This weekend was a military drill / Battle Assembly for me, and it taught me something… that I’m not as young as I once was. Nor am I as young as I would like to be. Nor am I as young as I like to think I am. I was actually “counseled” by my Battalion Commander to remember my age, and to plan my levels of exertion accordingly. Luckily for me, I’m still younger (by a little bit) than my Commander or my Sergeant Major… so she was speaking from a place of experience.
It would have been horrible to have come from someone who was younger than I.
So, this past Sunday, around preaching a chapel service and doing some counseling with my soldiers, I also had to run two miles, do pushups till I could not pushup any more, do situps till I could not situp anymore, and walk 8 kilometers with a rucksack full of military gear on my back. Now, I actually came through it pretty good, with my “Airborne Knees” holding me up pretty well (with a little assistance), my back not seizing up, and my lungs managing not to feel like they were on fire. I even, during the ruck march, not only kept up but walked from the rear of the column to its head, speaking with and encouraging each of my soldiers along the way.
And it was wonderful to have about an hour of the Battalion Commander’s time for us to talk, outside of the office and while we were doing something physical together. For a Chaplain, such time with the commander is priceless.
And Monday morning my body did not want to move. My mind was telling my muscles to lift us out of the bed so we could start the day, and my muscles announced that they were on strike, even if they were too tired to lift the picket signs. After about an hour of trying, I finally managed to slide off the bed and managed to get standing upright. I hobbled to the kitchen for some coffee, every muscle in my body tied into at least three knots. I did a little stretching and felt a little better… and found what we used to call “ranger candy”… my ibuprofen.
Perhaps needless to say, I arrived at my Church Office a bit later than I had originally intended… needing to explain to the couple that had come to talk about their upcoming marriage that I did not usually move like Frankenstein’s monster.
I spent a year as a hospice chaplain, thinking about (and feeling a little superior about) the fact that I really do not have a fear of death. Sure, I’m not out looking for it (although with all the skydiving, bungee jumping, whitewater body surfing, and scuba diving I used to do my mom might disagree), but ceasing to be is not frightening to me. I have the gift of knowing in my heart that, if I were to die tomorrow, I would have already given back to the world… that I had the opportunity to change something, and I lived up to that particular moment to help the world change for the better. Few others may ever know it… but I do… and I realized not long after that moment that if I had died the next day, my life would have been worth it. Everything beyond that particular day would be bonus.
What I have begun to realize over this past year is that there is something I do fear, and it is much more imminent (I hope) that my death. I fear my decline. I fear my increasing inability to do the things I want and feel called to do. I fear my increasing inability to live up to the impervious image of myself that let me go through class V rapids wearing only a wetsuit and helmet (stupid, right?) I fear the day I have a doctor tell me that I can no longer run for my Army Physical Fitness Test, and have to accept doing an alternate walking event. I fear the day when I simply can no longer wake up early to sit meditation and write, and then perhaps go swim a few laps before “starting” my day.
I fear the day when I have to make the choice between living in my own home or moving into an assisted living facility. I fear the day when I can no longer drive myself where I want and need to go… and a bicycle is an even more dangerous option than a car. I fear the day when I have to finally admit that I simply can’t keep up with the image of who I want to be physically.
It is a simple fact, my muscles do not knit themselves back together as fast as they used to. Before, I could do pushups till I could no longer physically push up, then wait about 36 hours and do it all again. I might even add a pushup or two. Now, that 36 hours is more like a week. But just because it is a simple fact does not make it a comfortable one.
In High School, my best friend and I (both of us heading off to join the military and as close to immortal as we could imagine ourselves to be) put matching quotes in our senior year books. His said “Death Before Dishonor!” I, with a little more humor than he had, put as my quote “Death Before Discomfort!” As I was trying to get out of bed yesterday morning, I wondered if I might not like to change that motto to something befitting my age… perhaps “Death before Decline…”
But I’ll take my days as they come… and I’ll stretch out a little better… I’ll wear my knee braces and take my Glucosamine pills and I’ll try to mange my decline as best I can. I’ll be glad for the days as they come, and I’ll try to remember, when the 18 year old goes speeding past me on the running track, to laugh about the disdainful look they give me as they dance around me and keep running… perhaps it’s my penance for being so dismissive of my elders when I was that age.
And, I will think in quiet, gleeful joy that one day (hopefully) they will face the same moment of awareness of their own decline. Serves them right, young whippersnappers.
Now, where’s my ibuprofen?
Yours in faith,