I grew up hearing them because they were one of Mom’s favorite things.
She had some that looked like decorative art and others that only came out on their appropriate holiday. An especially elaborate one actually required metal discs to play various tunes while tiny skaters danced on a picturesque frozen pond.
As a kid it was fascinating to watch the cylinders move while tiny pins plucked the lamellae (tuned teeth) of what is called the “steel comb”.
But the sad thing about a music box is that inevitably the pretty figures quit dancing and the magical music stops playing. They just wind down.
You never quite know which will be the last note…until the music stops.
I find the picture to be very much like life. If we are fortunate to live a long one, eventually it just winds down.
And we never quite know which will be the last note before our life-song stops.
These delicate musical creations are the imagery I used recently to explain to our grandsons over Facetime the slow decline my wife’s 98-year old mother, affectionately known to all of our gang as Granny.
Hail and hearty for nearly all of her long life, only in the past couple of years has she started to show signs of her advanced years. Lately, the weakness and frailty have increased in dramatic fashion. Hospice visits are the new norm.
The sweet song entitled “Myrtle” is slowing winding down.
Granny has lived in our home for 14 years. Her infectious laugh, vibrant spirit and deep contentment has impacted four succeeding generations.
When our children and grandchildren tear through the front door, first stop is the “parlor” to greet Granny. Just a few days ago that little parlor was filled with her grandsons along with their loves and little ones sprawled on the couches and across the floor at her feet. She couldn’t have been happier.
In those moments I recall the words: “They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green,“ (Psalm 92:14, NIV)
Care giving is not easy, but my wife and I find it sweet and rich as we tend to this woman with an indomitably positive spirit.
As I watch Dianne tenderly helping her mother into bed, giving her sponge baths and tending to her much like a baby–this odd role reversal called old age–I am learning significant life-lessons from Granny.
It is amazing what you learn about life when living gets reoriented by death.
Here is what I hear in the fading notes of her song.
- Relationship is the sum of life. What seems to matter to her more in these moments than anything is to be with those she loves. Her mind isn’t sharp enough to allow deep conversation; her body too frail to enjoy family fun. But her spirit still comes to life when her room is filled with the sweet chaos called family.
- Gratitude is the foundation of joy. It doesn’t matter how small the act of kindness performed for her, this little lady is so grateful. She still looks out the window with childlike glee and says “look at that beauuuutiful sunshine.” A glass of water, a bite of food, a lift to the wheelchair or a kiss goodnight all bring the same thankful response. I have never seen anyone so near to death that is so deeply happy with life.
- Simplicity is the source of contentment. She never thinks of “things”. “Stuff” makes no difference now. The soft nightie and warm robe that are her constant cocoon are about all she has. But in her heart it is clear she has all she needs. The complex demands that so many of us make on life in order to be happy are long dead to this one who has enough years on her to know what really matters.
Every day I hear the music that is my sweet mother-in-love winding down. Each of those days I see the depth of that rich woman rising up. It is breathtaking to watch a person who learned to truly live present to each moment even when many of those moments were painful and costly.
She has outlived nearly everyone she knew well. Siblings. Friends. Three spouses. Her life, especially in the closing years, was characterized by a lot of loss.
But she has never let it drain her. Partly because she’s just, as we have often said with tongue planted firmly in cheek, “a tough old bird!” But mostly because she determined to live as fully and well as she could each day, to be content with what the day brought and cling to the fact that these days of our lives are not all we will know.
“Even to your old age I will be the same, and even to your graying years I will bear you! I have done it, and I will carry you; and I will bear you and I will deliver you.” (Isaiah 46:4, NASB)
Myrtle doesn’t have the emotional strength to keep up any protective facades. She couldn’t front an image if she tried.
So the truth is, whatever she really is at the deepest levels of who she is comes out in a pure and unfiltered way in these waning moments.
And what is emerging is simply beautiful.
Listening to the fading notes of this sweet song has made me more determined than ever to live with the end in view. Not morbidly, or frantically, but fully. Like Myrtle, I want to truly live before I die.
I want the music of my life to sound sweet even as it winds down.
“Teach us to number our days and recognize how few they are; help us to spend them as we should.” (Psalm 90:12, TLB)
So my whole crew–all the kids and grandkids–are determined to enjoy Granny while her song winds down…and to learn from her the importance and beauty of fully living life.
To the very last note.