Waking up to the shortness of life

July 13, 2019

(Photo courtesy of Cornish family)

(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, July 13, 2019)

I’m gardening with my son, the cool, wet dirt between our fingers. I think of John, my friend, a fellow traveller, recently dead of cancer. He’s still somehow, seen. Still felt.

Funny how that goes, how you often miss what’s right in front of you. Then, when you take the time to pause, the smelling salts of life get you to sit up and do what your mother always told you: pay attention!

Our vegetable garden is small and unpretentious in our back yard. Thoughts of John come between the lettuce and cucumbers. They come also at other times, like after my swim at the Y.

There I’m listening to Brian, a stranger. “You have a better chance of dying in your 50s than your 60s,” Brian tells me. In your 60s, slowing down, you’re less stressed. I’m standing half-dressed. I nod. I understand. I’m in my 50s.

Brian is reading the paper, this paper. He’s remembering Peter and Paul Catholic Elementary, his old school on Fennell Road. Remembering friends. He’s reading a 65thbirthday celebration of one classmate who was in two drunk driving accidents. The first killed another boy. The second blinded Brian’s classmate for the rest of his life.

Brian speaks to me, but it’s John’s voice, that gentle voice, I hear. You’ll never meet a quieter man than John. But he’d easily share about Peter and Paul, those ancient followers who they now name schools after. Thirty years ago, when we met, John and I were among a group of men studying these sorts of things. It was a green-covered book on growing spiritually.

The cover had a shovel and a plant and black soil, gardening things I might use with my son like my own father used with me. I can’t remember what my wife told me this morning, but I remember that book cover from three decades ago. And I remember how John met his wife, Denise, soon after. I introduced them to each other.

I was a young, long-haired reporter and Denise, a hairdresser with big ‘80s hair of her own, was cutting my hair. She was interested in psychology, she told me, but then she realized, no, she was more interested in the spirit world.

“I know a Spirit,” I said. Later, I introduced her to some friends, including John Cornish. And soon after that, in a dramatic change I’ve never seen before or since, her life did a most remarkable flip, a sudden and profound turn. At John’s funeral, she reminded me. “Do you remember?” she asked.

Then marriage and children before John led his young family to, of all unlikely places, Papua New Guinea. A graphics designer, he worked in a printing shop to serve local tribal groups. That’s when we lost touch, even after he and Denise returned to Canada. It was a fluke when I recently learned of his death. Twenty-four hours later, on a warm evening in smalltown Ontario, I was at John’s funeral.

At the community hall the minister held an imaginary rope. Imagine, he said, that rope’s first inch. Just an inch. Part of that inch is for your school years. Part for your work life. Part for your subsequent years of aging. Now imagine dying. Then your afterlife. That is, imagine that rope running out of the hall, out of town and forever out of sight.

I listened. John was 54 when he died. Tomorrow, Sunday, I turn 54. Happy birthday to me. Yes here I am, like you, in the muck of life. Short as it is.

Not that lifespans aren’t rising. They are. Today the average Papua New Guinean lives to 65. In 1965, when John and I were born, that average was 45. Worldwide, 70 years is now the average lifespan. That’s double from 1900. Even today’s shortest lifespans, in various African nations, are longer than the highest average of 1800. In Canada, we now live on average to 82.

Even so, on a trip around the world, what’s one inch doubled to two?

John, my travelling friend, you’ve reminded me, and others, of this. The long tomorrow. Thank you. And if a thousand years is like a day, then I guess I’ll see you in a second.

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July 13, 2019 • Posted in ,
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16 thoughts on “Waking up to the shortness of life”

  1. What a beautifully written piece. A little bit of mistiness in my eyes as I start my day, reflecting back to gardening in a certain plot tucked behind a certain manor home. Then once again, standing on African soil, watching you share time with your son in a little hill-top garden.
    Thom, thank you for reminding us that the ordinary things in our day can become the extraordinary treasures in our future.

  2. Sorry for the temporary loss of your friend. And I appreciate your writing, as always.

    “ Christ is not a reservoir but a spring.
    His life is continual, active and ever passing on with an outflow as necessary as its inflow.

    If we do not perpetually draw the fresh supply from the living Fountain,
    We shall either grow stagnant or empty,

    Life is, therefore, not so much a perpetual fullness. . . . as a perpetual filling.”

    A.B. Simpson

    So why not fill up one of those 20 liter Jerry Cans of gasoline, to “save on trips to the gas station” ?
    We only need a little for the lawn mower right now, and a small can would do ?

    Have you ever noticed how onerous and how awkward it is to pour from the large can ? Wearisome.
    Painful. Accident prone and some spilling and wasteful ?

    Life is short. Necessarily so to afford us the opportunity of constant ‘filling” and “refilling”.
    And to reduce the strain of carrying more of the stresses and chores of life, than we really need, or can handle at any given time ?

    Small pots. Constant refilling from the spring, according to our needs ?

  3. William J. Petersen

    Thomas: It never becomes easy. I live in an Assisted Living facility in the states, and it looks as if I will celebrate my 90th birthday here next month. I make new friends one month and I lose them the next. Life has no guarantees, but death does. I shed a few tears (too few, considering what they meant to me), and then I get back to work. Yes, Thomas, I have work to do and so do you.

  4. This is a beautiful piece – rembrance and thoughtful musings about the ways of life and it’s brevity. I am older than either Brian or Thomas these thoughts really resonated with me.

  5. Rick, thanks for this very thoughtful encouragement. I love it, the whole idea of the smaller bite-sized nourishments that keep us going so much better than any other way.

  6. Hi Thomas well I’m at that age also soon to be 54 years of age ! I lost my father at the age of 59 and one of my biggest friend / big brother at the age of 42 … My life change in a big way from those two points on. I find that every man’s or woman life is like a time capsule , that overtime One will remember the key points in their lives and feed from the memories during that life span to quote ” My father was like a lost diamond in the sea of life that was a rear find ‘ I miss him so and for as my friend Long gone before my father’s death may he be at peace in the glory of God my big brother J.P Thanks for opening doorway to things to come ? 🙂

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