A Piece from the Past:
Reflections on the Eve of My Fifty-fourth Birthday
The piece quoted below was originally written on November 22, 1992, and was titled “Reflections on the Eve of My Fifty-fourth Birthday.” I wrote it to express my feelings about my present and future life after having been diagnosed with lymphoma on November 11 of that month.
“When I have fears that I may cease to be,
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain…”
“In the life of a writer there are no extraneous experiences.”
As I face tomorrow, and the day and the days after it, how well I understand these words and how fully I empathize with their authors.
The “tomorrow” I face is my fifty-fourth birthday. The “day after” is the day I begin a series of tests to determine the nature and extent of the malignancy which I have just been told is gnawing away at my body.
The “days after” are the time that remains to me on this earth, the precious moments I have left not only to “glean my teeming brain” but also to fulfill that as yet unknown purpose for which I was placed “on this earth” in the first place.
It is in times like these that we are (as someone recently pointed out to me about my situation) “forced to face our own mortality.” That is true. But in a larger sense, each of us has to face that every day we live—or at least, perhaps we should.
In a few minutes my children and their beloved will assemble with my wife and me around the carefully prepared table laden with all my favorite dishes (and a couple of gaily decorated packages) to help me celebrate what could conceivably be my last in a long line of birthdays.
Yet has that not been the case in each of the fifty-three that have preceded this one? As the Bible clearly warns us, none of us knows what tomorrow (or the day and the days after it) will bring. In that, I am not unique, only perhaps more aware.
It is that awareness that I write of now. For no matter the outcome of this latest “non-extraneous” experience in my writer’s life, it has been made forcefully clear to me that, like Ebenezer Scrooge, the leading character of my favorite piece of Christmas literature, henceforth I will never be the same again.
If, indeed, like Scrooge, my days are prolonged, I am assured that without a shadow of a doubt I, also like Scrooge, will have learned an invaluable lesson, one summarized by the late Peter Marshall who once so eloquently and poignantly admonished, in my wife’s favorite piece of Christmas literature, “Let’s Keep Christmas!”
You will recall that after Scrooge’s life-changing experience with the spirits, “it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, of all of us!”—whatever our circumstances or outcome.
So my birthday wish on this threshold of my fifty-fifth year is that “tomorrow, and the day and the days after,” all of us may truly learn to live each golden new day as though it were our last. For someday it will be. Until then, my prayer is that of Tiny Tim: “God bless Us, Every One!”
November 22, 1992
A Piece from the Present:
Reflections on My Seventy-third Birthday
“Very few people my age who have such a diverse career can come back to see the same trees, the same soil, the same house, the same farm where they evolved as a child.” [I can!]
—Jimmy Carter, quoted in Southern Living magazine in 2001
Reflecting on that piece I wrote back in 1992, on this my seventy-third birthday I wish I could say that I did indeed learn to enjoy life and to live every day as if it were my last. The sad truth is that I did neither. Now almost twenty years later, finding myself faced with even more serious health and other issues, I am much less able to handle them–either physically or emotionally.
So it seems that in the midst of all these trials and tribulations and my continued failure to face and deal with them in faith and courage, God is trying to tell me something. It seems to be what my devout Baptist mother (the wife of an Arkansas cattleman) used to tell me when I failed to do the kind of job she expected of me the first time: “I think you need to go back and lick your calf over again!”
If you were not raised in the country and thus don’t understand that rural phrase, ask someone (like Jimmy Carter) to explain it who was blessed to be born and brought up right–close to the soil and God’s earthy creatures.
So as old and as unhealthy as I am, and as far away from my rural roots as I am forced to remain, thank God I’m still a country boy!
Reflections on Both Pieces from
A Morning Devotional
“In old age [the righteous] still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap.”
–Psalm 92:14 NRSV
The next morning after I had written the above reflections on my seventy-third birthday, I read the entry for the day from The Upper Room, the Methodist daily devotional. It began with the above quotation from Psalm 92 about the righteous still being active and productive, even in old age.
In it the writer, Ted De Hass from Iowa, told how he walked out into his yard and noticed that the wildflowers he had brought back from Alaska and transplanted were still blooming–in November.
Based on that incident he went on to write (italics mine):
“Our lives are like the progression of seasons. In springtime we are born and grow. Our summer years are our most active. In autumn we mature. And then comes our winter. Typically, we walk more slowly; we may not hear or see as well as we once did; and we know more about doctors’ offices, ailments, and prescriptions. But even in winter, flowers can still bloom.
“Some of us are ‘winter ‘ people who, like beautiful flowers, bloom finally in their later years.”
The closing prayer to that entry was short, simple, and sincere:
“O God, in our November may we still bloom.”
Note: The Upper Room, November-December 2011 issue, p. 11.