Saturday, September 5, 2015

What matters in the end

I watched Gran Torino again the other day.  For two reasons. One was to see if there was a scene I could rip for a lecture I’m giving on the way hospitality can bridge cultural differences. The other was to observe the changes in the main character, Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood, – to watch him finally in the end choose to give away his prize possession, a 1972 Ford Gran Torino to a Hmong boy and to give his life in revenge for crimes against an innocent family he had grown to love.

Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino 
This story is complex enough to make you laugh, appall you and wrench your heart all at the same time. But that’s how life always is. Complex.

That’s how Ed Hague's living and dying has been to me. Complex. He made me laugh all the time.  He  could be appallingly irreverent, piercingly honest, and then point you to Christ in the most unexpected ways. I loved him as one of my best friends.

The last time I talked to him was about ten days before he died. Our coming to his funeral was on his mind. How would we pay for it, he wanted to know. Since we live in Minnesota and he is, I mean was, in Tallahassee, he was trying to figure out a way to alleviate some of our expense. I told him we did not care one whit about that so he could stop obsessing about it. We would come out of love and respect for his family and nothing else mattered. It was typical of him to care about all sorts of matters big and small, personal and public.

I just finished reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawandi. Aunt Ruth died last month. Ed passed away two weeks ago. Denis’ parents are in their 90s and living precariously on their own day after day, refusing any kind of help or care. The list could go on. I know some of you have friends or family members who are facing either age-related issues or terminal illness. So both the movie and this book felt timely.

Gawandi writes about some of the studies and their findings on what fulfills and grows people even as their life narrows.

 If we shift as we age toward appreciating everyday pleasures and relationships rather than toward achieving, having, and getting, and if we find this more fulfilling, then why do we take so long to do it? Why do we wait until we are old [or terminally ill]? The common view was that these lessons are hard to learn. Living is a kind of skill. The calm and wisdom of old age are achieved over time. Cartenson (a Stanford psychologist) was attracted to a different explanation. What if the change in needs and desires has nothing to do with age per se? Suppose it merely has to do with perspective – your personal sense of how finite your time in this world is…

I think that in that last three years of Ed’s life following his diagnosis of Stage IV prostate cancer, he grew more than ever before in his understanding of what it means to have this one life to live. 

Ed housebreaking our internet
 He eventually had to let things go that he had been very good at like untangling computer problems, trimming large trees, running his business. He shifted more toward enjoying ordinary pleasures – his wife Betsy could speak more specifically to this. Ice cream. Sitting on the porch. Walking to the mailbox. But in particular, his relationships in pursuit of love and healing became the most important to him to the very end.

So, I think he would agree with Cartenson, that the deeper changes he experienced had to do with facing his finiteness, yes, but he would add an element that was a complete game-changer for him: he was overcome by love. He learned how to receive love in a way he never had before –  the love of his wife and family, the love of friends, the love of all the medical people who cared for him, but most especially God’s love for him. As he wrote in his obituary (I mean, WHO writes their own obituary?):

 "Here’s the most important thing to know about Ed, though. God loved him and made sure that Ed knew it. Hiding from love all of his life, after his cancer diagnosis, God turned the love firehoses on him."

And then Ed turned it back on us.

He loved us in life and mentored us in death. That sounds so cheesy I almost have to delete the sentence except that it's true. And honestly? He could be a beast sometimes. Like when, oh, never mind.        

He faced the breakdown of his body with courage and humor. I would like to learn this love well before I die. I would like to stand in the way of that firehose and get drowned by love. Yes.  And we do have this ....

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any power neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38)