I’m sitting at the kitchen table, on the eve of Advent, laughing with friends, knowing I’ll be waking up in the morning to write the eulogy for my wife’s grandmother.
In True Companions, I wrote about my wife’s grandparents—married 71 years, companions for 74. I wrote about how true companions help one another toward the finish line of life. I speculated that her beloved grandmother would be the one to finish first, because she was forgetting things at a startling pace.
Then, in January 2020, she became deathly ill. They ran all the tests we had at the time. It looked like the flu. It wasn’t. Everyone shrugged. She didn’t leave the hospital for three months, long after certain words and phrases had entered everyday usage: social distancing and sheltering in place and long Covid. She never really recovered and just before Thanksgiving of this year, she passed away.
I’m gazing out a window into the darkness of a Saturday evening, between laughs with our friends, and I marvel at the brilliance of the Christmas lights adorning the trees in front of our home, while I wonder what I can say in five minutes to capture the meaningfulness of a life, the beauty of 90 years well-lived.
The branches sway in a breeze. The lights dance. I stare at one light in particular and it, by itself, is entirely underwhelming.
Every light, in and of itself, is easy to overlook.
But a strand of lights. Connected to another strand of lights. Connected to thirty strands of lights. Then. Then you have to step back and take the whole thing in and hold your breath and wonder at how overlooked things can, together, become the only thing at which you want to look.
When my wife’s grandmother laughed, it didn’t change the world. But her cackle had the love of God in it and, for a moment, the world became a little brighter because of it. Ninety years. Countless overlooked laughs, but a whole life of laughter, a whole strand of lights.
I think about what my daughter has loved most about gathering with my wife’s side of the family: all of the women—four generations—sitting around a dining room table, laughing, until one of them declares they’ve almost wet their pants. My daughter delights in it. It’s about more than each ordinary laugh, more even than each strand of a life. It’s about plugging those strands of laughter end-to-end, across the years and the lifetimes and the generations, until it’s a spectacle of beauty from which you must step back, hold your breath, and marvel at what you can make when you string these things together.
That’s the meaning of it all. Each life is a strand, just a thread of laughter and light. The big beauty of every limited life is the way it connects what came before it to what will come after it.
Ninety years. A long, long strand, through which the energy of grace flows on, from the laughter before it, to the laughter beyond it.
I tune back in to our Saturday evening. My wife is laughing. Our friends are laughing. It’s just one moment. Just a single twinkle of laughter in the big, big black of existence, but my wife is putting together a strand of them, and so am I, and so are our friends.
Would you join us?
Laugh if you can. It’s just an ordinary thing. It doesn’t really matter. But also, it really does. Because taken together with the rest of your laughter, and the lives of laughter before you and after you, it might just be more beautiful than any of us can imagine, from within it.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.