Sunday, October 18, 2009
When You've Only Got a Hundred Years to Live
They were nothing but a couple of kids. He was in the Air Force, stationed in Spain. She was living at the same base, with her sister and brother-in-law, who were part of the same branch of the military. They were married in Gibraltar, by an officiant they did not know, and the people who stood up for them and co-signed their marriage certificate were complete strangers. He was 21, she was barely 18.
I have known these two nearly 49 of those 50 years. But that is not how I remember them.
She was little, but bigger than me. She wore curlers in her hair at night and funny stockings that attached at her thighs with snaps when she went to church. She painted her toes and fingernails, and mine, too--if I would let her. She made amazing Creamed Tuna on Toast and cake with peanut butter frosting. When she spanked me, it didn't really hurt. When she hugged me, I wiggled to get away.
He was a big man; very tall and very dark and very handsome. He had scratchy whiskers on his face, and hands that were permanently stained in the creases with motor oil. He wasn't afraid of anything--not tornadoes or hairy spiders or boogey men. When I had bad dreams at night, I would crawl up between them in bed and burrow under the covers. I liked to sleep with one leg draped over one of their bodies to ensure they didn't sneak away from me in the night. I felt safe and secure because he was brave and armed: He had his .22 in the corner of the closet.
When you're young, the grown-ups make life look easy. They shelter you from the hard things, the illnesses, the bills, the hard decisions. Time flies by with little account, a business is bought, a house is remodeled, a new baby born; you think you have a hundred years to live. Nothing bad can touch you or the ones you love.
When I was eleven, the illusion of my parents' invincibility was crushed. It was in November, the first snow of the year, and my sister and I were at Brenda Barry's birthday party. Our grandpa picked us up and told us that our parents had been in a serious car accident. My world came crashing down in the moment I heard those words. An aunt came from out of state to take care of us during the long weeks that followed. Children weren't allowed to visit hospitals in those days and I worried night and day that I would never see my parents again. After a few weeks, we were granted special permission to visit the hospital in St. Cloud for a few minutes.
She was small and pale in her hospital robe, half her face covered in white bandages. I had been warned not to upset her by crying so I struggled against the lump in my throat. I didn't know him when I entered his room. He was small, too, and very white with dark circles under both eyes. I walked over to the bed where he was lying and didn't speak. I looked at his hands, hoping to find something familiar. They were white, like the rest of him--even his fingernails--like the men who worked at the bank. I learned, in that moment, that my parents were not the strong, indestructible superheroes I thought they were. They were fragile human beings, like me, and bad things could happen to them. For the first time, the world felt very scary.
In 1959, two kids had promised to love and to cherish, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, til death did part. Over the next half century I watched, from my ringside seat as their firstborn while they faithfully lived out those promises. There were hard times for two people who were imperfect and not unusually gifted or strong. But from them I learned that you don't walk away when things are hard. You don't live as though you expect everything in life to go your way. It's not about awards, and honors, possessions or public acclaim. It's about two people who pledge something and mean it. Who keep a promise even when it hurts. Who think of God and family first and give all they have and, having given everything, wish they had more to give.
Mom and Dad, I know today you are looking back and wondering, "Where did the time go? Where did my dark hair go?" Life passes by in a blur of uncertainty and some days it is all we can do just to hang on. But I want to thank you for your sacrifices, your faithfulness, and your love. You have set an example for your children, for your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren and leave a legacy that will last long after those hundred years are gone. You are still my heroes.
"Grandchildren are the crown of their grandparents and parents are the glory of their children." Proverbs 17:6.