What Matters Most

Today is my birthday. Happy 44th to me.

Sort of.

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Photo Credit: http://www.specialevents.com

You see, today also marks two years since my father passed away …  rather unexpectedly.  I had only been awake about 20 minutes or so when the phone rang telling me that my dad had died. He just didn’t wake up that morning.

I don’t want it to matter that my father died on my birthday.

Honestly, I don’t.

Even the day he died, I didn’t want it to matter. It still did, but I wished it didn’t. After all, my father would have never wanted me to experience any sort of emotional pain over him being called to his eternal home. Getting to meet Jesus face-to-face is a good thing … right?

Even good things hurt sometimes.

My dad used to tell me that after the first week of basketball practice back when I was in junior high.

He was right. A lot of good things hurt … having a baby, getting shots when you are sick, sore muscles after working out, going through physical therapy to recover from an injury, and so on and so forth.

Saying goodbye can be painful too. Especially if it is someone you love. Even if that person gets to go somewhere great. It still hurts the heart.

So that gets me back to where I started. Not wanting it to matter that my dad died on my birthday.

Only right now, today, on this birthday … it still matters.

Jon and I talked a lot this past week about how I feel regarding my birthday. After the second or third such conversation, Jon said, in his matter-of-fact way, “Paige, it is clear to me that you just aren’t done grieving yet. It’s okay. Grief takes time, especially if you love someone. Be as gracious to yourself as you would to someone else in your situation.”

Be gracious to myself.

In my grief.

With my hurting heart.

On this birthday when it still matters so very much.

Just last night, Jon and I were once again talking about my birthday, discussing the details of the day. I have carefully orchestrated my day to ensure I won’t have much time to sit around and dwell on missing my father.

Who wants to play the pity party game on their birthday?! Not me!

So we have planned a day trip to visit with my mom and sister in a nearby city. We’ll grab some lunch at a Mexican restaurant (because I am craving guacamole) and then do some shopping (mostly the window variety). I’ve got a little birthday cash, so I am thinking of looking for a new purse … or I might save it so that I can buy the pendant and earrings to match the opal ring Jon bought me for my birthday this year.

It’s going to be a good day.

Yet, like I told Jon, I am still struggling inside. I have hard questions that my human heart can’t answer.

Why did my dad have to die so relatively young?

Why didn’t God allow him to see his grandchildren graduate high school, get married and have children?

Why did God let him die on my birthday?

And then I confessed this other thought that has persisted in the back of my mind all week long:

What if something else terrible happens on my birthday?

Allow me a moment to push pause right here and said that I married a great guy. One of the many things I love about Jon is that he doesn’t get upset when I share my thoughts. He just listens and lets me talk through all the emotion. That’s exactly what he did last night.

But when I asked that last question out loud, Jon said, “Sure. You can ask that question, but it is an awful way to think. And it will certainly  make you miserable.”

He was quiet for a moment, allowing the heaviness of what he said and the weight of my own emotions to sink in deep.

“Paige, let’s remember what the Bible says about our thinking and how important it is to our own well-being.

What does God want us to think about? Well, He tells us. He said whatever is pure, honorable , just, pure, lovely, commendable, or excellent, we should think on these things.

And why is our thinking so important? Because it is through our thinking that we have our minds renewed. And the renewing of our minds enables us to more fully experience God, to know His will, to see more of His heart.

So, if you change your thinking and quit asking questions that you will never find the answers to, eventually there will be a renewing of your mind and it won’t matter so much anymore. Maybe not this birthday. Perhaps not even the next birthday or two. But trust me, one year it won’t matter nearly as much. Instead, you’ll be able to think about the things that really did matter regarding your father.”

Think on these things.

Experience the renewing of my mind.

Ask what really matters most.

Jon didn’t realize it last night (or maybe he did), but he gave me a place to start, a way to climb out of the hole of self-pity, a little bit of hope that maybe not all my future birthdays will feel so hard.

This gift is better than any opal ring.

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So what is it that mattered most about my dad …

Well, he honored and cherished my mother. He adored his children and grandchildren. My dad placed high importance on maintaining good relationships with people. He had a strong work ethic. My father loved to laugh. He enjoyed life and lived right up until the day he died. My dad was my friend as much as he was my father.

Those are things that mattered about him, far more than the day he died.

But the thing that mattered the most is this:

My father loved and knew Jesus Christ.

And in the end, this is why I know I can grieve with hope. Because my dad had a relationship with God, the day of his death on earth was also his birthday into heaven. I know that for him, then end was really just the beginning of eternity.

So does it really matter that my dad died on my birthday?

 

Well, sure … but it’s not what matters most.

And today, I am especially grateful for that.

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If you like, you can watch this YouTube video I made of some memories of my father.

The music is the Theme from Rudy (The O’Neill Brothers). My dad was a sucker for sentimental movies, and Rudy was one of his favorites.

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The Story of the $26 Grandchild

According to my grandfather, it cost him $26 (plus the cost of a new car) to get to get to see his first grandchild face-to-face. That grandchild just so happens to be me.

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I suppose, like another the first grand baby, my arrival was a pretty big deal to each of my four grandparents.  My maternal grandmother drove from TX to NC to be with my mother for the big event. She arrived before my expected due date, September 1st.  But apparently I wasn’t in any sort of hurry.

The late summer days slowly slipped by, while everyone watched anxiously, wondering if I might be born on my mother’s father’s birthday (September 5th), but that fine day came and went without any indications that I wanted to be born.  Everyone agreed that I surely wouldn’t share a birthday with my father’s father (September 19th), but after a while it the chances were getting better that our birthdays would be very close after all.

Then it happened. On Sunday, September 17th, at 11:28 am, I took my first breaths. It wasn’t long before my dad called to share the news with his parents.

According to my grandfather, he and my grandmother had been to church that morning, and had just returned home, bring back some friends to share their Sunday lunch. The weather was nice that everyone decided to visit and eat lunch on the patio outside.

My grandmother, who must have had a sixth sense regarding my arrival, insisted on leaving the door to the house open just in case they should receive a phone call announcing my arrival.  I can only imagine her delight when the ringing of the telephone interrupted her lunch.  And, of course, like any grandmother, she could hardly wait to hold that new grandbaby in her arms.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t just make a quick trip over to the hospital. My dad’s parents lived in rural northeast Louisiana, and my father, who was finishing up his army days, was stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC.

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Buick-Electra-Hardtop-Sedan-1972-10FDF260501877AI
A 1972 Buick Electra Sedan … not sure what sort of car my grandfather bought that summer, but he has always had a soft spot for a Buick.

 

A few weeks before I was born, my grandparents went car shopping. I wish I could remember all the details of what type of car it was and the asking price, but I don’t. I just know that they determined it was time for a new car and my grandmother had picked out exactly what she wanted, from all the extra features right down to the color of the paint. But in order to get exactly what she wanted, the new vehicle had to be special ordered.

The new car still hadn’t arrived at the dealership by the time I was born. A day or two later, my grandparents went over to talk to someone at the car dealership to see about how much longer it was going to take, as they didn’t want to leave on their trip in their old vehicle. Unfortunately, no one at the dealership knew with any certainty when the new car might arrive. However, the dealership owner did have another car of the same make and model. The only difference was the color … and suddenly that didn’t seem to matter nearly as much.

“Let’s take it, Herbert,” my grandmother eagerly suggested.  She was ready to be on the way to North Carolina to visit that new grand baby. My grandfather quickly agreed and began to work out the deal with the salesman. Unfortunately, things weren’t settled with the bank regarding the car loan, but that didn’t phase the salesman (who I can only assume must have known my grandfather personally).  He shook my grandfather’s hand and said,

Go on now… y’all go see that new grand baby. We’ll get it all these money details worked out with the bank when you get back.

Away my grandparents drove in their new car, without so much as a bill of sale or even a set of temporary paper tags.

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My grandfather made it as far as South Carolina without any trouble. However, he and my grandmother had trouble getting from South Carolina to North Carolina.

As they were traveling through some small town, a policeman pulled my grandfather over for speeding.  But once he got them on the side of the road and noticed the lack of tags, the fact that there was no registration or bill of sale, the cop became convinced he had caught a couple of criminals.

By some strange coincidence, that very day in a nearby South Carolina town, a middle-aged couple had robbed a bank. The robbers had fled in an untagged car of the same make, model and color as the car my grandparents drove.  When the cop saw the speeding car without tags that matched the description of the getaway car, he immediately assumed that he was about to capture the wanted bank robbers.

It wasn’t long before my grandfather found himself standing in front of a judge, the cop wanting to arrest him for bank robbery. My grandfather explained that the only thing he was guilty of was speeding, and fortunately the kind-hearted judge listened.

“Is there someone who might be able to vouch for you? Do you have a lawyer or know someone in a position of authority who might be able to give me reason to let you go simply based on your word?”  

My grandfather knew exactly who to call, and in short order had a local lawyer talking with the judge, explaining that not only was my grandfather an upstanding citizen, but that he was a deacon at his church and an respected member of the community as well.

“Mr. Terry, my sincere apologies for the confusion. It seems that all you owe us is $26 for a speeding ticket. Pay that and you can get back on your way. Oh, and Mr. Terry,  I would suggest finding a piece of cardboard and writing some numbers and letters on it with a marker. Stick it in the window of your back dash. It might save you trouble further down the road if it looked like you had temporary tags, even if they are fake.”

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A couple of hours later, my grandparents had crossed over into North Carolina. They were nearing Ft. Bragg when suddenly their new car got a flat tire.

Sighing, my grandfather pulled over to change the tire. About that time, a cop pulled up behind him, lights going. Looking over at my grandmother, my grandfather wryly said, “I wonder what I’ve done now?”

This time, however, the cop was only wanting to help. In fact, the cop stated that law enforcement in North Carolina had been informed about my grandparents and told that they were not the bank robbing couple. He again apologized for the earlier mix-up, insisted upon changing the tire himself and then escorted my grandparents the rest of the way to the entrance of Ft. Bragg military base.

Not the first time my grandparents got to see me, but the second ... Thanksgiving 1972.
Not the first time my grandparents got to see me, but the second … Thanksgiving 1972.

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Every so often, my grandfather will remind me of all the trouble he went through just to get to see me for the first time. It’s a story he enjoys telling and one I enjoy sharing as well, as it shows a more Mayberry type of lifestyle that has all but disappeared over the last 42 years.

Today, as I have written about my grandfather, he is in the hospital, severely ill from a kidney infection. It’s definitely been a touchy situation, as fluid builds around his heart due to the impaired kidney function. It’s hard to see him so sick, and yet I have hope of his full recovery … that in a few days he will be back at home, driving his car, going to his office and attending church.

So if you have finished reading this, I’d like to ask if you might pray for my grandfather and for his recovery. There is nothing that I’d love more than to celebrate our birthdays together for a few more years to come.

I celebrate my first birthday while Papaw celebrates his 50th ... the first of many birthdays we have celebrated together.
I celebrate my first birthday while Papaw celebrates his 50th … the first of many birthdays we have celebrated together.

A Christmas Birthday

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Although the entire Christmas season is generally a magical time, there is something spectacular about Christmas Eve.

When I was growing up, I had many favorite Christmas traditions: baking, decorating and delivering Christmas cookies to some of the elderly members of our church; listening to Chrsitmas music; watching Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life or Bing Crosby in White Christmas (and, for some strange reason, The Sound of Music ) all of which came on the TV as this was before the time of VCRs and DVD players.  Singing Christmas carols at church all through December; pulling decorations out of the box and hearing my mother recount where she had gotten them; caroling around the tiny village with my church; sipping hot chocolate in the glow of the Christmas lights. These were a few of my favorite things.

But there was one special thing about Christmas in my family that seemed to make the holiday extra exciting.  My mother is a Christmas Eve baby.

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I was always slightly jealous of my mother’s Christmas Eve birthday. How wonderful it seemed to me to be able to share a birthday with the baby Jesus! The lights, the decorations, the foods, the carols, the parties and gifts  … why all of those wonderful activities and traditions must make a Christmas birthday seem to last forever! And who wouldn’t want to extend their birthday celebration out for as long as possible?

The countdown to my September birthday began as soon as school started in mid-August. I was prone to making construction paper chains, snipping one strip off each day as a way of marking the time. I remember always hoping to receive lots of birthday gifts, delighting in the fact that inevitably I would be the center of attention on the day of my birthday.

But my mother never expected anyone to remember or make a fuss over her birthday. She didn’t seem to care if she only got one gift labeled for both birthday and Christmas among all the wrapped presents under the tree, and seemed to actually prefer to think about what good things she could do for others instead of thinking about how people might pay attention to her. And perhaps most of all, she seemed to insist that her three children put our Christmas focus on the Christmas Child in the manger and the reason for His Holy birth.

I suppose a part of me figured she did those things because she was all grown up and grown ups aren’t supposed to love their own birthdays quite as much as little children do. And yet I don’t think that was the case at all. My mother, it seems, was always gracious about her birthday and not prone to expecting a big to-do over it. I know this because …

My mom as a toddler ... pictured with her father.
My mom as a toddler … pictured with her father.

Tucked away in her wedding album was a letter, written in my grandmother’s beautiful cursive, the paper yellowed and dated December 24th of the year my mom turned 4 years old.  Most Christmases, I pulled it out and read it to myself, wondering about the little girl who had grown up to be my mother. I would looked longingly at the old photos of her childhood, thinking how her white-blonde hair, bright blue eyes and sweet smile gave her the appearance of a tiny angel without wings.

The long letter basically recounted my mother’s 4th birthday party, an event in which all the neighborhood children came because Santa was going to be there. When it came my mother’s turn to sit on Santa’s knee, she asked him to bring a doll to a little girl who didn’t have one to play with … my grandmother recorded her as saying, “I already have a lot of dolls and toys.” Even my grandmother seemed to marvel at her oldest daughter’s generosity.

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As a child, I believed that my mother got to share her birthday with Jesus because she was so very lovely and good … and I wished I could be that lovely, too.

I know my mom will read this and later on tell me that she doesn’t know where I get my ideas from, but I know deep down how wonderfully special my mom truly is. She has a generous spirit, full of concern and love for others. She is gentle, selfless, kind, and unassuming. Her outlook on life is positive and full of hope for the future.

And yet, as wonderful as my mother is, her Christmas Eve birthday is NOT the reason for the celebration. It’s another birthday that must always take center-stage … the birthday of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us.

There is a common Christmas saying:

Jesus is the reason for the season.

The only thing is that Jesus can’t be just the reason for the season. He needs to be the reason for our every action, every day of the year.

And tonight, as I think about my mother (of whose birth it is said was so late on Christmas Eve that she was nearly a Christmas Day baby), I feel so very grateful that she taught me the importance of loving and worshipping the Holy Baby in the manger every day of the year.

May you celebrate the birth of Christ today, tomorrow and every day to come … Merry Christmas and joy to the world!

Birthdays on earth

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This past week we celebrated … cake, ice cream, presents hidden inside bags overflowing with bright tissue paper. It was our foster son’s 2nd birthday and we delighted in singing the birthday song with him all week long.

Lil’ Man was mostly confused by all the birthday commotion. The morning of his birthday, I tried to put pin a little birthday ribbon on his shirt so that the rest of the world would know it was his birthday, too. He promptly ripped it off. I attempted to reattach the ribbon several more times, only to get the same result. In the end, I was just glad he didn’t tear up his shirt.

Later in the day, I baked a simple cake and put a couple of matchbox cars on the top along with his #2 candle. As soon as he saw the cake on the counter, he demanded that I give him the cars. When I refused, he threw a royal tantrum.

And after dinner, when we lit the candle and sang the birthday song with lots of gusto, our favorite toddler looked around at us with this expression that seemed to say, “You people have lost your minds! Just cut the cake and let’s eat!”

Even the presents seemed to cause Lil’ Man some confusion. We gave him the first gift and he sat there looking at us, unsure of what he should do next. Even after we showed him how to tear the paper, he seemed a bit unsure about ripping something up. I suppose we have made it clear that most things are not meant to be torn apart! Thankfully, once the gifts were revealed, our sweet boy was elated with them … so much so that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to play with the toys or eat his cake and ice cream.

 He ended up choosing cake over playing. What a smart boy!

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I’ve always enjoyed birthdays, whether it was my own or someone’s that I love. Even before I became a mother, I enjoyed birthday parties for little people. Once I had children of my own, nothing brought me more pleasure than to plan a party, mostly simple ones but some more elaborate.

In fact, I loved birthday celebrations so much that in years gone by I used to even allow celebrations of halfie-birthdays, complete with half a cake, Blue Bell ice cream in half chocolate and half vanilla, and a special rendition of the Halfie Birthday song (sung to the same tune as the regular birthday song, the only difference being that  each “happy”  is replaced with the word “halfie.”

However, now that I have seven children, it’s much too complicated to try to keep up with regular birthdays and halfie-birthdays. So, for simplification purposes, I had put that tradition to rest. It has been two years since I made that decision, and I’m not sure all of my children have forgiven me yet.

Of all the reasons I love having a big family, perhaps my favorite is getting to celebrate birthdays more often. Nine times each year we get to sing the birthday song and eat cake and ice cream after dinner. In fact, in the month of November alone, our family celebrates three birthdays! I already mentioned Lil’ Man’s birthday this past week. Our foster daughter will be turning one the day before Thanksgiving and our son Nathan will celebrate his 13th birthday on Thanksgiving Day.

 Can you imagine the sugar rush of eating birthday cake and pumpkin pie on the same day … oh my!

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Today is my dad’s birthday. Well, it would have been his birthday today. I think, if I have done the math correctly, he would have turned 67 years old.

Sometimes, after a loved one has passed on, people will (in an effort to comfort you) say something like, “Just think .. this year they are having the best birthday celebration up in heaven!”

While it’s a nice thought … honestly, I’m just not sure about the accuracy of that at all.

I don’t think my dad is in heaven celebrating in some private party with Jesus or even blowing out candles on some sort of heavenly cake as departed loved ones stand around and watch. And I certainly don’t think he has even once contemplated how those of us still on earth are remembering him today.

 In fact, I don’t suppose birthdays matter all that much up in heaven anyway.

Seeing as we will be completely focused on worshipping God, I don’t see how anyone’s birthday (our own included) will even enter into our thoughts. (Well, maybe we will think about Jesus’ birthday. That might be appropriate … besides, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we got to celebrate that in heaven? Talk about a party to remember!)

But right now, I’m not in heaven. I’m here on planet earth … where birthdays do matter, and for the most part people who live in my culture choose to celebrate birthdays with cake and ice cream, parties and presents.

All day I have thought about my dad, missing him so much that tears have fallen several times. It saddens me that I can’t be with him on his special day, buy him a silly card, or wrap up some tiny trinket of a gift. And it’s not just this year that my kids can’t call him and sing the birthday song, as they listen to his laughter in the background. Never again will I be able to enjoy a piece of cake with him, or tell him how much he blessed me.

It’s been a hard day. Truthfully, most days during the past two months have been hard. I suppose that was to be expected. Grief isn’t an easy or quick process, and as these holidays approach I know deep down there are going to be many more hard days yet to come before the tears don’t fall as easily and the sting of the pain begins to ebb away.

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My blog has been quiet these past two months. Part of that was just busyness. I’ve been adjusting to adding those two sweet foster babies to my home, adjusting to sleepless nights again. I had forgotten so much about little ones. Everything seems to take longer these days. I haven’t had nearly as much time to sit and write.

But more than that, I didn’t want my blog to become a grief blog. And yet, this is where I am in life at this time. It’s a season of grief. Just like the fall leaves are beginning to color the landscape of Cajun Country, the dull gray of grief seems to cloud over all my days, both the good and the bad. So like the black armbands worn a hundred years ago or more, I shut down my blog and entered into a time of mourning.

Over the past week, as I’ve celebrated the first birthday since my dad died on my 42nd birthday, I’ve thought over and over that the time to end my silence was over. My grief isn’t over. Far from it! But my heart is ready to process and share, and the only way I’ve ever known to do that is to write it all down.

Before my foster babies came to live in my home and before my dad died, I had a goal of publishing blog posts 3 times a week. I doubt I can make that happen with my current schedule. So I am setting a new goal of one new blog post a week, and more as God lays them on my heart and gives me time to write.

Meanwhile, please know I have missed my writing and blogging community so very much. I am eager to try to catch up, and I am thankful for the promises of God who has said He will be near to the brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18) and will turn my mourning into dancing (Ps. 30:11)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birthday Riches

 September 17, 1983

My 11th birthday.  I was an awkward, chubby sixth grader, more child than anything, though I tried desperately to fit into the junior high school world I had entered on the first day of school. Though I had plenty of friends, I felt decidedly unpopular. And while my grades were great, I was certain I wasn’t terribly smart. Besides, I was somewhat immature and felt completely unsure of the nuances of appropriate tween-age behavior. For example, while the other girls my age were ga-ga over John Stamos, I was nuts about Garfield.

That’s right. Garfield. That incredibly lazy, fat cat who loved lasagna. Smarter than both his owner, Jon, and his doggy-friend, Odie, Garfield had a charming sort of dry wit I only dreamed of possessing.  As the ultimate fan, I owned everything Garfield, from notebooks, folders and other school supplies to the posters adorning my bedroom.  Every afternoon I tried to find a way to visit my grandparents’ at the store they ran so that I would have a chance to keep up with Garfield’s last antics through the daily comics in the newspaper, and every night I spent all of my spare time drawing pictures of my favorite fat cat.

To my great delight, my paternal grandmother, Mammie, agreed to make me a cake in the shape of Garfield for my birthday.  The day of my party finally arrived. With the house decorated, I spent an anxious afternoon waiting for my grandmother to bring over the cake.  An hour before the party, she pulled into our driveway. I was ecstatic!

As my grandmother came into the house, holding  a cake stand covered with foil,  a bright, playful smile stretched across her face from ear to ear.  After a big hug and the customary birthday check slipped into my hand, she sat down and said, “Well, Paige, I’ve got something to tell you about that Garfield cake. Garfield is just as naughty in cake form as he is in the funny papers.  You see, the oddest thing happened while I was making the icing to frost it. I never could get the colors just right.  In fact, the orange for his fur … well, it just came out … GREEN! Of course, I guess it makes sense, seeing as Garfield has been stuck in the sewer all week in his comic strip.”  

Slowly, she began to remove the foil which covered the Garfield cake. Soon, I was staring at my edible rendition of my beloved character … complete with the black triangular stripes on an pea green coat of icing fur. I wasn’t sure whether I should laugh or cry. I felt like doing both.  My grandmother laughed.  The merry sound made me giggle as well, though I have to admit that I wasn’t sure if my grandmother had teasingly played a birthday joke on me or if the pea green icing just happened to be a coincidental mistake. 

The answer to this mystery still eludes me thirty years later.  To this day, I cannot reconcile in my head which way my birthday Garfield came to be frosted in such an interesting color of icing.  Yet even though the colors weren’t quite right, I seem to recall the cake tasted divine … just like every birthday cake my grandmother made in my honor. And in my mind, I can hear her cheerful laughter and see the twinkle of her happy eyes as she delighted me with a birthday cake memory to last a lifetime.

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A year ago today I struggled with the very idea of aging, feeling as if my life were slipping by too fast. Many of my lifelong hopes and dreams continued to remain unfulfilled. It seemed that for all the years I had lived, I had simply gone nowhere fast. Forty felt oddly old, as if I somehow woke up one morning and found I’d aged overnight.

God’s gracious. Over the past twelve months, He has taught me a lot about contentment with my age or rather with my current stage of life. I’ve grown to look past the number so that it no longer defines me.  To my delight, as September 17th rolled around again, I didn’t have the same sort of dread that I experienced, though a tiny part of me still wanted to whine about growing older.

This morning a friend sent me a message:  “I walk in the way of righteousness, in the paths of justice, granting an inheritance to those who love me, and filling their treasuries.” (Proverbs 8:20,21). So, as you get older, you can know for certain that you also grow richer!”

Rich.  Oh, and I do feel rich. So very rich.  

The riches of my life aren’t simply my family or health or home, those these are certainly things that I hold dear to my heart. Rather, my life is built on 41 years of riches, stored up from the memories I have of love, compassion, shared joys and shared tears, moments of instruction. They have been passed along and given to me through my parents, grandparents, great-grandmothers, aunts and uncles and cousins and friends from all walks of life.  Anytime I go back in my mind, I find that the memories there point me back to God, cutting through the confusion.   And like a treasure box filled with jewels,  my heart is full to overflowing with a richness, overwhelming my soul.

The inheritance of living each day isn’t in what happens tomorrow, but rather in what I’ve found along life’s journey so far.