Original art, H.J. McEnroe

“Gettin’ old sucks!”
Dear Uncle Gene, the most storied and audacious of my wife’s uncles – a bit larger than life – used to utter that from time to time.  He would philosophize on life with such earthy quotes.  When I was yet a younger man – and he, considerably older – he’d expound on the nature of men and women as they age.  He’d laugh at the crotchety old man shaking his fist at kids to “get the hell off my lawn!”  

Once, a small group of young teens were outside Gene’s condo, playing kickball, laughing and carrying on.  Two police squad cars showed up to harass and possibly remove them by force…such was the hope of the old-timer inside who’d called the cops.  Upon hearing the commotion, Uncle Gene sauntered out to the police officers, and I heard him say, “Officers, please don’t blame that ol’ bastard who called you!  It must be very difficult for him, knowing young people exist who are having all the fun he’s forgotten.”  I recall the twinkle in his eye as he said it…and the completely disarming effect it had on the officers.  The kids kept right on playing.
Yes, Gene…gettin’ old does, indeed, suck.  It reminds us, in ways subtle and profound, that there are more days in our rearview mirrors than in front of us on our journey.  Our society, with its outsized emphasis on youth and athleticism, has fashioned “Senior Care Facilities” to which our children may relegate us, lest we grow old and inconvenient.  I now stand as one of those for whom the bell will one day, in the not-too-distant future, toll.  But Uncle Gene – rapscallion that he occasionally was – lives in my memory as a man who learned to smile in the face of decrepitude.  He understood the vanity of it all – storing up treasure, living as though fretting could extend our lives an instant more. 
When the bell tolled for Gene, he faced it, secure in knowing that he’d lived life on his terms, shown kindness and compassion to friends and strangers alike, and had an angel by his side his entire life.  That’s right:  this collegiate football playing, ex-military, small town executive, hard-nosed negotiator and harder-drinking raconteur – whom I twice witnessed make a hole-in-one – was certain of one thing:  the existence of angels.
Once, he privately confided to me, “I have absolutely no clue what God is, but I sure as hell know that without the angel that’s been clearing my path for sixty years, I’d have been dead long ago.”  For me, that expression of faith, beyond any knowing, spoke volumes about the truth of Uncle Gene.


​Recently, I was contacted by the owner of a local coffee shop, informing us patrons of his wife’s battle with cancer.  This unassuming mother of three young children had quietly undergone surgery, and was about to begin chemotherapy.  Her husband asked that we all just come and share some time with her one evening.  That was it…a simple request for a little of our time to help his wife feel loved and valued by a community of caffeine addicts.
For days, I had been pondering news of the death of a dear friend.  So, on that evening, I arrived in subdued spirit to find this lady standing in the middle of their coffee shop.  I approached, and we began talking.  Before long, our numbers had grown considerably, and after twenty minutes, the shop was filled with friends and acquaintances.  I spoke with her husband who was beaming with obvious delight that so many had come to wish his wife well.  Then, I asked her how I could help, and she smiled, “Just being here…coming to say hello…it’s all I wanted.  We are blest to have angels like you.”  I was humbled…speechless.
She didn’t know that I’d discussed and planned with my editor the merging of a poem with a painting, to present as a gift.  I asked, “Do you have anything that represents an angel?”  She replied, “Yeah, as a matter of fact…why?”  The image above is that rendering.
Who knows the ways our soul speaks to us when we just stop and…listen?  Perhaps it is, indeed, the angels among us.  Whatever it is, that couple – running a simple coffee shop – are two of the most faith-filled people I’ve ever met.  What furious trepidation fills the heart of a young mother, faced with her own mortality?  Yet, there she was, putting on a brave smile, welcoming us all as though she might never see us again.  I’m certain of one thing:  she, and her family, are in the nightly prayers of many…as angels quietly guard.


​Back to that friend I mentioned...this is where the story becomes…challenging.  When her brother first conveyed to me news of her death in a phone call, it was sobering, to put it mildly.  Speaking of her prolonged struggles with pain and incapacitation, he told me about her decision to end her life. 
As one who’d personally assisted her with numerous physician appointments and a course of treatment to restore her “quality of life,” I knew well her struggles with pain, debilitation, drug dependency and grim prognoses.  Still, through it all, she remained a vibrant, joyful voice in a volunteer church choir, happy to be among her “choir family,” as we call ourselves.  Within our “family,” she was much loved and respected for her strength in the face of adversity.
Sadly, this season of Covid imprisoned her in isolation, in a new living arrangement within one of those “Senior Care Facilities” mentioned earlier.  Indeed, last autumn she found herself in hospital – another victim of Covid-19.  She called me the afternoon before her release to talk.  In the course of that conversation, she said, “All I know is that my guardian angel has been working overtime, all my life!”
Though she’d entered her new home as an independent living candidate, it didn’t take long for staff to recognize her need for more “dependent living” arrangements.  When this reality finally settled upon her, like a pall, she began to realize her worst fears: dependency upon others, and relinquishing control of many basic liberties of her independent lifestyle.  To a former registered nurse of thirty-plus years, and a healthcare champion, this must have seemed a living hell.  As she, herself, once told me: “I never want to be somebody’s burden.”  Alone, terribly lonely, unable to walk, and forced by eviction to relocate yet again, she made a conscious choice…
…do any of us know, with absolute certainty, the choice we might make?  Despite all of our Judeo-Christian teachings on the topic, here's what Uncle Gene’s “Gettin’ old sucks” philosophy has taught me:  the last full measure of any person is not the manner in which they die; rather, the manner in which they lived.  For my friend, who helped heal and save hundreds of lives over the course of her professional healthcare career, her humanity was without reproach; her compassion for others, boundless.  She truly left the world a better place than she found it.  By that measure, I believe God has blessed her memory, and embraces her as you read this.  Peace.

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