I received a phone call from the wife of my mother’s last surviving cousin a few days ago to tell me he had died about a week before. With that phone call, my life shifted to a different level. He was the last of that generation; my siblings, cousins and I are now the oldest generation in our family line.
It’s the story of life. Nothing can ever remain the same; stagnation leads to death. We are born; we grow and develop; we grow older and eventually we die. Even if we never leave the place where we are born and raised, it doesn’t-can’t-remain the way it was. Life moves on, and as much as we may resist it, it carries us right along with it.
The past two years has been a time of significant transition for my wife and me. We both had Covid and survived, relatively unscathed (me more than her). We said goodbye to my mother in 2020 who lived with us for several years. I finished a round of cancer treatment in time for my wife to be diagnosed with cancer and undergo treatment. As she finished and began her recovery, my cancer became active once again, requiring restarting treatment which will end when I stop it or die, whichever comes first. Transitions; we play the cards life deals us and make the most of each day we are given.
I’m almost 68 years of age. I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. What should it look like, feel like? Is it really anything besides a number? I’m a grandfather four times over, but I still wear jeans and sing rock and roll songs from the 70’s. My beard is white, as is most of the hair on my head. Some days my brain feels about 30 and my body about 80. Some days it’s the other way around. On rare days, everything matches up somewhere in the middle. I’m the “patriarch” of my family, head of my clan. Am I supposed to be the repository of wisdom and responsibility, the one most capable of providing guidance to other family members? If so, I feel totally inadequate for such a task. Or is all of that a moot point, because ‘old wisdom’ is no longer applicable or valued?
We all struggle with change. I had to smile when my oldest son moaned about turning 40. This year, my younger son gets to do the same thing. In a few more it will be my daughter’s turn. When I turned 40, I had a midlife crisis that nearly destroyed my family but ultimately became a crucial turning point in my transition into a better father, husband, and man.
As my wife and I prepare to attend the memorial service for my cousin (we always called him Uncle), it brings back a flood of memories of family holidays that can never be repeated or duplicated. We can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice. All we can do is move on and work to make memories of our own. We learn to grow into the stage of life where we find ourselves; the learning never ends.
I recall learning in nursing school (about a hundred years or so ago) about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Erikson’s Stages of Development. The particulars aren’t important; it’s the principle that matters here. Both theories have essentially the same basis: humans are constantly subjected to a need for growth and change. I find Erikson’s particularly interesting in my case. His last stage has to do with the elderly validating their lives. We look back in retrospect, and have to decide: was my life meaningful? Do my memories bring joy and satisfaction, or do they cause sadness and despair? That’s a simplistic summary of the theory, but you get the idea.
If there’s any point here, I suppose it’s this. As I have grown older and approach the end of my life, whenever that may be, I look both backward and forward. In looking back, I ask the question: has my life made a difference for anyone? Going forward, how am I going to make the most of the time I have left? These are questions each of us needs to ask ourselves, no matter how young or old.