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Published in New Covenant May 1999
Growing Old
By Rosemary Hugo Fielding
Years ago, when my mother was a robust and hardworking 60-something, I said, “Mom, you’ll never be middle-aged. You’re going to go directly from young to old.”
Several years later, when my father began to forget more names and faces than usual, I reassured my mother that it wasn’t Alzheimer’s disease. Just his deafness coupled with age.
The harsh realities have now overtaken both my parents.  My 79-year-old mother with disintegrated knees has crossed from young to old. My 83-year-old father with incoherent speech has entered the featureless world of Alzheimer’s.
I live across the street from them. Seeing them daily during this final trial (and my own slog through middle age) has repeatedly brought two things to mind: God is merciful. And the time to prepare spiritually for old age is long before it settles in.
I know it’s simple to do so: just prepare well for death. Or, in other words, prepare so as to arrive in heaven, not hell. For old age just begins the last stage of the journey that death completes, when the final destination is reached.
It’s simple, but not easy, as the 12-step-programs say.  Nothing will be easy about losing my bodily health or the ability to enjoy the pleasures of life or to do my own will.  Nothing will be easy about experiencing a series of diminishments to my strength and capabilities until death leaves this body still and empty. But if I don’t prepare for death and judgment now, in my vigor, I may not be able to prepare when those diminishments come.
My uncle, Father John Hugo, often told a story.  Starting when he was a young priest, he would spend at least an hour every day praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament.  A superior, busy with parish work and recreation, considered this prayer extravagant and unnecessary.  “There will be time enough to pray like that when we’re retired,” he said. 
Ah, but “this priest lost his mental faculties in his dotage,” Father Hugo said solemnly. “And so he never did have his time to be schooled in mental prayer.”
A few later, I reflected on my uncle’s warning. Sitting in the fall dusk on a porch swing, I had been thinking somberly of the afternoon I’d just spent visiting a rest home.  I pictured the lonely pensioners I’d seen there, and I thought, “This will happen to me.”
Visiting them weekly, I had developed an amiable relationship with Ella, a gracious, graceful woman suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Harry, a stone-deaf old farmer, and Rita, a plump, jolly woman, paralyzed with rheumatoid arthritis.  I marveled at their patience and humor. They didn’t complain; they gratefully accepted my small contributions to their comfort; and they enjoyed our conversations.
Others that I had initially tried to befriend had shown themselves to be sour and unfriendly. Though they didn’t suffer physically as did my three friends, they could not silence their bitterness, anger or self-pity. Some simply isolated themselves with the television.  I didn’t force myself on them.
Sitting on the porch swing that fall evening, I resolved to be like Ella, Harry and Rita when I grew old.  I resolved to follow my uncle’s counsel and begin now to develop this character and not wait for when I may have more time, but may have lost the will or the ability to do so. I resolved, in short, to focus now on my future destination—heaven or hell.
Father Hugo’s advice was quite clear. Before old age has the power to diminish me regardless of my will, I should work today in union with God’s will to “give up” my own way and certain pleasures and comforts. “We should begin to give up these things now because, in the end, we will lose them anyway,” Father Hugo taught.  “This is ‘dying to self,’ and unless we die to self, Our Lord says the kingdom of heaven will not be ours.”
And what a society in which to die to self—so wealthy, so full of distractions and stuff, so loud with its assertions that “you deserve everything you want!”
I struggle to control my eating, my temper, my covetousness, my uncharitable words, mean thoughts and my urge for shiny new things and fun new experiences.  I forswear cursing and television and idle pastimes.  I get up to pray on raw gray dawns after broken nights; and I force my mind and voice to offer up irritations and unpleasantness and weariness and pain.  I will myself to trust in God’s providence completely when anxiety threatens in bills and sickness and disappointments.  My experience at the rest home showed me that when old age forces its limitations upon me, my character may be too set in its worldly and selfish ways to accept them graciously, as part of God’s will. Now is the “acceptable day of salvation.”
This brings me to God’s mercy. Salvation is His ultimate mercy, and I see it in my parents’ lives. My father, formerly a brilliant and witty college professor, has lost his wits, but his goodness seems more visible because of this loss.  The verbal sharpness is gone, and he makes surprisingly loving gestures. His courtesy and graciousness have been preserved; this literally unthinking courtliness is an indication of the patience and self-discipline that shaped his soul over many years of near-deafness.  Deafness took away the ease of both his teaching and social intercourse, two things he loved; it isolated him from his children, from music, from understanding all that went on around him. Yet, he very rarely complained, and he was able to be humorous about the handicaps he encountered.
My father’s great joy now is a visit from my year-old daughter, his youngest grandchild, born when he was 82 years old.  When she visits, he comes to life and even speaks more coherently. My mother and I have never seen him connect in such a way with any of his other 10 grandchildren, all born when he still had his wits.
To me it seems that the Lord has “pruned” my father of his sometimes cutting wit so that his goodness and loving heart are given full display.  My father’s character consoles and gladdens me because it is a sign that he has used his cross well to prepare for heaven. There is God’s mercy for all of us in this sign.
It is easy for me to speak of God’s mercy on behalf of my father, but I can’t presume to do so for my mother, who is fully aware of her sometimes nearly unbearable situation. My father’s caretaker, she would, I think, find herself hard-pressed to speak of God’s mercy right now. Yet, God’s mercy can be seen in little things. About the same time my father’s condition took a turn for the worse, my husband and I moved right across the street. She can visit with us daily, and find some relief from the incessant babbling and wandering of my father. She, too, is brightened by her granddaughter, and is grateful for my father’s compliant nature.
I know she questions God now, asking, “Why, why, why?” Though I dare not say it to her, I believe, in faith, that her suffering, too, is a mercy, God’s gift of a cross worthy of a great reward in heaven. Then, too, “love covers a multitude of sins,” and my mother’s patience and fidelity right now is love at its most elemental, covering whatever failures might mar her life.
This brings me back to prayer. Prayer is the essential preparation for old age because it is the essential preparation for eternal life in heaven. This is precisely the lesson my uncle was teaching when he recounted the story of the old priest caught short by the “natural disaster” of old age. Like floods and earthquakes, it is upon us, and without the foundation of a prayerful life, old age leaves its victims with few resources to continue in joy and hope.  And so my husband and I struggle hard to find time for prayer, even as body and mind find all kinds of excuses not to.  But body will be sown and mind must be transformed when we reach our destination, and so I refocus on heaven. I want the final test of perseverance to find me prepared.
©  Rosemary Hugo Fielding 2011

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