The span of a life

One of the joys of our particular time in history is that we have a lot of adaptive technologies that did not exist in previous times. Not long ago I watched a video of an amazing product. Liftware makes stabilizing and leveling handles and attachments that are designed to help people with hand tremor or limited hand and arm mobility regain dignity, confidence, and independence by stabilizing a spoon or fork so that the food doesn’t fall from the implement on its way to the user’s mouth. Watching the video reminded me of a friend who died in the last year who experienced many frustrations with hand tremors. How I wished I had known about that product during his life!

One of the adaptive devices that we did enjoy very much was a reclining chair that was powered by an electric motor. The chair not only put out its footrest, and reclined under its own power, it also would lift up and provide a gentle boost to make it much easier for a person with limited strength to get from the sitting to standing position. We obtained such a chair from the estate of a woman who had barely used it. The almost new chair was a real blessing during the final year or so of my mother’s life. It gave her a great deal of independence to be able to sit and even nap in the chair, but also to get up on her own. We’d park her walker right in front of the char and as it boosted her up, it placed her in just the right position to use the walker to get around our home.

That chair is currently serving a person who has a degenerative hip disease and who experiences significant pain and frustration at times.

A similar chair was donated to our church a while back and we decided to keep it to be available when someone had a need for such a chair. Yesterday one of our volunteers delivered it to the home of a member of our church. Talking about the delivery brought to mind the fact that within the last year I attended the 100th birthday party of the person who will be using the chair. A century is a significant amount of time for a human life, especially when the person living that long retains their ability to tell stories and reminisce about the past. Later in the same day I paid a visit to a man who lives in a care center that is specialized in caring for people with significant memory problems. I walked into a room full of people who could not recall that I had previously visited that place. Many of them couldn’t recognize their own family members due to the dementia they have experienced.

Our life journeys are varied and unique. Here in the United States, average life expectancy is estimated to be around 79 years. More precisely life expectancy for a U.S. male is 76.3 years and a U.S. female 81.2 years. That is a slight decrease from 2015, when it was 76.5 for males and 81.3 for females. That’s not far from Psalm 90’s “threescore and ten, or if by reason of strength fourscore.” Our country ranks 53 among the nations of the world for life expectancy. Number one is Monaco with an average expectancy of 89.47. Number 100 is Syria with 75.8. The estimate may be high for Syria with the dramatic effects of the battle for Aleppo that is currently being waged.

Averages, however, say nothing about an individual’s experience. In my time as a pastor i’ve attended the deaths of infants whose lifespan wasn’t measured in years or even in days, but rather in minutes and hours. I’ve responded to the homes where teenagers have died from suicide and from tragic accidents. I’ve been at the beside of someone who was struck down by illness in the prime of life. And I’ve spent time with folks who have lived long and productive lives.

Last I visited with a family whose father is no longer able to swallow and the myriad of other health problems he faces means that there is no effective treatment short of a feeding tub to provide reliable nutrition for him. After we had our prayers and I read a few passages of scripture, we were visiting informally. One of the sons said to me, “I suppose you’ve seen this before.” I replied that while I had been with other families as a loved one neared death, I had never been with their family or their father. Each situation and each circumstance is very different from each other one. There is no “usual” when it comes to individuals.

As a pastor with 38 years of ordained ministerial experience, I have attended a lot of funerals. My 30-year-old book of worship has probably attended more funerals that the average member of my congregation. But there is nothing routine about the transition from life to life beyond death. There is no magic formula - no absolutely right words - no common description. I’ve read a lot of books on death and dying and a fair number of books with descriptions of near-death experiences. They talk about similarities of experience, which I am sure exist. Those books don’t seem to be very good at talking about the absolute uniqueness of each individual experience.

On average, women in the U.S. live longer than men. Of what value is that statistic to the widowers in my congregation whose wives died unexpectedly before they did? Averages become meaningless in the face of an individual reality.

Length is only one way of measuring a human life. While we find it remarkable to know those who have passed the century mark, it is equally impressive to know those whose lives are much shorter. There are lots of other ways to measure value.

I’m not holding out for any records. I’m happy to take my place amongst the averages. But I am grateful to live in a time when there are a few technologies that will ease my aging years and assist me to have a meaningful life when disability becomes a constant companion. For now it is good to be alive and to have the abilities that I do. Now that I’ve passed the threescore mark, threescore and ten doesn’t seem all that far away. Maybe I can develop the strength to go for fourscore. My prayer, however, comes from later in that same psalm, “Establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!”

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!