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‘The Long Time of Goodbyes’

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As the leaves of October’s beauty give way to the barren chill winds of grey November, we are reminded of the cycle of life and the mortality that we all face as part of the human existence. And as one reaches a certain age, mortality’s distant horizon comes more and more into focus.

Probably at a time when we reach our early 40s, the arc of life starts to tilt away from youth. At that time the older generation starts to leave this world. For me, it was with the passing of my own father almost 10 years ago.

It was the first loss we’d suffered in our immediate family. My grandparents had all been gone for a long time. But grandparents starting to pass is something that you expect when they reach their 80s and 90s. 

A parent is a whole other matter and as the generation you looked up to starts to pass, your life takes on a different meaning. Your role becomes different. Deservedly or not, we ascend to the place of experienced elder. And we realize that we have taken our place next in line on the climb toward our own ultimate destination.

In the intervening decade since losing my father, our own march forward has seen the loss of others. A father-in-law, uncles, cousins, friends and the parents or even spouses of friends. My generation has now reached what writer Wright Thompson once called “the long time of goodbyes.” There are more losses, more funerals, more sorrows of what is lost, but also smiles remembering what has been. 

Just this past Monday many of us in the Penn State and State College community gathered to say goodbye to Pat Daugherty. It was the loss of someone we all believed would be a constant presence in our community. For how many years have we walked into The Tavern and seen him walking table to table or sitting down talking to his guests? How many times did we see him in a place that has been like a home to him as an owner for four decades? Like so many great things in life, we thought it would never end.

But time’s cruel march toward winter spares no one.

As November moves towards December here in our valley, it is hard not to at least pause and reflect on the winds of change that blow as we advance in age. The generation above us, people we took for granted, people we often recall in the glow of youth—both theirs and ours—one by one they will take leave from us.

And we are left with memories of their smile, their funny stories, small acts of kindness, the familiar gait with which they strolled. We hold to a memory of how the light struck their face as they smiled. But above all we are left with the lessons they gave us that carry us each day.

Now that I’m older, amid shorter autumn days it is harder to believe that our own time will never come, a belief that we all once held in the days of our youth. And yet slivers of hope are found in the sun’s rays low on the horizon. Rays falling like golden light on autumn’s last leaves clinging to the branches as holdouts before winter’s time of slumber. But even the most ardent holdout eventually falls.

Mortality is certain, immortality a myth. History is filled with those for whom chasing the false promise of human immortality has been the downfall of the prideful. 

Humility and service are the way we come closest to a legacy that lives beyond our days on earth. Monday’s service for Pat was a lesson in that approach. Pat Daugherty’s long-time friend Larry Fall told stories about Pat’s life of generosity and giving that impacted others who remain. There for all to see was the path to grasp a bit of immortality. It is the giving to and doing for others that we imprint our mark on the memories of others.

And as the nights grow longer, as the days grow colder and blankets of snow cover the ground, we are once again reminded of the inevitable. And though we may hold out and fight the winds of change, in the time we have, through our actions towards others we can show forth a lasting burst of color that will remain in the memories of all we passed.