A LIFE WELL-LIVED

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
and things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art; to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I’ve come face to face with mortality this week. Perhaps that’s rather dramatic and self-absorbed; what I really came face to face with this week was the mortality of others, which of course caused me to think about mortality in general, and mine in particular.

I have never feared death. Like everyone, I imagine, the idea of a painful death frightens me a bit, but the general thought of my death holds little power over me. The first funeral I vaguely recall attending was for my cousin Robert, a fine young man full of promise who died serving his country. Through the years, there were others—deaths of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. All were emotionally painful, but after enough of them, one becomes accustomed to the pattern of grieving. The loss of those closer to my age shook me more, because they were unexpected and out of what we believe to be the natural order of things. Still, as Euripides observed, “No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow”—death visits us all.

The mortality I observed this week was of two people I loved. The one I knew less well was, strangely, easier to love. He was the father of my sister-in-law, and truly a fine man. Anais Nin once said that people living deeply have no fear of death, and if that is so, then G. H. “Hal” Sheets faced life and pain and joy and death in the same way—as a man faces them, uncomplaining, honestly, and without fear.

The man I knew better, but who is more difficult to love is my father-in-law. He met much success professionally, but personally, the pain in his life seemed to drive him to push others away, as if he dared not hope for genuine love unmarred by rejection. This resulted in a ceaseless effort to orchestrate every area and person in his life, but others tend to resist orchestration, and Heaven knows I do. This made our relationship “lively,” to say the least, as I tried to strike the balance between standing up to controlling behavior and not making life difficult for my husband, the finest man I have ever known. But, as this controlling man has rapidly succumbed to dementia, the pain still flickers in his glassy-eyed gaze. I have no doubt he feels trapped in his own body. He still exists, although his life is ebbing, but he does not live.

These two men, so distinct from each other, have each caused me to think a great deal about my own mortality. Someone once told me that if God must strip away everything that you use to avoid leaning on Him, He will, so that you are alone and naked and required to face the love He truly has for you. This does not mean that every person deteriorating is doing so because they need to face God, just as it doesn’t mean that some people aren’t so stubborn that they will still refuse Him. But it has certainly made me recognize that all of the things I can be wrapped up in as important, in the scheme of eternity don’t mean much. Some things do—using the gifts I have been given, living as I am supposed to, fighting for the right thing in the face of slings and arrows—these things matter. But the things that have me throwing my hands in the air in frustration are often the things that show themselves unimportant given just a little time.

As I look at my life, I am certainly aware of my mistakes and failings. My desire to have “Amazing Grace” played at my funeral is, because as a terribly flawed person, I can only guess how truly amazing that Grace is. Yet, with hope of not seeming pretentious, I also want to be worthy of having the song “My Way” played at my funeral. Not “my way” devoid of God, but my way within His will, so that I will be worthy of the words “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”


~Shyla Lefever