Authors: Phil Callaway
Dying is a very dull, dreary affair,
and my advice to you is to have nothing to do with it
uring this time I began to receive invitations to speak at conferences for health-care providers at hospitals and nursing homes. I eagerly accepted, and I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that some were government-subsidized conferences and offered more than an honorarium of mileage and a T-shirt. I counted it an honor and found these unheralded servants ripe for laughter. I also found them exhausted. One lady told me, I’m so tired I fall into bed at night and I don’t have the energy to use the Clapper.” And so I tell them of the message a friend of mine has on his answering machine:
Hello, and welcome to the Mental Health Hotline. If you are obsessive-compulsive, please press 1 immediately. If you are co-dependent, please ask someone else to press 2. If you have multiple personalities, please press 3, 4, 5, and 6. If you are paranoid, we know who you are and what you want. Just stay on the line so we can trace the call. If you are depressed, it doesn’t matter which number you push. No one will answer.
The health-care professionals laugh quite heartily at this, and then I tell them the sad reality—that this is the kind of answer many people receive when they’re in need. But how I thank God that no one gets that kind of answer from them, that they walk in when others walk out.
They seem to like this, so I keep going. I tell them of the battles I’ve faced steering a family through Huntington’s disease and epilepsy and a few other icebergs. And I tell them some of the things I’ve learned that have kept me relatively sane and well adjusted when life threatens to poke holes in my hull:
Laugh a little each day. Before I was born, my dad worked in a psychiatric ward in Quebec, Canada. I don’t remember much about it, but Mom claims he would come home at night and describe some of the sad events of the day, often interspersing his dialogue with a good belly laugh. She couldn’t believe it at first, but it was his way of finding the pulse of sanity in a dark place.
I find myself doing the same now in caring for my father. One summer day while I was visiting the hospital, a lady who serves as part-time chaplain pulled me aside. Her forehead was scrunched up, and I wondered what awful thing my father had done or said. “You told me he had been faithful to your mother for sixty years,” she said, still scrunching. “Today he was watching TV and holding hands with a complete stranger.” Of course I laughed. So did she. Sure, we cry and we pray, but sometimes laughter is our most effective weapon—perhaps the only one we have. And it sure beats oat bran.
Find a confidant. Miles Franklin said, “Someone to tell it to is one of the fundamental needs of human beings.” You don’t need to give everyone you meet an organ recital, but who can put a price tag on the value of sharing his story, thoughts, feelings, and sometimes tears with a trusted other?
Some communities have caregiver support groups. If you can’t find one, start one. If you can’t start one, get a pet. Sometimes my dog is my support group. She’s the only one who will listen without interrupting. It’s like the old Swedish proverb: “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”
Carve hurry from your life. I wish someone had informed me earlier that there is nothing noble about a nervous breakdown and nothing selfish about taking care of your own needs. When I discovered that “no” is a complete sentence, I freed time for pursuing my gifts. When I learned to enjoy things without owning them, I forgot about the Joneses. When I began hanging out with positive people, I topped off my energy tank. When I began taking care of myself, I found I was better equipped to take good care of others. Stillness is rejuvenating. Sometimes the most pressing thing you can possibly do is take a complete rest.
Exercise three times a week. Bodily exercise profits a little. Of course, it didn’t help my mother. She started walking a mile a day when she was sixty. She’s eighty-three now and we don’t know where she is.
Enjoy the right food and take longer to eat it. My philosophy on eating is the same as Miss Piggy’s: Never eat more than you can lift. But middle age informs me that my philosophy is flawed. Pants that fit last Thursday are malfunctioning. So I need to acquaint myself with salmon, tomatoes, broccoli, nuts, and blueberries. And never pass up an opportunity to savor dessert. A recent study conducted by the dark chocolate industry indicates that dark chocolate is good for you.
Run away from home. Find a way to get away. If the budget is low, develop a great imagination. Close your eyes and imagine that your bath is at a spa in the Himalayas—without the monkeys. Never just listen to your favorite music. Pretend you’re at a concert, or giving one. When you can’t take what you’ve been taking any longer, take a vacation.
Take care of the home front. Who we are and what we are able to accomplish come directly from the foundations we build. So work on your relationships inside your tightest circles. Those of us who care for aging parents must not forget our own children.
Worry less. Worry steals everything worthwhile from today and adds nothing worthwhile to tomorrow. Worried people see problems; concerned people find solutions.
Remember you’re more amazing than you think. In a selfish age, those who care for others make God smile. So never underestimate the power of a kind word, a touch, a smile, a tear, or a compliment. You are the answer to someone’s prayer. Be assured that there will be resistance, but the rewards are out of this world.
Go looking for the blessings. Don’t worry, you’ll find them. They’re everywhere.
We are here to add what we can to,
not to get what we can from, life
ver since he was knee-high to a Doberman, the boy was fearless. Take him to the ocean and he’d jump in looking for sharks. Take him to the mountains and he’d see how high he could climb. One day when he was five, I watched in horror as he jumped off a roof, a garbage bag duct-taped to his back. It didn’t go well for him. So we set the bone, and he tried it again.
We couldn’t be more opposite, my son and I. The higher he climbs, the more he believes God is with him. Not me. I believe God put us on dry land and said, “Lo, I am with you always.”
In his first year of Bible college, Steve called one night to ask me for money. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You have reached this number in error. Please hang up and call your Uncle Dan.”
“I scaled a three-hundred-foot cliff today,” he said, undaunted. “You’d have loved it.”
Right. His father, who contracts vertigo standing on a skateboard.
For years I’ve wondered what God would make of our son. Would He call him to be a crash-test dummy? A professional bungee jumper? Or would he fulfill every North American parent’s dream by settling
down in a huge house with a nice wife and provide us some grandchildren to spoil?
The unexpected answer arrived by e-mail one day.
Dear Dad and Mom,
I just want you to know that I met a couple of nice girls and we’re planning on being married. In Utah. Not really. But I did meet Lucy. You’ll like her a lot. It’s surprising how quickly you can find a justice of the peace down here. Lucy owns a tattoo parlor but seldom works. Her father won some money in a lottery, so she’s set for life. I won’t need to work anymore either. I’ve bought a Mercedes convertible and you’ll be happy to know I put a chrome fish on the bumper.
If you haven’t fainted yet, here’s the truth. It may be more shocking. In the country of Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army is committing atrocities against children that are too awful for me to put in this letter. Over the years they’ve abducted fifty thousand kids and turned the ones they haven’t murdered into soldiers. I’d like to work with street children in Kampala. I’ll be living with local missionaries. It will mean lots of needles and I’ll need to raise a little money too.
Dad, I once heard you say that Jesus came to comfort us, not to make us comfortable. I guess I’ve been comforted enough; it’s time to offer some to others.
Love from far away,
Your son, Steve
“Where do you think we went wrong?” I asked his mother. “Couldn’t he just have a beach ministry in Hawaii?”
“It’s what we’ve prayed for all these years,” she said with a grin, “that he would live life on purpose.”
“I think we blew it by having all those missionaries over for dinner or taking him to other countries and showing him what the real world looks like.”
And so we found ourselves hugging our firstborn son good-bye as he embarked on a grand adventure half a world away. I hugged him until his ribs squeaked. One of us wiped tears. I won’t tell you who.
It’s funny, the questions people ask when they hear our son is in Uganda. This is the one I’ve heard a few dozen times: “Aren’t you worried about his safety?” I’d be a fool not to admit that I have my moments. Check out a list of the most dangerous spots on earth, and Uganda is near the top. But is safety what we’re here for? Isn’t Complacency the most dangerous place on earth? Isn’t Suburbia sucking the life out of more of our teenagers than any foreign country ever could?
I sat with a missionary the other day who is pouring her life out in Pakistan, patching bodies and souls for Jesus. She said she’s the only missionary in her area whose parents support her being there.
I must be honest. I understand. There are times I’d rather Steve was home making good money—putting it away for my nursing-home bills. Yet I cannot hope for more than this: that my children will hear God’s voice despite a noisy culture, and that they will obey.
A few nights before Steve left, I asked him what he’d miss most about home. “The dog,” he said, smiling.
Then why is it that I found him studying family photos and lounging on the sofa watching an old Disney movie with his brother and sister? Was he killing time? Or saying good-bye to the remnants of childhood?
Whatever happened to the boy I used to build Lego-block villages with? The boy I taught to whistle and ride a bike? The boy who once put Kool-Aid in our shower head?
I’ve shed a few tears for sure. But mostly I’ve been smiling and giving thanks. For God’s grace in giving me a son who’s an updated and improved version of his father. For e-mail and cheap overseas phone rates.
And I’m thankful there are no sharks in Uganda.
When it comes to staying young,
a mind-lift beats a face-lift any day
I still find each day too short for all the thoughts
I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books
I want to read, and all the friends I want to see
’ve been hanging out in nursing homes a little earlier than planned, and I’ve discovered that some of the inmates have managed to age gracefully, like gold-medal figure skaters. They are gliding through the golden years, smiling sweetly, bringing joy to others.
Then there are those who are determined to seek vengeance by using their wheelchairs as bumper cars and their canes as harpoons. When the grandkids visit, they spend the time whining about how the grandkids never visit. For them the glass is not just half empty; it’s cracked and chipped, and the lemonade is sour. To say they are lacking fashion sense is like saying the Pacific is wet. The men wear black knee
socks and wing-tipped white shoes. They only use two buttons on their shirt. The ladies wear dresses they bought from the tent and awning company and have their hair dyed neon blue.
My grandfather Callaway was a combination of the graceful and the geezer. He loved a good laugh, but he also loved to talk about his ailments once the entire family had gathered around the dinner table and the food had been doled out. Then suddenly, it was organ-recital time: “So I remember when the doctors had to root through me and take out my spleen. Stayed awake for the whole thing. Watched ‘em dig it outta there all wrinkled and green. I asked ‘em to pickle it for me. Put it in a jar. I kept it for years on the counter. Looked like a big hairy cucumber. Hey, where’s everybody going? Mind if I eat your carrots?”
Grandpa gained a lot of weight in those days, and we saved money on groceries.
I loved and admired my grandfather immensely. He gave me money whenever I visited him, and though God had delivered him from alcoholism, he was the only man I’ve ever met who bought cough syrup in bulk, drinking it straight from the bottle.
I once enjoyed an evening with a seventy-five-year-old by the name of Donald Cole. Mr. Cole travels the country speaking at conferences and hosts a radio show during which he dispenses spiritual advice to callers, grownups and five-year-olds alike. During our conversation, Mr. Cole mentioned to me that he runs several miles a day, which caught me off guard—like having a guy in a Smart Car pull up to a stoplight beside you, glance your way, and rev his engine.
I got to thinking about how nice it would be to jog when I turn seventy-five. Maybe it’s something my wife and I could do together. She could drive me out of town and drop me off—it would give purpose to my running. So I said something dumb to Mr. Cole, which is not something
that took me entirely by surprise, because I seem to bounce between not opening my mouth wide when I should and opening it far too wide when I shouldn’t. I said, “Boy, I’d sure like to be running like that when I’m your age.”
He said, “Are you running now?”
I coughed slightly. I said, “I…ahem…came in third in a relay once.”
He said, “If you aren’t running now, you won’t be then.”
In other words, if I sit around eating lard-filled doughnuts in my thirties, when I turn sixty-five, my chances of waddling much farther than the refrigerator aren’t great.
And it hit me that all of us are in training for the days to come. That if we are impatient, unkind, and unforgiving, we won’t wake up at sixty-five to discover that people want to be around us. This made me wonder:
What kind of an old guy will I be? And
how do I live so my kids will want to visit me in the nursing home? By then, as the old saying goes, I will have silver in my hair, gold in my teeth, lead in my feet, and lots of natural gas, but I won’t be wealthy without friends.
The older people I admire are those who have exercised the right creases on their face. Not the ones of petulance and complaint, but the ones turned upward on either side of their eyes. They live life on purpose. I fear that if some of us wrote down a mission statement it would look something like this:
I will consider myself a success when I’m rich enough to do nothing but travel and eat and collect sea shells; when I can have it the way I want it; when the jerks around here start leaving me alone. I will consider myself a success when my wife wakes up to the fact that I’m marvelous, when I’ve got a big-screen TV and nothing but time on my hands to watch it.
Contrast this with the attitude of my friend Dave Epp. Dave visits the hospital a few times a week, and Mom and Dad are always glad to see him. After mourning the loss of his wife to cancer, Dave decided to use his pain, becoming a hospital chaplain, visiting those who can’t get out, encouraging them with the love of Jesus, joking with them, and praying for them. Dave could wallow in bitterness, but he lives life on purpose, with significance.
The older people I admire still have their sense of humor intact. Anne Lamott calls laughter “carbonated holiness.” Gerald Wheatley is so full of the stuff that you can almost hear him fizz. Last Sunday he greeted me in our church foyer with a new joke from the corny patch. “Did you hear about the guy who walks into a bar and asks, ‘Does anyone here own that Rottweiler outside?’“
I hadn’t heard about the guy, but I knew I was about to.
“A biker stands up, says, ‘Yeah, that’s my dog. What about it?’
“‘I think my Chihuahua killed him.’
“The biker laughs. ‘
How could your little runt kill my Rottweiler?’
“‘Got stuck in his throat.’”
When you walk past a room and hear laughter, you want to find out what’s causing it.
Few things give us more hope than a seventy-five-year-old who is reading good books, learning new truths, and discussing things besides the weather. She smiles more than she has reason to, laughs when she probably shouldn’t, and talks to children and babies and pets.
I wrote down a few more things I admire in older people. It came out as a little poem, and I showed it to my mother. She smiled her approval, then gave me the kind of look that says,
You’re young. One day you’ll understand that it isn’t all easy
. Still, I pinned it to the bulletin board so she could show it to her friends. Here it is:
You are not old.
Until you stop making new friends.
Until you start fighting change.
You are not old.
Until your past is bigger than your future.
Until you think the bad old days were all good.
Until you talk more of ills, spills, bills, and wills.
Until you begrudge the spotlight
turned on a younger generation.
And stop shining it on them yourself.
You are not old as long as you can pray.
As long as you have the inner strength to ask:
How can I spread hope around?
How can I get the most out of the years I have left?
How can I make others homesick for heaven?
You are young at heart.
Until you decide you aren’t.
I am happy to report that the little poem is still there, still pinned to the bulletin board. So far no one has harpooned it with a cane.