As I approach the one-year anniversary of my father’s death, people have asked how I’m doing. And the truth is, I am doing just fine. Dad died well. He left no accounts unsettled, whether financial, emotional, or family. He did what he loved best all the way to the end: cycling up to his last two weeks, and cracking jokes up to his last five days.
Oliver Sacks wrote in his small but profound book, Gratitude, “When my time comes, I hope I can die in harness, as Francis Crick did.” (Crick died at 88 from colon cancer, still fully engaged in his most creative work all the way to the end.) I like this contrast: retiring in leisure, which might be calm and peaceful, versus dying in harness, which sounds fun, adventurous, and fulfilling. I prefer the latter.
Sacks left me wondering what would dying in harness look like for me? Does it mean I might die …
… at my engineer desk, working on a problem, face pressed into my computer keyboard?
… at some Whataburger booth, while writing in my journal? If so, I hope whatever I am writing is good and not stupid. I don’t want people to think my writing became so incoherent I committed suicide in the restaurant rather than keep trying.
… on my bicycle? If so, I hope I have a heart attack and slip off into the barrow ditch, and not get blown away by some big truck while the driver is texting. And I hope I’m flying with a tailwind so at least I’ll be smiling.
… while hiking? That would be great. Of course, it might be days before they find my body, which could be unpleasant for the finders.
… while playing trombone? I usually play in public so it would be traumatic. Especially if I keeled over while on stage at church. (We actually had a musician go down during a Sunday morning worship service in December; fortunately, he has recovered and rejoined the orchestra.)
… climbing the stairs in my office building? Again, it might be a long time before I am missed and even longer before I am located in a seldom-used stairwell. I suppose if they find my pickup abandoned in the parking garage someone would think to look in the stairs.
… while teaching? It would be dramatic, that’s for sure, and it might leave emotional scars on my class. I would hope to go out while making a significant point.
… while skiing? Crashing into a tree would be preferable to having a heart attack while riding the lift and leaving hundreds of people stranded while the ski patrol unloaded me from the chair.
Of course, Sacks didn’t mean he wanted to literally be in harness when his time comes, but he wanted to be actively engaged in the important things of his life all the way to the end.
Sacks also wrote about his own father, who lived to age ninety-four, and who often said “the eighties had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.”
I’m certainly not in my eighties, yet. I still have another third of my life to go before then, but regardless of where I might be on my timeline, with each passing year I feel the same enlargement of mental life and perspective experienced by Mr. Sacks.
I recently pulled my copy of Soul Salsa, by Leonard Sweet, from my bookshelf, to browse through it again. I first read this book in 2005, and then used it in Iron Men that same year. I found some notes I’d written in the front of the book: “As I get older, I want to: lean forward not backward, be less dogmatic, default to grace, give away more (money, time, energy, creativity, life (music, books, insight)).”
The Apostle Paul admonished in 2 Corinthians 8:11, “Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. (NIV)” Maybe that is what staying in harness all the way to the end of life really means. We should stay engaged in the purpose and calling God has given to us, finishing as strong as we began.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32