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PENNING: Deaths near a birthday are cause for reflection

• Mar 8, 2018 at 4:00 PM

Late last month I celebrated my birthday. “Celebrate” is a relative term. I started the day in the funeral home.

I had not planned that my birthday would start that way. Frankly, I had not planned much at all for my birthday.

I am a man of a certain age, and tend to treat birthdays with indifference or denial. But a few days earlier, I happened to be reading this newspaper and saw a photo of a friend, Bob. Shortly after recognizing the photo, I realized it was on the obituaries page. I alerted my wife, and we noted the details of the funeral service and planned to attend.

This is how I came to start my birthday in a local church. My birthday fell mid-week this year. The weather was cool, with a threat of rain. Rather than go into the office with my attention on the tasks of the day, I sat in a pew next to my wife with my mind not on a single day marking a milestone in my life, but on the 76 years marking the completion of Bob’s.

It can be sobering to spend your birthday at a funeral. It can also be a beautiful reminder.

I knew Bob liked to write. On the table next to photos and other mementos of his life was a collection of his hand-written journals. They were funny and poignant, pensive and off the wall. One thought of many stuck out. It was something about all of us being books with similar first and last chapters, but the ones in between are up to us.

The pastor officiating Bob’s funeral told stories about Bob, including how he quietly served others. One story was of him tutoring a local bully until the young man graduated and went on to get a job and become a responsible community member.

I did not know that Bob also liked to sketch. But his sketchbooks with well-done pencil drawings were also on display. One, of a wooden sign with Psalm 91:4 on it, seemed to capture the day: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.”

On my birthday, a day to mark another year of my life, I started the day pondering death. Bob reminded me of the source of refuge, and put a smile on my face.

The very next day, I saw the news flashes that Billy Graham had died, at 99 years of age. Billy Graham was not a close friend, though my wife and I met him once in Grand Rapids. He spoke at the Ford Museum, along with Kathy Lee Gifford, at an event honoring President Gerald Ford. I was working as a media volunteer at the event and invited to a reception afterward. Already advanced in age at that time, he sat on a stool as my wife and I greeted him meekly, thanking him for his years of service. He nodded humbly.

My wife and I recalled this when we watched his funeral on national television. It was a joyous occasion. All of his children spoke, as well as several international dignitaries. The president and vice president of the United States and their wives were there. Many told stories of one-on-one encounters with him, and others recounted how he had reached millions in stadiums across the globe. He knew and counseled personally every president since the 1950s. For him, death was a destination longed for, to go to Heaven and be with his wife again, and with God.

In the days that followed, I learned of other deaths. The young son of a colleague, only 23, whose cancer returned and could not be beaten this time. In his obituary ran a quote from Lau Tzu that “the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” Then I received an email from my church that the father of one of our youngest pastors had died suddenly. A social media alert made me aware of another sudden death, of a college classmate of mine in Detroit. He was the age I had just turned, 54.

For the last six years, my birthday has not been merely another marker in my life. It has also been about death, and beating it. It was on my birthday that my wife and I learned of her cancer diagnosis. I said then, and each year since, that she did not need to buy me gifts for my birthday. Just be here, I told her. And she has, including this year, one year past the statistical survival rate for people with her particular diagnosis.

So I look at her, still here, and I am grateful, especially this year, with the coincidence of so many other deaths. Some have been long awaited and even joyous. Some have been unexpected and grievous. All are inevitable. We just don’t know if we’ll live to 99, or 76, or 23, or 54.

That brought me back to my friend Bob’s journal notation. I had seen the last chapters of so many at once in recent weeks. I eventually did celebrate my birthday, acknowledging that I don’t know if I’m in the middle or near the end of my story. But I have new perspective, motivation and gratitude to use in my chapters left to write.

A collection of columns by Tim Penning, Ph.D., is in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman.

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