The night I stood in my dad’s barn and blew out my birthday candles I had no idea of knowing that within two weeks I’d be trying to claw off the burning-itch of my abdomen with what the doctor would diagnose as a classic case of the shingles.
I confess, I was actually kinda feeling my age as I blew out all those tattle-tale candles on the cake — but not nearly as old as when the doctor peers over his glasses to inform me standing there, holding up the side of my shirt to expose the meandering clusters of fiery, red bumps:
“Shingles is very common in older people.”
And I kinda exhale through the exhaustion and smile thinly:
Growing older is a gift that only the young take for granted.
It’s a gift to get old enough to realize how little you know.
It’s a gift to hold space for all the ages you have ever been.
It’s a gift to focus less on how old you are becoming and more on who you are becoming.
The Farmer has his own sheepish appointment with the doctor right after mine.
“We — don’t have much on you here at all. When was the last time you were here?” the doctor leans in toward his computer screen and the Farmer’s scant file. There are men who only visit a doctor just before they think a visit to the funeral home might be imminent.
“Yeah — I really only see you folks usually when I’m bleeding,” the Farmer, cradling his elbow, grinned through the constant throbbing. When the doctor prodded his elbow, the Farmer jolts with the sharp pain: “Yeah, there. For nearly a month now,” he laughs half-embarrassed.
“Bursitis,” the doctor nodded. “And it looks like the tests they did a few weeks ago in ER came positive for infection.”
The Farmer looks across the doctor’s office at me and chuckles: “Aren’t we a kinda a finely aging pair: Shingles and bursitis.”
The night we had all gathered in my Dad’s barn for cake I had looked around at our 7 kids, from 4 to 24, our four sons and three daughters, such people, and I had thought that:
Aging is a long marinating in amazing grace.
My sister has laid out plates, her and her 5 long-haired daughters having spent the day making the meal, and her rogue youngest son offers this toothless-grinning birthday greetings, hands stuffed irresistibly into pockets.
My mama tosses the salads and I’d catch her smile, and our Syrian refugee family brings a pot of sunny flowers and their chubby-cheeked, deliciously squeezable new baby boy, and our Congolese refugee family come with shy hugs and musical laughter that plays through the night like the perfect soundtrack to hope, and our China-born daughter drives a pedal International tractor across the old bank barn floors and my dad fires up the grill — and there are all these moments that can light with grace.
Maybe blowing out candles is actually about fanning the flames of genuine thanks.
And I’m a bit ignited. We may be growing older but our hearts are growing larger, and we may be limping along but we can help welcome a family into our family that longs to belong, we may be hurting in all kinds of ways, but we can be kind and help others hurting in their own way.
And my dad steps up beside the Farmer and I, cock his head to one side and say it very slow, like every word carries weight: “I hope you really know: You are all the very luckiest.”
I read my dad eyes — and a million stories of pain he holds and never has to speak. He’s standing with us in the barn’s stone loft where he hung a steel sign: “Aimee’s Loft” — his second daughter.
She’s not at my 46th — because she was killed in a farm accident just after my 4th.
My eyes don’t leave Dad’s eyes — I nod slow.
Our middle girl, barefoot and curls tucked behind her ear, she wraps her arms around my dad and murmurs it quietly, “Love you, Grandpa.”
And my heart hurts with this splitting thanks:
Winning the lottery doesn’t make you lucky. Getting to love makes you the luckiest of all, because love always wins.
Dad, white hair at his temples and etched wrinkles writing a holy story, he closes his eyes, and squeezes his granddaughter tight, and I wrap my arms around them both and we all hold on a little longer.
My Dad feels smaller somehow. Our Shalom-girl feels taller. And our littlest girl dives in to hug all our legs.
And the Farmer nods and smiles and we all hold space for what time and aging and life and love really mean:
You don’t need the love of many — you only need to love many times more than you ever thought you could.
Dad brushes back what’s brimming, but I don’t want to brush any of this holy aging back.
Mama’s kneeling down to talk to our littlest baby girl, and our boys are ribbing each other hard about cars, and the kids from Syria and the Congo and the farm are all one family up in an old bank barn under a late summer sky and it can be quite common for those growing older to know it:
The lucky few are simply loved by a few, get to love a few, and choose to love more than a few times.
The luckiest are worn down to only love.
Long after the candles are blown out, I keep looking around at the kids, at this moment made by enduring hard days, whole hard years, at the manifested kindness of God to those carrying a whole lot of unspoken broken, at all this light lingering like a classic case of inextinguishable love.
And I guess had no idea of knowing, but it turns out?
That it’s quite common for the older to have bones burning up with a finely aging grace.
Need someone to throw you a lifeline of grace?
This one’s for you.
Need some courage to begin again?
This one’s for you.
Need the paradoxical, transforming secret to the abundant life?
I’m telling you: This one’s for you.