Of bumper cars and harpoons


I’ve been hanging out in nursing homes a little earlier than planned, and I’ve discovered that some of the inmates have managed to age gracefully, like gold-medal figure skaters. They are gliding through the golden years, smiling sweetly, bringing joy to others.


Then there are those who are determined to seek vengeance by using their wheelchairs as bumper cars and their canes as harpoons. When the grandkids visit they spend the time whining about how the grandkids never visit. For them the glass is not just half empty; it’s cracked, chipped, and the lemonade is sour. To say they are lacking fashion sense is like saying the Pacific is wet. The men wear black knee socks and wing-tipped white shoes. They only use two buttons on their shirt. The ladies wear dresses they bought from the tent and awning company and have their hair dyed neon blue.

My grandfather Callaway was a combination of the graceful and the geezer. He loved a good laugh, but he also loved to talk about his ailments once the entire family had gathered around the dinner table and the food had been doled out. Then suddenly, it was organ recital time: “So I remember when the doctors had to root through me and take out my spleen. Stayed awake for the whole thing. Watched ’em dig it outta there all wrinkled and green. I asked ’em to pickle it for me. Put it in a jar. I kept it for years on the counter. Looked like a big hairy cucumber. Hey, where’s everybody going? Mind if I eat your carrots?”


Grandpa gained a lot of weight in those days, and we saved money on groceries.


I loved and admired my grandfather immensely. He gave me money whenever I visited him, and though God had delivered him from alcoholism, he was the only man I’ve ever met who bought cough syrup in bulk, drinking it straight from the bottle.


I once enjoyed an evening with a seventy-five-year-old by the name of Donald Cole. Mr. Cole travels the country speaking at conferences and hosts a radio show during which he dispenses spiritual advice to callers, grown-ups and five-year-olds alike. During our conversation, Mr. Cole mentioned to me that he runs several miles a day, which caught me off guard—like having a guy in a Smart Car pull up to a stoplight beside you, glance your way, and rev his engine.


I got to thinking about how nice it would be to jog when I turn seventy-five. Maybe it’s something my wife and I could do together. She could drive me out of town and drop me off—it would give purpose to my running. So I said something dumb to Mr. Cole, which is not something that took me entirely by surprise, because I seem to bounce between not opening my mouth wide when I should and opening it far too wide when I shouldn’t. I said, “Boy, I’d sure like to be running like that when I’m your age.”

He said, “Are you running now?”


I coughed slightly. I said, “I…ahem…came in third in a relay once.”


He said, “If you aren’t running now, you won’t be then.”


In other words, if I sit around eating lard-filled doughnuts in my thirties, when I turn sixty-five, my chances of waddling much farther than the refrigerator aren’t great.


And it hit me that all of us are in training for the days to come. That if we are impatient, unkind, and unforgiving, we won’t wake up at sixty-five to discover that people want to be around us. This made me wonder: What kind of an old guy will I be? And how do I live so my kids will want to visit me in the nursing home? By then, as the old saying goes, I will have silver in my hair, gold in my teeth, lead in my feet, and lots of natural gas, but I won’t be wealthy without friends.


The older people I admire are those who have exercised the right creases on their face. Not the ones of petulance and complaint, but the ones turned upward on either side of their eyes. They live life on purpose. I fear that if some of us wrote down a mission statement it would look something like this:


I will consider myself a success when I’m rich enough to do nothing but travel and eat and collect sea shells; when I can have it the way I want it; when the jerks around here start leaving me alone. I will consider myself a success when my wife wakes up to the fact that I’m marvelous, when I’ve got a big-screen TV and nothing but time on my hands to watch it.


Contrast this with the attitude of my friend Dave Epp. (That's not a picture of Dave on the right!) Dave visits the hospital a few times a week and Mom is always glad to see him. After mourning the loss of his wife to cancer, Dave decided to use his pain, becoming a hospital chaplain, visiting those who can’t get out, encouraging them with the love of Jesus, joking with them, and praying for them. Dave could wallow in bitterness, but he lives life on purpose, with significance.


The older people I admire still have their sense of humor intact. Anne Lamott calls laughter “carbonated holiness.” Gerald Wheatley is so full of the stuff that you can almost hear him fizz. Last Sunday he greeted me in our church foyer with a new joke from the corny patch. “Did you hear about the guy who walks into a bar and asks, ‘Does anyone here own that Rottweiler outside?’”


I hadn’t heard about the guy, but I knew I was about to.


“A biker stands up, says. ‘Yeah, that’s my dog. What about it?’


“‘I think my chihuahua killed him.’


“The biker laughs. ‘What? How could your little runt kill my Rottweiler?’


“‘Got stuck in his throat.’”


When you walk past a room and hear laughter, you want to find out what’s causing it.


Few things give us more hope than a seventy-five-year old who is reading good books, learning new truths, and discussing things besides the weather. She smiles more than she has reason to, laughs when she probably shouldn’t, and talks to children and babies and pets.


I wrote down a few more things I admire in older people. It came out as a little poem and I showed it to my mother. She smiled her approval, then gave me the kind of look that says, You’re young. One day you’ll understand that it isn’t all easy. Still I pinned it to the bulletin board so she could show it to her friends. Here it is:


You are not old

    Until you stop making new friends,
       Until you start fighting change.
You are not old

   Until your past is bigger than your future,
        Until you think the bad old days were all good.
            Until you talk more of ills, spills, wills, and bills
                Than thrills.
    Until you begrudge the spotlight
        Turned on a younger generation
                And stop shining it on them yourself.
You are not old

   As long as you can pray.
       As long as you have the inner strength to ask
            How can I spread hope around?
            How can I get the most out of the years I have left?
            How can I make others homesick for heaven?
You are young at heart

   Until you decide you aren’t.


I am happy to report that the little poem is still there, still pinned to the bulletin board. So far no one has harpooned it with a cane.

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