Ready or Not

“I don’t want parenting as we’ve known it to be over. My dear wife sure don’t either.” From the magazine.

Eric Youngblood / 12.2.21

This essay appears in the newest issue of The Mockingbird magazine, which is all about aging.

Speed aging. That’s what my dear friend, with a hoarse, tender voice, called the neurologically marauding condition of Parkinson’s that has rudely interrupted his once robust life of omni-competent capability. A decade’s worth of decline for the low, low price of just one measly year. It’s a horrid deal, an un-mendable trouble. At least on this side of the “turning of all sad things untrue,” it is.

These days, sorrows like this contribute to the aura of austerity that sometimes makes the air of our lives thicker than a July evening in South Alabama. Like Wesley and Princess Buttercup in The Princess Bride, my wife of a smidgen over a quarter-century and I traipse toward the Fire-Swamp of Empty Nest in the Forest of Aging, where the last bits of the daylight of parenting as we’ve known it are only barely poking through dense thickets.

In the movie, Buttercup swears, “We’ll never survive,” as she and Wesley approach that treacherous environs of the Fire-Swamp where threatening “Rodents of Unusual Size” (RUS) terrorize trespassers.

Wesley offers the reassurance of either a hero or a fool. Completely unbothered by what he doesn’t and can’t know, and unfettered from a modern Westerner’s host of neurotic, anxious maladies of the spirit, he retorts, “Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.”

Two decades of privileged pastoring, embedded deep in the same community, has persuaded me that the Forest of Aging presents any number of unexpected frights, costs, and losses.

And in that forest there is a clamor. A need of soul. A nutritional deficit of reassurance that we crave at a cellular level.

Most of us need, no matter what losses we endure, or which frights await us, to know and be with someone who has survived it. We know Princess Buttercup is not wrong to be scared. And we’re not so sure Wesley’s confidence is FDIC-insured.

We need to know someone has survived it, not only because there is justifiable apprehension of what’s coming, but also because we need help absorbing and negotiating the considerable expense to the heart of all we leave behind.

…..

 

I’ll wake up some mornings overtaken with a rude realization: “It’s over; I can’t believe it’s over,” I’ll mumble, a bit dazed.

Our eldest child’s athletic career, that is, and the impending close of our youngest’s as well.

Well, I don’t want them to be over.

I want us to have the perpetual thrill of watching our youngest ace his opponent in a tennis match not only on this sunny afternoon, but on many others! I wish to pace with a swirl of joy, anxiety, and adrenaline as our other son takes the mound on a Friday night in April, and on many other spring nights too! But we’re not going to be doing these things. Not much longer anyway.

At times, my wife will text me old photos of our children, part of the repository of wealth we have squirreled away on the Cloud and on abandoned computers. (We are surely near millionaires in photos by now.)

She sends one of a little blond-haired boy seated at the kitchen table, head cocked, a determined gaze fixed on his paper, his left hand armed with a pencil and aimed at an open notebook. Meanwhile, his younger brother, just two feet away, is draped improbably across the arm of his own chair, leaning over and working nearly horizontally at the same table, doing his homework as if he were in a balancing act in Cirque Du Soleil. And I will confess to her later, I can’t really look at those pictures for more than a cursory glance. They undo me.

I don’t want parenting as we’ve known it to be over. My dear wife sure don’t either. And I use don’t for emphasis, as Southerners sometimes must.

I’d still like to be interrogated with fascinating questions that have never since been put to me like, “Hey Dad, what should I do after I hit my first three?” from a quizzical and confident seven-year-old heading to his first-ever basketball game, naturally preoccupied with the only important matter at hand—how to appropriately celebrate his similarities to Steph Curry when they inevitably emerge.

I’d still rather get the head-shaking chuckles that come from earnest emergency queries such as I once received while running to the car from the gym, a little one behind me:

“Dad, are we in the country?”

“Huh?”

“Are we in the country?”

“I don’t know, son. Come on, it’s raining…” only to turn around to discover my young son relieving himself in the landscaping at a nearby college.

Both boys drive now, so they don’t need us to do what it never bothered us to do. We were always carpool hogs in our hearts, always willing to give rides to whomever, rarely willing or wishing to receive. We wanted the time in the car, the fleeting, valuable, shoulder-to-shoulder, all-looking-the-same direction climate where that rare sound of conversation with boys was most likely to be experienced.

We certainly tried to prioritize presence by some instinct not unique to us. In fact, though I can’t bear to imagine the multitude of our yet-to-be-fully-realized parenting failures, I’d like to hope, by the grace of our Lord, that we at least were there. A lot, any ways.

But now, they are not. At least not so much.

As a long-time buddy said recently after entrusting his firstborn to her new college home, “It’s so good for her, but not so good for us.” I knew exactly what he meant. And how he could earnestly mean both things. And as if to punctuate the ending sentence of this particular paragraph of our parenting, our pediatrician recently announced his retirement. Without even asking us! After only fifty years of reassurance to nervous parents afflicted with the common condition of having their hearts walking around on the outside of their bodies!

His retirement, on the heels of this COVID season, which is already replete with a thousand deprivations, offers, we fear, a short trailer of the new episode in the queue of our lives, with vivid and alarming scenes of loneliness, loss, sadness, confusion, and apprehension—only suitable for mature audiences.

I have been assuming that this soon-to-be-released episode was merely about enduring the loss of what we’ve badly wanted to keep. But it isn’t just that all. Maybe it’s the unusual size, not of the rodents ahead, but of the parental mantle of a different sort we’ll be asked to take on, as the dear ones in our lives have before us.

Our dear doctor with the cheerful twinkle in his eye has been a father of sorts in the many ad hoc ways we have needed him to be. He has given us coverage: a great big awning of protection from the rude, blaring heat of one million lumens of sweat-producing uncertainties associated with child-rearing. After hours with broken noses from basketball game collisions, during phone calls for a quick question about an allergy issue, in the summertime for annual physicals, and with fevers and coughs during flu season—through all of it, he was reachable, had a knack for reassurance, and never seemed bothered. He was easy to trust for direction when the unsure G.P.S of our minds seemed to be on endless loop…re-calculating, re-calculating.

He was to us, as I’m realizing my speed-aging friend has been through each episode of our shared life together, a cameo of Christ’s ubiquitous comfort brokered through others. He was, in Dave Hansen’s words, a parable of Christ, “an extended metaphor, helping us understand what we don’t know by comparing it to what we do know.” We don’t know Christ, so he stoops tenderly toward us through someone more familiar.

In a “A Desirable Woman,” Wendell Berry introduces us to another such parable of Christ, a man who may not feel like he’s that at all, Pastor Williams Milby:

Williams Milby had the gift of comforting. He carried with him, not by his will, it seemed, but by the purest gift, the very presence of comfort. And yet even as it was a comfort to others, it could be a bafflement and burden to him. His calling, and the respect accorded to it, admitted him into the presence of troubles he could not mend.

As a pastor, I have long characterized my work as being one who “traffics in sorrows.”

So being “admitted into the presence of troubles he could not mend” is a resonant description. Thing is, I’ve always had Virgils of sorts out front of me as guides that I at least knew would be there if needed, when troubles got too thick or confusing.

My speed-aging friend whose disease I despise has been one of those steadying comfort stations for me as I walk into my own and others’ un-mendable troubles. He’s long been a shelter of soothing welcome for hundreds in our community. And for over a decade he and I, along with another devoted friend (a former teacher who is also retiring from his labors this year!), have had lunch together once a week.

These two dear companions have both trekked twenty years farther than I into the Forest of Aging. During the pandemic, the loss of our regular gatherings alerted me even more acutely to how Christ has so tenderly stooped to me through them in all manner of weathers. Even on the days when all that we discussed were imminently important matters like a disconcerting bullpen issue with the Braves, I had been made sturdy, because they were always listening, always two decades ahead, but never standing above.

I get too chatty with them, as you do when the judgment that causes self-watchfulness has been removed. My role as a pastor, a father, as one who is, in so many instances, “in charge,” is suddenly flipped, and I am at ease for a moment, being listened to, succored by the implicit knowledge that these men have gone through whatever forest I have yet to travel, and have survived. They help me weigh the relative importance of things competing for my attention. They have field notes. And they have been entrusted with, in ways they scarcely even realize, the gift of comfort.

They carry Christ’s cushioning for those surprise shocks I must endure. And like Him, they each have their own wounds which make gentle their words and ways, and which are themselves a strange but curing piece of consolation as I get nicked by the briars and have the wind knocked out of me from time to time.

Anticipating the eventual diminishment of such preciousness, as my wife and I are led along in the unfamiliar Forest of Aging and the Fire-Swamp of Empty Nest, may be what most frightens me, anyway, about what is next.

For all of my years, I have always known that someone was there, even if I didn’t feel the need to bother them. Companions in the un-mendable troubles. Folks to bolster the myriad decisions I’ve been asked to make, to tell me what it was like, to reassure me when I was unsteady. Now, I realize that our callings are beginning to shift.

The stable of fathers and mothers we leaned on is, little by little, diminishing. The transfer they all went through, ready or not, to become those fathers and mothers, awaits us too, ready or not.

C. S. Lewis once penned a letter referring to Queen Elizabeth’s coronation on June 2, 1953:

What impressed most who saw it was the fact that the Queen herself appeared to be quite overwhelmed by the sacramental side of it… The pressing of that huge, heavy crown on that small, young head becomes a sort of symbol of the situation of humanity itself: humanity called by God to be his vice-regent and high priest on earth, yet feeling so inadequate. As if he said, “In my inexorable love I shall lay upon the dust that you are glories and dangers and responsibilities beyond your understanding…”

It seems our Father, regardless of our perceived readiness, may soon be issuing a dignifying challenge to us. And perhaps we brace with apprehension for the moment when “the heavy crown falls.”

As time evaporates, indifferent to my readiness or willingness, I suppose I am wondering what happens when we become the fathers and mothers in that broad, sacramental, priestly sense which we have always presumed was a role for others.

Like Wesley in The Princess Bride, I know not whether I’ll be a hero or a fool, but unlike him I am bothered by what I do not and cannot know. But this I call to mind as I scroll the cloud of my memory for the photos capturing Christ’s many timely, comfort-creating appearances in “bafflement and burden” and even alongside age that sometimes ravages speedily: that my wife and I have a Shepherd-King who has not only “tasted death for us all,” but is “no stranger to our weakness.”

I recall that our fathers and mothers before us “trusted in Him and were not disappointed.” And so in little stabs of speeding moments, I follow their lead, cast myself on him as well, and find, no matter the lurking dangers, that “my heart is helped.”

Find out more about The Mockingbird magazine.

Art by Ricardo Tomás.

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