My social calendar includes far too many funerals these days. I recall a time when my mother-in-law seemed to be attending a farewell service of some kind almost once a month. She joked that at the rate her friends and relatives were going there would be nobody left to honor her when she died. That proved to be entirely false because she had been such a generous soul in life that the church was crowded with people who wanted to honor her in death. It’s not an easy thing to lose a loved one and the nature of funerals is to recall the best moments of the deceased’s life. In today’s world that almost always includes a slideshow of photographs outlining the human milestones that are universal to our society.
Thus it was with the man whose life we honored on this past Saturday. I didn’t know him well. He was the father of my cousin’s wife. Had he lived a few more weeks he would have been ninety nine years old. The most recent images of him showed a thin elderly man with little hair who appeared not yet accustomed to being without his wife who had predeceased him. It was not the photos of his family nor his parties that caught my fancy but one that captured the spirit of his youth. There he was in all his glory with a head full of hair and a look of determination and hopefulness on his unlined face. He was handsome and full of vim and vigor. He had not yet even begun the long journey that would eventually define him but his visage showed that he somehow knew even then that it was going to be great.
It struck me that as we grow older the picture of ourselves that dominates our minds is from a time when we were young and filled with the promise of life. To this very day I am sometimes startled when I suddenly glimpse the old woman that I have become in the mirror. Whenever I think of myself, the person that I see is the younger version of myself, before my adult life had even begun to unfold in earnest. My face is smooth and unblemished. My eyes are wide and bright. I am thin and energetic, ready to face challenges and to experience as much of the world as I might. I suspect that it is a universal trick of the mind to see ourselves not as we actually are but as the best physical versions of ourselves.
Of course it is the way of life to slowly but surely age. Our skin becomes more fragile. It droops and wrinkles and not even the best creams or surgeries is able to completely fight the laws of nature. The color fades from our hair. Our waistlines bulge. Our eyelids become heavy. Our faces look more and more like one of our parents or a favorite aunt or uncle. It is only when we smile or laugh that for a brief moment we revert to being our younger selves. Everyone sees it. Our essence is found in the mannerisms of happiness.
I recall a conversation with my mother not long before she died in which she confided to me that even after all of the events of her life, both joyful and tragic, she still felt just like the young girl who captured my father’s heart. As she described her defining portrait, her face lit up with a youthfulness that had seemed long gone. Somehow the inner person was more truly her than the eighty year old woman racked with pain in both body and mind.
I often wonder how we will appear when we are in heaven. Will we be able to find family and friends? How will we know each other? Will my father be a young man of thirty three while I am an older woman? Do we get to choose our image? Will we even have a human face or will we be just a spirit, a soul? I suppose it won’t really matter at that point but I like to think that in heaven I will look just like the perfect image that I carry in my mind.
I am a museum freak. I mostly enjoy seeing old photographs of people. I am always most fascinated by those that portray people before they have endured all of the ups and downs of the life cycle. There is a certain moment when the camera captures a kind of innocence in young people’s faces. A lifetime lies before them. They do not yet know whether or not they will marry, have a family, find success, be happy. All that they have are dreams and the hope that their desires will come true. Their eyes contain a thousand optimistic thoughts. They appear ready to conquer. They are beautiful and untarnished by failures, losses, illnesses. Each of us remembers such a moment in our personal histories when everything seemed possible and the future stretched infinitely before us.
One of the most difficult realizations of growing older is that there are limits on the time that we have left. Our priorities change. We become kinder to ourselves and the people that we love. We cherish the simplest of happy times. We dwell less on the future and more on the moment at hand. We may not be able to see or hear as well but our senses are nonetheless heightened. We feel everything more deeply than ever before. We have been given the gift of insight. We judge less and simply accept the world as it is rather than what we want it to be. Still, inside our souls is that lovely vision of ourselves, the one that pushed us to become who we are. We are quite grateful to that young and restless part of ourselves for bringing us so far.
I think again of the old man whose funeral I attended on Saturday. I believe that he has slipped from inside the battered and aged shell of his last days into the strong and handsome visage of his youth. For all of eternity he will be perfect. That is his heavenly reward.
There are frightening aspects of growing old but it is also quite wonderful. I believe that most of us become better people. We have learned what is important and what has little value. We enjoy whatever time may still be granted to us by the grace of God. We observe the world moving ever faster even as we learn how to slow down. There are so many roses out there and we are determined to stop to smell as many of them as we can. When we see ourselves reflected in the glass of a window that young person that we once were winks and flashes a smile. In that moment we know that we have done well. Though we may not have accumulated wealth or power of the tangible kind we revel in our treasures of friendship, family, accomplishments and love. Therein lies our beauty and it will never fade away.