“He lived a full life.”
I’ve heard this before, at funerals and in obituaries. Men who have gone through almost all of life’s milestones – have checked them off like a list – can say they lived a ‘full life’. We often do this in our society to make sure we have been important enough to have made a difference.
Got braces? Check. Went to prom? Check. Got married? Check. Kids? Cars? House in the Suburbs? Retirement? Check, check, check, check.
And the more checks the person had, the more comfort it brings to those who mourn him: the man who lived the ‘full life’.
But the more devastation it brings to those who mourn a child who didn’t.
I have a dear friend, Beth, who I met initially because I taught both of her sons. Beth was a regular volunteer in my classroom, and even after her boys got older, we stayed in touch because we genuinely liked each other. It’d been awhile since we’d talked, though, so two summers ago I emailed her to see how life was going.
She responded quickly and animatedly, telling me of what her boys were doing and assuring me that we’d find the time soon to catch up. But all of that changed when just two weeks later, she sent me an email saying that her youngest boy, Ian, had been diagnosed with osteocarcoma.
He was just 14, and it didn’t look good.
Ian didn’t have good news initially, but he had a whole community rally behind him. Thousands of the faithful prayed for his recovery. His parents spared no money when it came to his treatment. His mom, a nurse, did everything in her power even at home to try and make him better. They tried traditional medicine, the holistic route, spiritual pray sessions. Everything.
And it didn’t work.
Beth had every right to be angry at God. She lost her little boy less than a year after he was first diagnosed. He never got to go to prom, let alone get married and do all of the stuff that comes after that.
Most people chalked it up as a tragedy and cried, and then returned to life as usual, praying nothing like that would ever happen to them.
Because it was tragic, what happened to Ian.
Just a month or so ago, I caught up with Beth over a cup of coffee. As usual, I asked her how she was doing, and after a few times of me doing this, Beth learned to answer honestly.
“There are days I’m angry,” she said. “I feel cheated as a mom, and I just miss him.”
I nodded, trying to show that I understood, but couldn’t comprehend, a contradiction in my own heart.
“And you know, Amanda,” she continued, “the thing that I finally understood this past week was this: Ian led a full life.”
I blinked when she said that. I didn’t expect to hear it. No one ever says a fourteen year-old lived a full life, especially when almost a year of it was spent in a hospital bed undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
“From the moment he was conceived,” Beth explained, “God knew how much time he would spend on this Earth. He knows that about all of us. And whether we’re ninety or nine, we’ve all led the life we were meant to lead. We’ve all done what we were meant to do. That makes me feel better, knowing that Ian accomplished what he was sent here to do.” She later sent me this picture, a snippet of advice taken from Max Lucado:
Such beauty coming from an already beautiful woman. She had just lost her son, her heart torn from her body, and yet she was still able to understand that Ian led the life God wanted him to lead. And when it was time for God to call him home, He did.
What Beth said that day resonated with me, and I think it applies to people of all ages.
Just this weekend, I did the best I could to help my 93 year old grandpa around the house. My grandma is not well, and he spends his days making her health a priority. His own health isn’t what it used to be, so keeping the house as spotless as he was used to is getting harder and harder.
I had just finished washing the windows when I met him in the kitchen. He was fetching a glass of juice for my grandma, trying to sneak in an extra hundred calories to help fill her bony frame.
“Thanks for doing that, Squirt,” he said, nodding to the windows.
“No problem,” I replied. “Since I’m the tall one, it’s easy for me to do.” I smiled at my attempt at a joke. I’m fairly tall at 5’10”, and my grandpa has probably shrunk to about 5’6″.
“Yep, I woulda probably had to get the ladder out,” he explained in slow way, his deep voice filling the room. “My shoulder doesn’t hold up the way it used to, so I can’t reach up as well. And my leg can kinda feel funny when I’m standing on those things.” He finished pouring the juice and held it up as a reminder of how sick my grandma had gotten this past week. “I tell ya kid, it’s hell gettin’ old.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “It makes you wonder if there really is some glamour in dying young, huh?”
He nodded, the look on his face sincere and sad.
A man like Granddad, so proud and so hardworking, hates to ask for help. He hates watching people like me whip out a job he used to do easily. And taking care of an ailing, elderly wife has reminded him of how fragile a person’s health is as he or she gets older.
I mean, if dying young is a tragedy, then surely living past your prime and becoming dependent on others is, too.
But after Granddad left the room, I started thinking about what Beth said:
How we all have lived full lives, despite the number of years we’ve spent on this Earth.
And I think that same truth holds true for my grandparents. They are living past their peers. There were only two people in my grandma’s graduating high school class at her reunion this year. Two. Their calendar is full of three things: grandkids’ birthdays, the senior citizen center menu, and doctor appointments. The Lions Club meetings, PEO, and church and social gatherings have all slowly died away.
They don’t understand this fast-paced world and don’t want to be a part of it. Their closest friends have passed away and sometimes their mind doesn’t seem right. Every body part aches, and at least part of their heart wishes their time was done. But another part of it is petrified of the thought of not waking up, despite the pain.
These people have lived ‘full’ lives. And yet they’re still here. And it doesn’t make sense, at least at face value.
But it does if you trust in the process of God changing people.
You see, my grandfather never thought he’d grow this old. He was always convinced he would die young, since his own father had. Through his first 90 years, he was tough, gruff, and straightforward.
He didn’t do things like take over the cooking and cleaning so my grandma could rest.
He didn’t hold her hand.
He didn’t caress her cheek tenderly. In fact, I remember him faking a grimace at their 50th wedding anniversary when someone demanded they kiss.
When she made him a meal, she’d ask if he liked it, and he’d always say “no”. Of course he was teasing, but he didn’t exactly make up for it with eloquent praise at a later time.
My grandpa was the opposite of affectionate.
But just a couple of short months after he turned 92, he got a grim diagnosis about the love of his life.
And he changed. He’s courting her again and reminding her of his love every day.
And we get to see it. All because he’s lived until 93, rather than 92.
Had his life ended sooner, God wouldn’t have given us this glimpse of him. And I can tell you with 100% honesty that this side of my Granddad is creating tender memories and allowing us to see a different side of him than we’ve ever seen before.
And if we can see all of this change, imagine what kind of change is occurring in his own heart.
We will all have full lives, no matter when we go.
I think about my cousin, who just lost her twins. She miscarried. She never got to nurse them or hear them laugh or meet any of life’s milestones.
But the other day, she posted a picture of two sets of tiny footprints on Facebook. And those tiny footprints couldn’t look more human. They made an imprint on our hearts.
Maybe we hugged our own babies a little tighter because of them. Maybe a woman who just found out she was pregnant will see those footprints and rethink her choice as she walks into a clinic. Maybe my cousins can look at those footprints and know that their babies are being rocked to sleep by God, and that someday they will have the chance to do the same in paradise.
In the end, we will have all led full lives, whether we’re fourteen, ninety-three, or not yet born.
We’ve made the impact we were meant to make, at the time we needed to make it, for the people God hand-delivered to us.
We have all lived a life complete.
Source: Amanda Deich