Seven days ago was that perfect day gardeners dream about: sunny, a light breeze, time on my hands, and work that needs to be done. This is what I love and have always loved. I remember even as a child the satisfaction of sweeping dead leaves from the sidewalk and weeding flower beds so they look better. The love of growing things and landscaping yards has been my hobby for as long as I can remember. I have scoured plant catalogs for days as spring approached and woefully discovered that what arrives in the email rarely bears even a slight resemblance to the bountifully blooming plant pictured on those pages. Nevertheless I persevered: fertilizing, spading, weeding, and planting. I drew landscaping diagrams on graph paper and witnessed the circles and lines transform into flowering crab apple trees and beds of brilliant tulips. I wore out wheelbarrows and shovels and frequented local nurseries so much they knew me by name. I designed pergolas in California and rock gardens in Arizona. And I loved every minute of it.
Seven days ago Karon also answered the gardener’s call and tackled a project that involved moving rocks, a furniture dolly, and a wheelbarrow. Not that long ago I would have been the one moving rocks and wheeling them to a new spot with the furniture dolly. Seven days ago, not so much. Work like that now disables me for several days and so, much to my chagrin, I step aside and let Karon do the “big” jobs. Instead, on that perfect day, I settled for a less arduous task of trimming last fall’s dead foliage out of the planter and around the bird feeders. I felt the warm sun on my shoulders and listened to the house finches fussing over the sunflower seed in the feeder. My favorite music was playing from Pandora in my back pocket. Yes, it was a glorious day. In about an hour I had filled up the trash can and slowly stood to view my handiwork. Yup, it looked great!
The next morning it was hard to stand up and I reached for my cane. Burning pain accompanied those familiar aches in my back and down my legs. It subsided long enough for some tennis with friends, but by afternoon I knew that my evening plans would not materialize. Karon went to the church dinner without me. My pain sidelined me from our Sunday service, too. Odd, sitting home on Sunday morning.
A Painful Realization
Later, as I sat reading the Bible and writing in my journal, I sensed that another milestone was arriving that I don’t want to acknowledge: soon I am going to have to give up gardening. I can hardly even write these words because it’s inconceivable to me that this day may be near. But I’m afraid it is.
As we age we start saying “goodbye” more and more often. The children grow up and leave home. The grandchildren grow up, too, and get married. We retire and leave meaningful work we loved. We sell the house and downsize, probably the first of other such moves. We attend more funerals than weddings. We adapt to hearing aids and patronizing strangers. We catch a look at our reflection in the Walmart window and see our father or mother instead, stooped and wearing big tennis shoes. Can that be us? Yes. I’m afraid that very few of us look like the “vibrant” older adults on the cover of AARP magazine.
I’m learning that letting go is part of aging: we must let go of the demand that everyone agrees with us, looks like us, or thinks like us. We must let others—even our children and grandchildren—be themselves. I must let go of my perfectionism. (I know, I know. But it’s so hard when everyone needs my advice and so many pictures need straightening.) I must let go of things that are not good for me, and now—sadly–that includes some of my favorite things.
Many people—some not that old—face difficult change. Even children cope with cancer, cystic fibrosis, autism, and their parents’ divorce. Thousands face eviction, evacuation, or the catastrophic loss of life and limb in natural disasters and war. If we don’t die first, we will all grow old.
Our national and world situations seem worse than ever, and there is a lot of discontent these days on the Internet: people rail at change and post online about being “mad as hornets” about this and that. I admit that I am disgusted along with the psalmist who pleaded to God, “Don’t let liars prosper here in our land” (Psalm 140:11). I fear America no longer even faintly resembles the America I know and love, and the majority of voters share neither my ideals nor my hopes. Every generation faces similar wars, losses, and personal disappointments.
If all we get from disappointment and aging is bitterness and anger, are we not missing the most fertile years of our life to become like Christ? We can learn to face loss without becoming resentful. We can learn to accept change without blaming others or God.
Good from Loss
I remember hearing a missionary friend once tell me that his life had been characterized by lots of goodbyes: goodbye to friends, favorite restaurants, familiar neighborhoods, and family. But he went on to say that he discovered there also were many hellos: new friends, new foods, and new things to appreciate. Maybe we can learn to look for hellos: more time for reading, perhaps; or more time to pray. Some may face the frightening prison of Alzheimer’s disease, but most of will always be able to pray. God is endlessly creative and has the knack for making things out of nothing. (Read Genesis.) Cannot He create fresh ideas in our aging minds and bring us to refreshing discoveries about transferring our reliance from what we have lost to what we still have; and ultimately to God alone?
We must learn to let go. These are the years to get rid of our controlling demands and our stubborn wills. Have you ever thought that anger is a demand? These are the years to take time—we have plenty of it—to cherish others and find ways to encourage them and help them to feel good about themselves. These are the years to finally study the Bible and ask God to reveal himself to us in different ways. Now is the time to learn contentment and to accept—with joy—what each day offers.
Perhaps every generation is surprised by aging. Even though we as children have seen our pet turtles and goldfish die and, more recently, our parents fail, it’s a shock when we are the ones who hurt every morning and walk everywhere with aching feet. Perhaps being forced to let go is God’s way of gently forcing us to prepare for the transition from a physical world to one of the spirit, from being independent to interdependent to dependent.
Last year one of my first blogs was about my mother’s transition from life to death and her phrase,” That was then. This is now.” My mistake was thinking it was easy.
David Shultz enjoys mountain views in Arizona where he lives with his wife and two dogs, Molly and Maggie.