“Getting old is the pits,” says my mom. This is an understatement.
She navigates the walker up and down steps, alone, while my dad is in the hospital with pneumonia.
My dad is usually right there beside her, the stronger one who folds the walker into the car, drives my mom to the hair salon and church, and fetches things from the top shelf.
She is alone, scared. She has loved him for 65 years. The first time she saw him, James Dean handsome, walking into Major Nelson’s office, a voice sang in her heart, "This is the man I am going to marry."
He had survived the landing at Omaha Beach, survived fighting in the Normandy hedgerows and the Battle of the Bulge, and was happy being out in the field with his soldiers; he didn’t want a desk job in Vienna. Nonetheless, he obeyed his commanding officer and my mom became his secretary.
She introduced him to the music of Beethoven (she lived in the Mölkerbastei, one of Beethoven’s Viennese residences) and art (she was an artist working on animated films following in the footsteps of Disney’s groundbreaking Fantasia, until Hitler shut down their studio as part of his total war effort). They began dating and she began taking instruction in Catholicism.
The journey is long, and God provides. “Your clothes did not fall from you in tatters nor your sandals from your feet; bread was not your food, nor wine or beer your drink” (Deuteronomy 29:4-5). God allows us to dwell on this earth, sometimes joyful, sometimes parched and toilsome joyless, but always under his providential care. Sometimes we follow his will, sometimes we fail him.
Moses was a prophet like no other prophet, whom the Lord knew face to face. Yet he failed him in the desert of Zin, and for this God punishes him (Deuteronomy 32:51) at the end of his life.
I ponder this. For striking the rock twice, instead of merely commanding the rock to bring forth water, Moses must die in Moab, never seeing the fruits of his labors, never seeing his people enter the promised land. For this one failure, he would not cross the Jordan; he would die alone.
How many elderly people are left to die in the desert—alone, sometimes abandoned, in a nursing home or a hospital, separated from their families. They long for their own real home, the home they filled with love and children, rich memories, the promise of youthful dreams. With Moses, they must let the promise go.
Yet Moses’ death at 120 years old is a blessing. He can no longer move about freely (Deuteronomy 31: 2). Every step must have been painful and he longed to rest. The desert was like an old companion. He entrusts the Israelites, his family, to the Lord, who would lead the people across the Jordan. Moses dies in the land of Moab on Mount Nebo, overlooking the land flowing with milk and honey. But there is something better. He enters eternal life. We know this, because Moses is there at the Transfiguration, conversing with Jesus and Elijah, who had been taken to heaven in a fiery chariot. He is saved.
“In the face of death the enigma of human existence reaches its climax. Man is not only the victim of pain and the progressive deterioration of his body; he is also, and more deeply, tormented by the fear of final extinction...He carries with him the seed of eternity, which cannot be reduced to matter alone, and so he rebels against death ...Yet…the Church… firmly teaches that man has been created by God for a blissful purpose beyond the reach of earthly misery.” (Gaudium et Spes 18).
Beyond the reach of earthly trials, beyond the painful deterioration of the body, the aching limbs, the sadness and loneliness, beyond the fear of death, there is another promised land. Beyond the desert, there is life.