Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Last Drops of a Life

My dad has always expressed a desire to control. I have an early memory of him saying, “Do what you are told, when you are told to do it.” And his desire to control has led him to develop anxiety over the uncontrollable. He lies awake at night, fretting about something he wants me to do for him in the morning.

Maybe this is a character flaw for him. I think it certainly informs his lifelong interest in engineering. No problem is too large that he can’t engineer a solution, with accompanying drawings on graft paper.

But here is the problem; there are things he can’t actually control, the hearts and minds of others, his declining health, the slow and inexorable slide to the grave. So he gets frustrated, and then angry. I always thought of my dad as an angry guy. Now I think he is a frustrated guy.

It occurs to me that a guy who worries, who wants to control, who engineers to solve problems would be a better planner. But Dad never really planned. He never thought about how he would pay for his retirement or how to guard his health in order to live the long life he has prayed for. He smoked until he was in his late forties. He never paid attention to cholesterol, salt, exercise. He never thought that an unattended injury to his knee would mean twenty years of pain. He gave no regard to the effects of inflation on his meager savings. He never thought of any of the things a prudent man would consider.

Yesterday, I was making pancakes for breakfast for Mom and Dad. I had a mostly used-up bottle of sugar-free syrup for their breakfast, and another full new bottle in the pantry. After pouring what I would think was the last of the syrup from the old bottle, Dad stood the bottle on its top and let the last few drops accumulate in the lid. He did this several times until the last possible usable amount was on his food. He ended up with a puddle of syrup, still there after he had eaten all the pancakes.
I think this bottle of syrup is the perfect metaphor for his life. Now that he is at the end of the bottle, he is afraid of squandering even a moment. But over the years, how much of his life did he pour on thick and leave as dregs on the empty plate? Did he ever think the bottle would run dry? Now that the last of his sweet life remains, he tips it up to get every drop, but still squanders that small portion by worrying about tomorrow, and not enjoying today.

I come away with two lessons. First, use a little less syrup at the beginning of the bottle but enjoy what I do use. All of life is uncertain. Though it might seem that I have a full measure, anything can happen and I might find my life abruptly ended. So think of every drop as precious.
The second lesson is to not to worry that the bottle is empty. Tomorrow will come. I can plan for it, but worrying about it won’t change a thing. The only thing I can engineer is my own heart; I have no effect on any other outcome.