A few weeks ago, I attended the funeral of a friend of mine, someone I’ve known my entire life.
He passed away at only 42 years old, after more than 5 years of fighting off terminal cancer. He left behind a wife and four children. It was a nice weekend of being with family and friends who were all there to support each other and share memories. But of course, the underlying grief was brutal.
Forty-two. That’s way too young to go.
As a man of faith, I have comfort in the prospect of death. But like anyone else, I feel like I’ve got more to do around here before I leave. I am not interested in dying any time soon, and so I take whatever steps I can to stick around.
When attending a funeral for someone so young, I am reminded of the gift that every day brings.
Unfortunately, I’ve been reminded of this a lot over the years.
Being surrounded by death the second I became an adult…
September 2003, a kid one grade ahead of me in high school died by drowning at 19 years old. I was almost his age, and I stood in front of his casket, looking down on this guy who looked like he should just get up and start walking around again. It was a real blow, but I could still separate myself from it.
It was an accident. Probably avoidable. It happens.
In December 2003, I received an AIM message (remember those?) from a friend informing me that a girl named Melissa had passed away.
I went to high school with Melissa.
While I wouldn’t describe her as a close friend, she definitely was a friend. Her sister recognized me at the funeral because Melissa kept a funny picture of the two of us on her bedroom wall.
Five months after my high school graduation and I was at a second funeral for someone my age.
Now, Melissa was always in ill health. You knew it by looking at her. Her body was not long for this world. It was a sad surprise to see that she passed away, but it made sense in my head. It was fairly easy to reconcile, even if the funeral was tough to get through.
Four months later, that following February, another classmate died – this time, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
This guy wasn’t a friend of mine. He ran in much rougher circles. And since it was self-inflicted, I could still make sense of it in my brain.
The same month, a good friend of mine had a series of strokes. He died the next week.
This time, my brain couldn’t wrap around it. The third classmate dead less than a year after high school graduation. Fourth one overall.
And he was healthy, ambitious, with a good head on his shoulders. Nothing wrong with him, it seemed. Just… boom. Gone.
The funeral was awful. The worst funeral I’ve ever been to. He was eighteen years old. So much life in front of him yet, unfulfilled.
My faith kept me grounded in comfort. But it was a stark reminder that no day on this earth is guaranteed.
The hits just kept coming…
A few years later, another classmate died of cancer in his early twenties.
A few years after that, another classmate died in her early twenties of suicide.
A few years after that, another classmate died in a drunk driving accident. Late twenties.
By the time I’ve reached my friend’s funeral a few weeks ago, the concept of life not being guaranteed or being fair has already been dealt with in my brain. I have grief, but I’ve already accepted the part of it that doesn’t make any sense.
Others can’t understand it yet. I feel for them. I’ve been there. Unfortunately, I was eighteen years old when I went through that part of it.
I’m always happy at my birthday.
I’m 35 years old. I have yet to be depressed at one of my birthdays.
I know lots of people my age who grieve their birthdays. “Ugh, I’m getting so old!” “I can’t believe I’m going to be in my thirties!” Whatever it is. They feel like another year is the end of something.
I get it. But I see the other side of it.
At 35 years old, I’m almost twice the age of the person in the casket at three funerals I went to after high school. Seven people who I have a personal connection with in some way have no idea what it’s like to reach 30, much less 35. More than half of them never even reached their twenties.
Getting older is a gift.
Yes, getting older means my back hurts a lot. I have neck problems when I sleep wrong. I’m always tired. I can’t run or play sports as well as I used to. I miss the freedom of Saturday morning cartoons, playing with action figures, and not having any responsibilities.
But I’m still here. And that means something.
Whenever I feel like I’m focused on the sadness of getting older, I think of Eric, Melissa, Matt, Chris, Jason, Amber, Sheri, and now Scott. And I remember that I’m getting something that they aren’t getting right now: the gift of today.
I don’t subscribe to the whole YOLO thing, where I think “I could die tomorrow, so I should do whatever stupid thing that comes to mind!”
I could die tomorrow. I could also live to be 105 years old. If I make poor choices now that could impact those years, I’d be an idiot.
But I do have a healthy appreciation for my age. My birthday brings a smile to my face. I’m thankful.
That’s why I’m okay getting older. When I get to add another candle to my birthday cake, I’m happy. It’s one more candle than so many people in this world get.
Every day is an opportunity to do something, and it’s an opportunity that isn’t guaranteed. Try to start each day with appreciation and gratitude.
You’re still breathing! That’s a good thing. You only get two choices in life: you get older or you don’t.
Would you prefer the alternative?