No Abiding City: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I carry a picture of my mother in my wallet. It is her at the age of 18, on a bridge standing next to a car (out of range of the camera) that my father had just bought for their honeymoon. Although the photo is black and white, I can easily see in my mind her auburn hair. With a smile and a newly tailored honeymoon suit, she was ready to face the future. How little she could imagine what those future years would bring – three sons, my father’s business, a house they designed and built in the suburbs, a private plane and pilot on call for theater and shopping trips to New York, and so much more. Far less could she have imagined the other part of that future – my father’s early death, the death from alcoholism of my two brothers, the loss of most of her family, and, then, after another house, a move to a smaller condominium and, after a fall, moving into her present one bedroom apartment in an assisted care facility.
This last week, I finalized all of the pre-arrangements for her funeral. For some time now, I had taken over her finances and bill paying. When one malady or another requires her being in the hospital, I am the one who signs the “do not resuscitate” order upon check-in. This most recent experience with the funeral home, however, was different. There was a sense of finality about it all. With the funeral director, I went down the check list. Transportation of my mother’s body from Indianapolis to Ft. Wayne was arranged. The casket was selected. The obituary was written and forwarded with a photograph, with only the date of death left blank. The funeral service itself was outlined according to the Book of Common Prayer, and her favorite hymns were listed to be played by the organist. Although I designated a friend to conduct the service and give the eulogy, i know that the task will most likely fall to me, as it did with my father and my two brothers. Finally, arrangements for her internment were finalized and all the documents were signed.
Returning home, I printed out the check list and put it into a file under the heading, “Mother’s Death and Funeral” with all the receipts for payments attached. As I closed the file cabinet drawer, the sound seemed to resonate throughout the room…
It was an odd experience visiting my mother the next day. At the age of 92, she remains alert and relatively active. While her short term memory often fails her, her long term memory is normally pretty good. As a result, we often go to the past in our conversations. We repeat the old stories of growing up and discuss relatives now long gone. She enjoys talking about visiting me in Michigan, or New York, or the UK, or her one memorable trip to Paris. We seldom talk about the tragedies. On this day, however, I found it harder to lead the conversation in that direction, so instead we talked a bit about her neighbors in assisted care. I became aware that I was watching the clock as we talked. As I took leave of my mother and made my way to the car it suddenly dawned on me why I was having such difficulties. It was very simple. By making the arrangements for my mother, I came to realize that only a short time remained, that, in a sense, she was living on borrowed time.
“Living on borrowed time”… as are we all, if we would be honest with ourselves. This should, however, come as no surprise. The writer of Hebrews said, “For here we have no abiding city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” Or, at least we should be looking for that city, even though we spend much of our lives trying to make the temporary city in which we live as comfortable as possible. Moreover, there is something in the back of our minds that makes us want to believe that it is never going to end. All of us watching Mick Jagger dance just eight weeks after his heart surgery, want to believe that it will go on forever… but we know that it won’t. All of us are living on borrowed time.
Knowing that, I want the time that remains to me, whether days, or years, or decades to have value, not so much to myself as to others. As an historian, much of my life is involved with the past, but I am becoming increasingly convinced that the past has its greatest value when it informs the present and helps to shape the future. At my age and stage of life, I am more and more aware that my greatest service to the future is to share what I have and what I know with those that are younger than myself and then to “get the hell out of the way”. If they want to hear what I have to say, well and good. If not, it is their choice, but it does not relieve me of my responsibility. You see, like my mother, I am living on borrowed time, but, unlike my mother, I still have choices that I can make regarding the time that is left to me. Using that time on behalf of others and their future, might even be the best way to look “for the city that is to come”.