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September 19, 2013

MAY: Wrapped presence

— I was alone one night reading articles on the Internet when the opening paragraph of a column on the Science magazine website caught my attention.

“You say you want to be alone? Think again. Researchers have found that older people with fewer human contacts are more likely to die.”

The study continued a recent debate over whether loneliness or isolation or some combination of the two leads to higher mortality.

Social isolation is an objective state. It is where people have little interaction with other humans. Loneliness is a subjective, emotional state. It is felt by people who are unhappy with their social interactions.

According to this London research, the most socially isolated subjects had a 26 percent greater risk of dying than anyone else — even those who considered themselves lonely.

The researchers speculate that people with few social ties probably are not getting the care and attention they need. No one is urging them to eat right or take their medicine. When a crisis occurs, no one is there to help.

But in light of our series of columns on celebrating life, I wonder if a part of it is that there is no one present with whom to celebrate the moments of life.

A few years ago, I was ready to celebrate my 50th birthday. Well, celebrate isn’t exactly the right word. I was ready to mourn the occasion. I felt old. I was no longer playing softball. Aches and pains were becoming more commonplace. I weighed more than I had ever weighed. I certainly did not want a party.

I don’t particularly like parties and get-togethers of any occasion, but I especially did not want to be with people on that day. Allow me just one day to wallow in my own sorrow. I don’t really need any gifts. I don’t like the turmoil and noise. Just let me be alone today. I will get over it. No fuss. No frills. No black crepe paper.

And so that was what was planned. Immediate family gathered around a small table. Sandwiches and chips. I even did the grilling. Ten minutes into the meal, I was about to refill my glass when the doorbell rang.

Some friends from church stopped by just to say, “Hi.” About 10 minutes later, a knock on the door ushers in my sister and her husband from Indianapolis. Every 10 minutes for the next two hours, friends from the past, family from far away and those who shared my present offered me their presence.

What seemed at first coincidental soon became evidenced conspiracy. The nonparty was in fact hiding months of planning, hushed meetings, quiet phone calls and several swears to secrecy. What alone was destined to be bittersweet, together became a flavorful memory to be savored for years.

I received some gifts on that day, but I cannot say that I remember any of them. We ate food but I cannot remember what kind. We had cake, but I don’t recall the flavor. There were lots of candles, but I am not sure that my asthmatic lungs could blow them all out.

But I remember the love that was involved in planning and pulling off the surprise. And I remember who was there.

Moments of life need to be celebrated. They don’t need gift cards or chocolates or money or balloons or chips and queso — OK, maybe they need chips and queso.

Moments of life need your presence. When you don’t feel like it. When it’s inconvenient. When it’s a two-hour drive away. When you have other things to do. When you being there makes a memory for someone special. When your presence says things better than your absence.

Among the last words he spoke while on earth, Jesus told his disciples, “Behold I will be with you always.” Even when you are by yourself, you are not alone.

That seems to be a reason to celebrate. Eternal presence wrapped in love.

 — Tom May is the Minister of Discipleship at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Communications Department at Indiana University Southeast.

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