Empty Chair

There is an empty chair at your Christmas table. Maybe you lost someone 40 years ago. Maybe you lost someone earlier this week. Our Christmas celebrations recognize abundance — the gathering of friends and family into our homes, the tables laden with roast and casseroles and treats. Our Christmas trees are rooted deep in piles of gifts given and gifts received.

But Christmas is also about what’s missing. The people we loved, we lost and we need back in our lives. When we slow down to recognize the empty chairs, it isn’t only their absence we feel. There is greater abundance. We laugh. We tell stories. We remember. Their lives fill our lives.

We hug our children. We kiss our wives. We celebrate the long unbroken line that is our family meal. The table stretches farther before us and farther beyond us than we can possibly see. And yet, we each have our plate, our place at this table. For this moment, maybe the next, until one day we too have passed and the empty chair is ours and it is our time to hope our lives have helped make the meal richer for all.

About Last Night: A Few More Thoughts about a Meditation on Aging

Last night’s post was a bit melancholy. I appreciate the friends who stopped to notice and, sometimes, in their kind ways, challenge the perspective that our bodies belong most to us when they are broken or failing. It is a perspective I have adopted from time to time. I realized this morning that I have written about this before (Meeting Our Biological Selves).

Last night’s post became something very different than what I had expected to write. Sometimes we get surprised and instead of writing the thing we think we want, we write the thing we find we need.

I have been spending a lot of time in a nursing home. My wife’s grandmother landed there about a month ago, and she is slowly settling into a permanent stay. As I walk the halls, it is impossible for me to imagine the people there as their once healthy, vibrant and vital selves. They are withered, tired and defeated. Some are crippled, legless and locked into chairs. Others are planted deep in their beds. The televisions bleat. And from the rooms, you hear coughs and cries. Whimpering pleas for some non-specific deliverance.

It isn’t all gloom. There is the grandmother’s kind roommate who wants share her enormous bag of candy with everyone she meets. There is the man in the wheelchair who gives out ink pens with a missionary’s zeal. There is the toothless woman who flirts with the male nurse and enjoys trying to make him blush.

Even in this place, life goes on.

I have watched my wife’s grandmother confront the terms of own life. She wants to die. She is ready to die, but she is not yet dead. And so, for her, this home is a waiting place. The worst kind of waiting room. She has no idea how long she will be kept waiting. She is not a patient person. When the Reaper arrives, he will have much to answer for.

And this loss that we are watching is so different from the losses that have gone before. We have watched as this vital woman has been reduced, her scope of focus and influence narrowed by concentric degrees. Her life was bound up in her family. And then in her house. And in her living room and bedroom. And her bed and a chair. And now, a bed.

And her focus has narrowed. No longer watching the news or Judge Judy or the Family Feud. She thinks only of her body. She dreams of walking and wakes up falling out of bed. She measures time in bowel movements and the next scheduled pill. Her thoughts circle around discomforts and inconveniences.

And so it is that I have been thinking about the arc of a person’s life. And how, when we are born, we focus entirely on learning to master the rules of our body so we can navigate our place in the world. And as the art of incarnation becomes second nature, how we begin to forget ourselves and our bodies until interrupted by some desire, some pain or some need. And how it is, before we die, we return to ourselves and our bodies. How the attention we used to cast around us turns inward and we sweep every corner and every shadow inside.

I ponder this and try to be brave. It is melancholy, perhaps, but it is not morose or defeated. I am studying the art of loss and wondering if I will have half the courage of some of these people when my own time arrives.

I think, perhaps, that is the hopeful metaphor I was trying to reach last night. That we are all brave explorers locked into our suits of flesh, restlessly wandering and exploring until our expedition is at an end.

I do not dwell on the end itself. When it comes, it will come. I just want to be brave and watchful and bear witness as honestly and kindly as I can. And when my own body becomes my whole world, I hope I can count it a kind of triumph that I did not fail it before it failed me.

And so my thanks to those who feel kinship with this brief moment of observation. My apologies to those who feel disturbed by the things they have seen. It is only in discomfort that we are awakened. It is only in awakening that we are alive.

We Return | A Meditation on Aging

When we are born, we enter eagerly into our bodies. We put them on like space suits and make each step an excursion away from mother’s safety. We wear these suits for the rest of our lives, learning through painstaking trial and error how to operate the clumsy machinery of muscle and bone, how to make it carry us, stumbling across the treacherous limits of gravity. How we stumble and fall, tripping all over ourselves, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying.

And how, with time comes grace and eventually indifference as we play and chase and jump and crouch. We hide ourselves in places no one will even think to look. We make a game of it and we play and play and play.

And how, one day, our body betrays us for the first time, becoming tall and gangly or wide and unsteady. The riot of hormone and impetuous acts called adolescence.

And once adolescence  is mastered, we find ourselves forgetting our bodies again. No longer seeming a space suit. Our bodies become mere raiment. They are those things we put on to move easily through polite society. The fashions we adopt to hide our secret selves and glide bullet proof, invisible, through polite society. We forget our bodies for days, sometimes weeks at a time. Our animal selves are recalled only in fleeting moments of hunger and exercise. From time to time, there is the gift of sex. And some time after, for some, the hot, bright brand of child birth.

And there is the occasional gift of injury and illness. Something gets broken, a bone or a tooth perhaps, and we return for a moment to that clean, bright place of our own birth. But it is fleeting. It does not last.

And then, when we are old, it happens. Our bodies begin to fail and we are reminded that we are wandering on the surface of a great, indifferent space ship and our life support is thin. Everything depends on this weird, frustrating machine. This glitchy space suit that is built to fail. And we stare out into the expanse of the stars. Where in youth we saw a sky filled with a billion brilliant fires, we now see only the darkness yawning between faint, cold stars.

And this is the miracle of living. This is the final catechism of our days. You need not believe in reincarnation. This is not philosophy or religion. This is biology, brutal and sincere. Before we die, we are returned completely into our bodies and the world shrinks away from us as we drift too far and all the things that once seemed to matter so very much now diminished and then vanished and we are left with the only thing that matters. The rude and stupid meat that must be taught. Our minds, once bright, grow dim. And our animal selves emerge, reincarnate. Broken yet somehow complete. And we return.

Cups of Coffee

I am drinking cups of coffee this morning brewed from my mom-in-law’s favorite coffee maker. She died last week. In the months before she died, coffee had become very important. She faced cancer bravely, but I can see now that her fight was always a war of attrition. We had good months after her diagnosis in July. We got her out of the house to eat and shop and just drive around and look at pretty things. Still, looking back through it, I can see how her cancer made her world progressively smaller.

She was tethered to oxygen. The initial diagnosis prevented her from being able to work. It was a kind of spontaneous retirement. Her work friends were her closest friends. Not seeing them everyday made her sad. They were kind and visited as often as they could. They brought her food. They mowed her yard. They texted and called. They brought her news from the outside world to keep her connected with the places and people they shared in common. Her friends had become ranger scouts reporting back to home base.

Wearing oxygen makes every excursion into the world a pain in the ass. There are devices and straps and tubes and things that want to tangle in the spokes of the wheelchair. When you wear oxygen and use a wheelchair, you calculate your trips carefully. You do a kind of math each time. You need to commit yourself to the idea of going out. The trips became fewer — mostly doctor visits and occasional restaurants for dinner.

She handled chemotherapy like a champ but, when the cancer moved into her bones, the radiation was a much harder hit. The pains and embarrassments of cancer began to mount. Each treatment took a greater toll. Pain set in to stay.

Eventually, her house became her universe. And then her living room.

After a month or so, the pain kept her moored in her recliner. She needed  a walker to get to the bathroom. It became a struggle for her to get into the kitchen. When she could get there, she couldn’t carry anything back with her.

Cups of coffee became very important. She had to plan each one. She hated asking for help but, in her last week, asked if I might come over when I woke up just to carry a cup of coffee. Of course.

And when I carried what would be my last cup of coffee for her, I realized just how small her world had become. This was a woman born in Paris, who had grown up all over Europe and then settled in Tennessee. She treasured her childhood memories of Germany and Greece. And now, her world had become the size of a cup of coffee.

It was, for all that, I think, the best cup of coffee. As her world became smaller, my mom-in-law, my wife and my family began to appreciate smaller and smaller things. Standing where I stood in early July 2013, before our struggles began, I would have thought the shrinking of her world would be a source of inevitable pain and despair. Those were always there, but, more than anything else, we saw in her a growing appreciation for the smallest things. The smaller her world became the bigger her appreciation.

She suffered a brain hemorrhage and lasted almost two days before passing. In those last hours after the hemorrhage, she could not move or speak. She was just breathing and that was a difficult chore. I would not have thought it possible, but her world had become smaller still. Her world had become her body. Less than her body. A portion, some unseen pocket of her body where the spirit still propelled the heart and lungs to function. For most of those hours, it was impossible for us to know if she was even there with us or if her breath was just the trick of a body that hadn’t yet learned how to stop breathing.

In those moments and the moments that have come since her passing, I like to think that when her world became so incredibly, impossibly small, her appreciation and gratitude for the world grew incredibly, impossibly large. I like to imagine that, in those final, isolated moments when she was locked into herself that she felt herself swallowed by gratitude and that her capacity for amazement and wonder had become infinite.

In the very last hours of her life, we had small signs that she was still there and that she knew we were there with her. This was a mercy for us. It was a comfort for my wife. In that moment, we were her world. And we were bathed in that wash of gratitude and appreciation.

We miss her. The funeral is over. Friends and family are returning to their homes and their lives. We will develop new routines. Learn to call a new kind of life normal.

There are difficult days ahead. I am drinking coffee brewed from my mom-in-law’s favorite coffee maker. I want, every day, to appreciate each cup in the way my mom-in-law had learned to do. Having tasted that particular blend of joy, appreciation and sorrow, I don’t want to lose the richness of that kind of gratitude.


My mom-in-law died very early Sunday morning. She had been sick with lung cancer and all the sordid complications, pains and harrassments that come with the disease. When diagnosed in July 2013, the doctors guessed she might have 5 months. She lived 9. Eight of those months were pretty good.

When my family realized how short our time together was going to be, we learned how to be very honest with ourselves and each other. If we needed something, we learned how to ask. If we wanted something done, we did it with little delay. We cried and worried a lot at first, but soon found ourselves laughing as much as we were crying and then laughing more often than crying.

When we hurt feelings, we quickly apologized. We said I love you more often and practiced patience and humility when foundering in painful or embarrassing situations.

My mom-in-law had been sick and, when she died, was about to be become even sicker. Her passing was a strange kind of mercy.

If you listen, life carries strange echoes.

I was away from home the day my wife’s mom got the first diagnosis. My wife called, and I drove home as quickly as I could.

I was away from home the day my wife got the call that her mom had suffered a sudden, unexpected brain hemorrhage. She called, and I drove home as quickly as I could.

Both of those drives were the most awful miles. Having had my wife’s voice with all of her pain and grief in my ear, I felt right there with her and yet, I had to cross 150 miles of interstate to be with her. I often live divorced from the realities of time and distance. Feeling both between us made me afraid and bit frantic.

And yet, both of those awful drives were a kind of mindful meditation. Both times, I was pressed forward by two inescapable realizations.

Everything we build, develop or make with our own efforts and our own energies is temporary. No matter how important or useful or beautiful, everything we call our life is temporary. This is terrifying, but it is also comforting.

Being temporary and recognizing our temporariness frees us to understand a greater truth. We are not here for ourselves. Our lives do not really belong to us.

It doesn’t matter what church you go to or which way you say your prayers. We are here for one reason. All of us. We are here to help each other be brave in the face of our own individual temporariness. We are here to comfort, to encourage and to remind each other to practice our lives with openness. There is always sadness. There is always fear. There is always discouragement.

Uncertainty is not an aberrant state. Uncertainty cannot be avoided. Uncertainty is our lives. We can help each other work with uncertainty so that it is not a source of fear or pain.

There is beauty and confidence and assurance waiting in uncertainty. We are here to remind each other and to help each other practice remembering.