The Secret to Aging Gracefully

“…There are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.

Terrence Malick

“Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”


Memories of My Grandmother

After 90 years of life, my Grandma Helen passed away last week. For her funeral, people came from all over different parts of the country and halfway across the world to celebrate her life and the unique gifts she’s given each of us — her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. My cousins and I remembered visiting her on the farm, exploring vast open spaces, swimming in the cow trough in the summer, chasing the chickens, swinging from ropes tied to the trees, and sledding down a sea of snow dunes over Christmas holidays. These and more of some of the memories shared at her funeral.

My most distinct childhood memory of my grandmother comes in the form of the painting above, which hung over her dinner table. I would stare at it for hours while I was supposed to be eating my peas. I immediately felt the seriousness, the devotion, and the sacred silence present in her home. As a child, I thought of those as both frightening and boring. But as I grew up and watched her age, I saw it as the beautiful foundation to my grandmother’s life of faith.

“I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.”

Philippians 4:12-13

She was warm and unassuming, with a thin frail frame. She was consistently kind, good-humored, full of spirit and a little spunk (someone in the family nicknamed this spunk, “Helen sass”). Her hair was as white as a cotton ball. Her voice would hum with a little crackle in the back. She would quote and sing the Psalms. She forgave those who wronged her. She did not shame. She grieved for those she loved and lost. She preserved. She remained present and happily engaged with whoever was in front of her. These graces only grew in her with age.

When 1st Corinthians 13 was read out loud at the funeral, it was clear the word “love” could easily be replaced with “Grandma” and it would be equally true. Grandma Helen was patient, kind, not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. She did not demand her own way. She was not irritable; she kept no record of being wronged. Grandma did not rejoice about injustice but rejoiced whenever the truth wins out. She never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. My grandmother had come to live almost every part of her life inside love’s reach. She became intertwined with love itself. Isn’t that what it means to become one with God?

Her Last Conversation with Me

Shortly before she died, I had rare opportunity to visit her by myself. Usually, I would be with my dad or have the kids with me. But this day, I was alone with her at the nursing home. When I came to her room, she was sitting in her chair, awake in complete darkness. The lights were off (I remember hearing my aunt was concerned this was a warning sign of depression). Grandma perked up when she saw me and what followed was the best conversation we’ve ever had together.

I shared tears with her for the first time as I got to express the true gift she has given our family. She was the moral center of our tribe, always shining a bright light further up the path of life. She believed a man could change before he did.  And for the most part, her faith and perseverance paid off. When we were lost, which was true of all of us at one time or another, we were able to find our way back home. Everything good could be traced back to her. I told her, “Because of you, and your presence in our lives, everyone in our family is a better version of themselves.”

Grandma Helen

She leaned over to share with me her wisdom, and went on to describe the nature of contentment.

Of anyone I’ve ever known, she was content in all circumstances. Looking back, it suddenly occurred to me, she wasn’t sitting in the darkness because she was depressed — no. She didn’t need the lights on. She was simply content to sit and enjoy the quiet darkness!

Thank you Grandma, for leading me directly to one of life’s greatest treasures. Contentment is not only desirable but, actually possible. Your life was a rich and vivid vision for aging gracefully.

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