Letters From a Hospital Bed #52: Reflections From a 99 Year Old
Letters from a Hospital Bed is a series of reflections by Jim Houston, now entering his 100th year, in which Jim seeks to capture and reflect new insights of his ever-discoverable God, revealed through his own hospitalization, for the encouragement of all care givers.
November 10, 2022
Editor’s Note: An Epilogue from your scribe
Next week, the last letter in this series will be published, just a few days before Dad celebrates, with much of his family, his 100th birthday. We are currently planning a new genre but a year ago, we set out to explore Dad’s 99th year and it is now complete, and this series of letters will end next week. As a family, we began this journey in a very different place than we find ourselves today. In mid 2021, Dad had fallen and been hospitalized and lost his mobility. In retrospect, he was probably not eating properly and slept a great deal during the day. His spirits were low and he was quite certain that he just wanted to move to the ‘hospice’ so he could follow Mum home, just as soon as the Lord could arrange it, preferably sooner. We wonder sometimes if he expected a chariot to appear like Elijah –“bring me my chariot of fire!” All to no avail. The Lord had other plans. Gradually, Dad began to want to read and to write again and my sister Claire and I needed to find a genre that would work for him without the appropriate rigours of academic publication.
“Letters from a hospital bed” began as a simple way to enable Dad to once again communicate what was on his heart…and then it just grew. When we first began, his notes were cryptic and mainly indecipherable yet contained the gems that I recognized from decades of simply listening to what he thought. I recognized patterns and themes that were both familiar but always with a new and urgent edge of growth. His more than occasional flights of fancy triggered another awareness as I prepared each letter to send to Claire, who managed all the on-line engagement, the voice of our Mum chimed in, when earth seemed to have lost any grip on Dad and he needed to be ‘grounded’ once again. And so, I invented these “editors notes” to provide a way for Mum to speak her piece from time to time, and occasionally burst a rather ‘heavenly minded’ bubble that needed to be more ‘earthly good’. Some weeks, Dad would send lots of notes and others he grew quiet and even silent. Gradually, he wrote more and, most blessedly, began to make more sense, which helped the editing process considerably. His reading has become once again more voracious, and his once dispersed library is once again growing, rapidly, mainly with the books of very long-dead people!
Yet, as this letter project continued toward what is now some 50 letters and a mailing list that is well over 1000 friends, around the world, something else happened in me, as I recrafted his notes into the letter genre we had together created. For many decades, Dad has been a feature in the lives of students and friends that number in the thousands. This has had a consequence for his children; he has been much less in our lives than in yours. It has not always been easy sharing him with the regular household visitors, let alone through virtual means. Sometimes, as young adults, it was a real relief that he was busy with his teaching and lectures, but that independence wears thin after a while, and we have each listened to the enthusiasm of others for Dad’s favour when we wondered if we might occasionally share it ourselves. For me, as his son, this project has been redemptive in so many ways that I want simply to bear witness to that and encourage other parents and children to stay faithful to one another through what might be hard years. Sometimes the harvest of patience is long in coming, even taking nearly 70 years in the ripening.
We have all said of Dad’s 99th year that in it he has grown steadily younger. He delights in his renewed mobility and his daily opportunity to tend to the needs of his caregivers. There is a lovely reciprocity at work which invites us each to consider how we might extend grace, in abundance, even from the growing limits of our own age and stage. He yearns to “stay faithful ‘til the end”. As your scribe, I have sought to be relentless in pursuit of ‘praxis’ to Dad’s ‘thesis’, to demand that he encounter for himself the truth that he wished to convey. Sometimes, I think I quite mystified him with my insistence on needing to “live” his “theology” and to connect what he might be gleaning from a long-dead ‘patristic’, some truth that might help us all deal with culture wars, or Ukraine, or climate change or pandemic or the myriad of harshening realities in a world busy abandoning God. Perhaps my insistence was purely selfish – I needed to know why something mattered, not just that it was interesting – but I hoped that I was representing you all faithfully for my asking. At one point, he said “you are asking me to write autobiographically. It is not what I do!” Perhaps, I was and to his considerable credit, after 99 years, he bent to this new task and learned still more. To have shaped my father even as he has shaped me, brought the project full circle and it was done and now it is time for something else.
With thanks to you all for your patient reading and to my sister Claire who made all the writing visible. You will find his birthday greeting to you all next week in our final posting in this series.
Your faithful scribe,