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There is something incomplete about the span of your life – no matter how young or how old you are when you die.
There is something complete about the span of your life – no matter how old or how young you are when you die.
Both of these things are true.
When those we love die young – or relatively young – we feel that they have been robbed of life. Or that we have been robbed of them. Whatever the case, a robbery has happened. Death takes what should not be taken. Death keeps people from finishing things they should have been able to finish. My first husband died nearly 21 years ago at the age of 24 from injuries he sustained in a car accident. As a high school music teacher, he had a Christmas concert for which he hadn’t finished preparing his students. As a singer-songwriter, he had half-filled notebook pages of verses without choruses and choruses without verses. As a new husband, he had dreams of owning a dog and building a dome house and raising children. Many years after his death, I learned from one of his students that he had been making plans to take me on a hot air balloon ride. When he died, I grieved for the future that we were not able to have together. His life was an unfinished symphony.
Though my mom lived all the way to seventy, she was young by many measures. Because she knew she was going to die, she did her best to finish all of her projects. She passed on all her bill-paying and bookkeeping patterns and knowledge to our dad and had goodbye conversations and hugs with as many friends and family as she could. In her final months, she crocheted blankets for each of her kids (having already finished one for each grandchild). In the end, though, she wasn’t able to complete her final counted cross-stitch – a pattern created from a photo of her and my dad. Initially, I was going to finish it for her. But we decided instead to leave it unfinished – a tangible reminder of the life that was taken from her and a marriage that was ended just as they were both entering retirement.
Karl Rahner wrote, “In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we learn that ultimately in this world there is no finished symphony.” Even those who have “lived a good long life” die with things unfinished. All lives have unresolved melodies, loose ends, and snarls of relationships that were never untangled.
There is something incomplete about the span of your life – no matter how young or how old you are when you die. This incompletion is painful, but it can also be hopeful. C.S. Lewis envisions the gospel promise of what is to come in The Last Battle:
As [Aslan] spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
We can say with both tears and hope, that there is something incomplete about the span of your life – no matter how young or how old you are when you die.
And no matter how old or how young you are when you die, there is something complete about the span of your life. Psalm 139:16 reads, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” At each funeral I lead, I make reference to this verse and report my tabulation of how many years, months, weeks, and days the beloved one breathed on this earth. Layton lived twenty-four years, eight months, three weeks, and three days. My mom lived seventy years, five months, two weeks, and one day. These numbers bring comfort to me – sometimes, a mighty comfort; sometimes, a mysterious comfort.
For some, I imagine that this comfort is more mystery than might. For others, perhaps the Ordination of the Days brings no comfort at all. I find room in the grand story for protest against viewing the end of any life as a fullness or a completion. I know that I have raged and wept into the Ordination of the Days until, exhausted, I fall asleep on them like a firm pillow.
A friend of mine sent a message to me just after Mom died. Its comfort startled me with its beauty. “I ask that the Lord will be at your side and hold your hand as you step back from watching up close the final stitch sewn in your mother’s story and see the whole tapestry of her life come into focus – resplendent in its completion, and with you in its beauty and love forever.”
I suppose the best stories and symphonies and truths are somehow both complete and incomplete at the same time—finished and unfinished.