older men carry.  Although I have seen that picture many times, I burst into tears.  Papa was my wife’s maternal grandfather and she had recently told me (as she has several times over the years) that I remind her of Papa.  He was tall and quiet and gentle. Since he died in 1970 at age 70, I never had the chance to meet him.  I wept because he was dead, his life was over, and he will soon be forgotten.  

Those thoughts about Papa are the types of thoughts I have frequently, trying to reconcile this earthly life with heaven (or hell) after our death.  It saddens me greatly that we will all be forgotten after a generation or two.  I think of all of the suffering most people endure, all of the mistakes and evil we commit, all of the love we have for family and friends. I know that if we make it to heaven, it will be because of Christ’s sacrifice and not because we earned it.  Nothing we do on earth can compensate for our many sins.  I look forward to death (I think…) and an end to this miserable life (it’s not ALL bad!), but in my thinking, I can’t make the leap of passing from our earthly lives to happiness in heaven. First of all, it’s difficult to imagine everlasting happiness.  Second, how we make the transition from our flawed humanity to heavenly dweller is a black box to me.

When I sat down for lunch, I looked up Papa’s grave on findagrave.com and wept when I saw his headstone and read the obituary.  Then I looked up my father-in-law’s grave and wept some more.  I felt guilt over having been so critical of his alcoholism rather than having compassion for him.  I noted the location of the cemetery where he’s buried with the thought that I might visit his grave some day.

Then I looked at some pictures of my wife on my computer.  And I wept even more.  She just turned 70 (the same age as Papa when he died) and her birthday hit ME kind of hard.  Recent pictures of her reveal the effects of aging and I weep for what living has done to her.  I think of the young woman I loved and married and see her in my wife. I feel guilt and sadness about the the times when things weren’t going so well between us.  And of course I wonder how much longer we have together and who will be the first to die. I’ve resolved to making the best of our remaining years together and to focus on cherishing her as my wife.

Not that my wife acts “elderly”.  She’s still working full time as the director of a non-profit organization.  She’s active, though I wished she got more exercise, but her health is otherwise excellent. If she’s like her great aunt (who’s 101), she could live a few more decades. But still, we are into those later years when death becomes more likely.

When I visit an art museum, I am struck that artists create paintings that still inspire people centuries later. It seems important to me that I leave something behind that will inspire people, but that’s not going to happen. It won’t be long after my death that I’ll be forgotten.

Is it simply pride that makes me want to leave a visible mark on this earth? Or maybe it’s my inability to make sense of the cycle of life has been repeating for thousands of generations. The funny thing is, after I die — I won’t care!