My wife’s grandfather died this past Sunday. He was nearing 90 and had lived a life that was filled with such warmth, his family could not help but gather in the shelter of its heat one final time. He died surrounded by people who loved him, who had been loved exuberantly by him, and had been led to love like him in so many ways. Death is a cruel, vile, and hateful thing. But when I meet my end, if I do so half as well as Stan Beckman, I will be a wealthy man.
I was reading Papa’s obituary today and I was really moved by it. For one, the photo for the article was absolutely appropriate and in keeping with his character, as I know him. Papa was in my life for only the waning of his strength, but I was absolutely floored by how much strength and vigor was in him. One of the first times I was ever around my wife’s family was actually at his retirement party. He was finally done with his medical practice at the hospital at the age of 73. At that point, he was still regularly going on 3-5 mile runs. At that point, at the age of 20, I’m not sure I could have completed one 5 mile run.
Meeting Papa (and his wife, Joyce, who the family calls “Mormor,” of Swedish origin) radically expanded the horizons of what old age could be for me. My father’s father died before I was born. His wife, who I was very close to, died when I was 15. My other grandmother had battled a variety of illnesses, including diabetes, that did not leave her with nearly so much physical vitality. Her husband, my only remaining grandparent, my own Papa, seems absolutely bulletproof and may live to be 140. But he was often taking care of his wife, not doing laps on the nearby track.
But it was not the remembrance of Papa’s physical energy that I was so moved by in his obituary. I remember Papa as an abundantly, enthusiastically loving and kind man. He (along with some others) supported my little family from the time we went to Cape Town for a year, to the day I walked across the stage of seminary graduation, several years later. His laugh was unmistakeable, his joy incomparable. The people in my church who know of him, know him as the man who vocally expressed his delight at the Word being preached with moans of delight that you might easily hear around the dinner table or, more specifically, the ice cream bowl. He loved ice cream and he vocally expressed his joy at church as if he were sitting down to a banquet table filled with the very best homemade stuff. Papa was a man in his 70’s and then his 80’s who was better at enjoying life than I have ever been.
That’s what I found so striking about his obituary. There’s a lot of things in the description of his life. Paragraphs race through whole stretches of years. As I cruised through his life, it was like the feeling I get as I drive through rural parts of the country on a long road trip. Instead of asking myself, “What’s it like to live down that road,” I wondered, “What was it like for him to live that year on the reservation, or there in Okinawa, or to move the family back to Newaygo?” So much time and experience that I’ll never be able to know or access made up his long, rich life.
Some of the things that he did are pretty adventurous. Being a doctor for the state department and moving so many places is more world-seeing than most people will do. But the bulk of his life was spent in a small town in Western Michigan where, seemingly, nothing really extraordinary happened. He passed decades of his career in a small hospital, doing good work that didn’t change the medical field. He didn’t take big, jaw-dropping vacations that would do well to grace a magazine cover. In many ways, his life was not “epic” in any way. On the surface.
But if you knew him, you could see so many signs of the remarkable. The daily devotion to the people he loved, to his kids, his grandkids (and their lucky spouses), and even his great-grandkids never looked, in the moment, like anything too special. But a lifetime of that kind of daily love, presence, and faithfulness is the only way to build what he left behind in his 88th year: an absolutely incredible, rich, full, joyous life.
It is appropriate, at someone’s death, to consider the reality of our own end. Death is coming for me. I hope that I’ll get another 50 or even 60 years. I don’t know. It’s not promised to me. But I hope that’s what I have left in me. So much of the ethos of my generation was a spoon-fed rhetoric of doing the awesome, the radical, the epic. And it has left many of us frustrated and disappointed with our lives because we just can’t quite live up to that standard.
But Papa’s life is a reminder that the truly enduring and beautiful life that may be available to us is the life that is put together, not accomplishment by accomplishment, but day by day. How well do I live my life in loving service to, support for, and joy over my wife, my kids, my church, my friends? How often do I waste my time wishing for what’s just ahead, over that next hill, or beyond the horizon, instead of faithfully tending to where my feet are planted?
Papa’s life, from what I saw, was pretty well focused on the ordinary beauty of the life he was living. He found that God Himself charged every moment with rich meaning and delight available for the taking.
Oh he wasn’t perfect. I’m sure many people in his life could list the ways he hurt or wronged them. I’m sure he had long stretches of struggle (apart even from the struggle to grind his way out of very humble beginnings and into the medical field). I’m sure there were times when he questioned how he measured up. He was a man, an ordinary man. Those things had to have been true to one degree or another.
But the generosity of his love, faithfully given across the decades in those ordinary fields of life’s passing, is what accumulated into the extraordinary.
I heard so much gratitude from Papa. I think he surveyed his life and kept being impressed by God’s kindness. He kept seeing sunsets and children’s laughter and well-managed fields of wheat and he was just, over and over again, so delighted to see another gift given from the hand of God Himself.
If I could follow him, that would be a gift indeed. That would be the recipe for a good, ordinary life.
To do it so well would be epic. It would be extraordinary.
When I grow up, I hope that I look like him.