To number our days

More candles, more light by which to see. Blue candles on birthday cake by Joey Gannon, Pittsburgh, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

More candles, more light by which to see.
Blue candles on birthday cake by Joey Gannon, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Psalm 90:12 (NIV)

Jeff’s days are numbered.  But so are mine, and yours, and everybody’s.

One of the benefits of slamming face-first into the reality of our own mortality is implied in the verse above.  I’ve found that many of the things that once bothered me seem laughably minor now.  Others, while still serious, have been put into perspective.

This is a lesson we began to experience in depth when Matt was born and struggled to survive his first week of life.  The passing years made it ever clearer.  Still, it wasn’t until Jeff’s diagnosis that we realized our insight never was as clear as we thought it was.

It’s an oft-repeated cliché: it takes a crisis to open our eyes to what really matters.  As with so many other platitudes (“you’ll understand when you’re older” or “just wait until you have children of your own” or “when you have your health, you have everything”) we eventually find out that these bromides are watered down from profound experiences.

The good news is that we don’t have to endure crisis firsthand to learn from it.  Long before illness and death touched us personally, I believed (though not completely understanding) that there is wisdom in acknowledging the uncertainty and brevity of life.  History, literature, and theology all carry powerful teaching to guide us in honoring the gift of life wisely.

Even for those of us who believe this life is a way station, a passage into eternity, the idea of death is not normally appealing.  I’ve found, though, that the older I get, the more I can feel the promised “peace that passes understanding” about the inevitability of physical decline and death.  As the years pass and the candles on our cakes grow more numerous, I hope the added light they give is a symbol of the spiritual illumination that comes from the wisdom of numbering our days.





  1. raynard

    Julia as my wife’s aunt gets readt to celebrate her 77th birthday next week, We go back and look at pictures from 8 years ago. She is amazed and finally not as afraid to look at herself. I try to encourage her about What God has done for her. Last year this time she was in the hospital up until November. Now I can laugh when I tell people” now that I have a 5 in front of my age, it’s humbling to stay encouraged to inspire young people who’s Spiritual G.P.S was never callabrated” Tell Jeff and Matt I said hello. Finally down to” the cake wire( 2 this month). ” The hint and baking clue Julia is you already said it as you looked at the last cake I baked and the next glaze I make in” my test kitchen lol. Be blessed and have a great day….

    • Raynard, I am so glad you and your wife have been taking such good care of her aunt. I got a big kick out of the “spiritual GPS never calibrated” analogy. I’ll have to remember that one. I like to think mine is pretty well calibrated, but just when I think I can trust it, like my actual GPS, it can lead me down a blind alley and leave me in the middle of nowhere. Moral of the story: never be without a map (Bible). 😀 Hope you will have a great weekend!

  2. Michelle

    Thank you for touching me with your words today! Much love, Michelle

    • You’re welcome, Michelle! We just got our photo from the Run for the Roses Gala today — Jeff was really hoping we would get a copy. Thanks for sending it! What great memories. Give our love to everyone at CP of VA!

  3. It is a profound thing to come to grips with the fragility of life. I was lucky enough (in an odd way) to get the lesson early. Like you, my son had complications. They expected brain damage if he lived. I learned a lot that night, very little of it from doctors. BTW, he’s quite bright, though sometimes I wonder. 🙂
    My son’s father always told me he would not live past 40. It was something he (knew). He died immediately of a heart attack at 42. You are so correct, all our days are numbered. Each moment is precious and should be savored. I’m so sorry you are having this experience but I think you will wisely travel through and help others having this experience as well. My heart is with you on this difficult journey. I think only our bodies die, we just change addresses.

    • WOW, I was just reading about your (helpful, talented, hard-working) son on your blog! We should all be so industrious. We do have a Lazy Boy but I’m never the one sitting in it, which is OK with me. I like to sit at the table where I can keep a mug of tea nearby without spilling it. 😀

      That’s so interesting about your son’s father predicting his own death. Isn’t it odd how we sometimes know these things without actually knowing them? While I was pregnant with Matt, I had a dream that there was something wrong with him. In the dream I had awakened from a coma that happened during his birth, and had been out several months when they brought the baby to me. (BTW we had no idea whether Matt was a boy or girl until he was born, nor was there any sign of trouble during the pregnancy.) In the dream the baby was a boy; he looked very strange (including having a full mouth of adult-sized teeth) so I knew instantly that something was wrong with him, but I also fell in love at first sight and was blissfully happy despite whatever was wrong. When I woke up I just knew I would love this baby as much as I loved my first one (I had been scared that wouldn’t be possible). Of course I had no idea that he would really be born with any sort of problem, but the dream did not scare me or make me superstitious about that. Anyway, when Matt was born with several health issues that later proved to be related to a rare genetic disorder, I always wondered whether my body “knew” something my mind did not yet know. Oh well, as Raynard says, “I digress” — back to the point, I appreciate your encouraging words. I hope I will be able to help someone else, if only by saying “I care” and really meaning it. Thanks for being here with us!

      • Thanks so much Julia. I could wax on about this subject but will pass for now. I’ve never been superstitious, sometime I just know like my first husband knew. The one thing I tell everyone is to trust your intuition. It’s your soul speaking over your ego. Have a wonderful weekend.

        • Thanks Marlene. I agree that there is a big difference between superstition and intuition, although the two are often confused. Perhaps someday we will have a biological explanation for that which now appears mysterious to us, but until that day, I believe that we can sense far more than we realize. Hope you have a wonderful weekend too!

  4. Cherie

    Julia, this morning your words touched me so deeply. I thank you for that.

    • Thank you, Cherie. You stay in my heart and prayers.

  5. Carlyle

    Your analogy of the birthday candles illuminating our vision is quite apt. Since I have at this point accumulated 29 more than you, I can tell you that my perspective of life and death seems to become clearer by the day and that clarity brings more into focus the “peace of God which passes understanding.”

    • Thank you, Daddy. I hope you will accumulate many more candles to keep pace with the ones I accumulate. It comforts me deeply to watch you in this phase of your life, holding more surely than ever to God’s unchanging hand. I love you.

  6. Carolyn

    I know that all of our days are numbered and we should live like today is our last. As we get older ,we should treasure each moment we have. How are Jeff and Matt doing? Hope you are taking care of yourself, your plate is full. On our way to watch Liam graduate, week from Sat., this is Jennifer’s oldest. When we get home, I will find out when I have my surgery. Hugs and love to all.

    • Oh, my, it makes me feel SO OLD to think of Liam graduating — it doesn’t seem that long ago that you wrote us about his birth. He was the first baby I had heard of by that name (though I think the actor was already famous by then). Have a wonderful celebration and keep us posted on your surgery. Love to you all.

  7. Sheila

    Julia, I remember years ago when you shared with me in an email that Jeff is a very private person. I so hope that your blog “Defeat Despair” has afforded all of your family some comfort. You, sharing words , photos, and more, have encouraged so many. It really has been uplifting for me to walk with you and vice versa. We decided long ago that we are walking together, sometimes through tears, hoping for smiles! Your family means so much to me! Love, Sheila

    • Thank you Sheila! Since you have been so kind to care about my family, I must invite you to borrow your children or grandchildren’s Facebook account (surely one of them has one?!) and go see the wedding photos I posted from my nephew’s wedding in NC a couple of weeks ago. We even went by Mayberry on our way home! 😀 My photos are public so if you just search for my first and last name with #5 after it, you will be able to see the photos. The only catch is you have to have a Facebook account to see anything on Facebook. That’s how I ended up with one myself; I wanted to see a friend’s page, and it was the only way I could do it since neither of my sons nor Jeff had a FB page.

      Thanks so much for your kind words and steadfast presence here. You will never know how much it has meant to me — but I hope you can make a good guess at it! 💗 💐

      • Sheila

        Julia, I so enjoyed the photos that you posted on Facebook, actually through my own account. To access Pinterest, I had to have a Facebook account several months ago. I do not participate in social media really, but occasionally it’s handy. I told the grandchildren not to get too excited about Mimi being on Facebook! Did you enjoy Mount Airy? It’s a very quaint little town. I hope you’re enjoying these warm summer days as much as we are! You’re so often in my thoughts and prayers! 🙏

        • Sheila, I’m so happy you enjoyed the photos. Even for those of us who were reluctant Facebook fans, I must admit it’s a great way to share photos without being intrusive — those who want to see them can, but don’t have to if they don’t want to. I still can’t catch onto how to use most of its features, though, which is just as well. We did enjoy Mt. Airy; most of it was closed by the time we got there, but they don’t roll up the sidewalks, hee-hee. You are in my thoughts and prayers as well — thanks for being here!

  8. Julia, you’re such an incredible writer. Your words touched me deeply and also make me sad. I think that regardless of your beliefs, it’s painful to go on without that person you love. Sheryl Sandberg wrote about that beautifully this week. It was hard to read, but beautifully profound as well. It made me think of you. Thanks for sharing so beautifully.

    • Alys, I think I must have read the same article by Sandberg that you did, or one similar to it. I’m flattered that it made you think of me; her accomplishments in life are quite enormous compared to mine. I appreciate your kind words about my writing. When you wrote that it made you sad, I thought “Oh no, this is supposed to be ‘defeat despair’ writing.” Then I remembered that defeating despair has nothing to do with denying sadness; in fact, some acknowledgment of it is necessary to move past it, I believe. I am happy that you are willing to be both sad and happy with me. It took me quite awhile to realize that some people just can’t manage to do sadness very well. Those are the ones that keep a safe distance from us. The ones who are willing to come close must be able to see that beauty and sorrow co-exist, and that some of the most beautiful laughter and joy comes out of grief and despair, as well as more ordinary daily irritation. I raise my tea cup in a toast to you, and to all those who know who to celebrate what Jon Kabat-Zinn has called “the full catastrophe of living.”

  9. Good morning, Julia! That is lovely.
    I have come to take a new philosophy – that we are all “in transition” in some sense or another, whether we recognize it or not.
    Thank you for sharing this time of transition with me (and with all of us on this site)!

    • Susan, this reminds me of a Casey Stengel quote that our older son used as the introduction to his h.s. graduation speech: “There comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of them.” Life is indeed a series of transitions, whether we know it or not, leading up to the final big one for which the earlier ones have hopefully prepared us. I am so grateful you have been here with us to share these thoughts, emotions and experiences!

  10. Amy

    I read this a few days ago and immediately thought, “Julia can use that.” Today it seems very appropriate to add here. “Within my soul I feel the evidence of my future life. I am like a forest that has been cut down more than once, yet the new growth has more life than ever. I am always rising toward the sky, with the sun shining down on my head. The earth provides abundant sap for me, but heaven lights my way to worlds unknown.” Victor Hugo. He said this sometime in his 80’s. I think it is very beautiful and like you said about the candles, the more there are the brighter the light grows.

    I am off today and loving every second. Just being lazy this morning enjoying the quiet but soon have to get in high gear as the “Sonshine” girls and their families are using the parlor tonight for their end of year party. Hope you have a wonderful weekend. Let’s try to get together soon. Love, A

    • Amy, that is one of the most beautiful quotes I have read in a long time. I’ve never come across it. What book is it from? (I have NEVER read anything by Victor Hugo! [pause for catcalls and rotten tomatoes being hurled]) But he is definitely on my “someday” list. I think The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of the most influential books Drew read as a teen; one that he seemed to experience on a deep level.

      BTW it also reminds me of something Eric said years ago, when Daddy first began to show the inevitable signs of diminished strength that goes with age. “It’s a funny thing, but Dad’s better in the woods than he’s ever been.” (He was referring to his skills at tracking, archery, keen hearing/seeing, and general survival, I believe.) At the time I made a joke about it being his Chiricahua blood showing up, and “once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout,” but when I read that Hugo quote, I thought about the new growth of the forest and how it must speak to all of us in a primal way, testifying that the cycles of the earth point always to new life unknown, never to lasting death. Perhaps that’s why so many of us find solace in nature.

      When you and S finished your lovely home and delightful Ice Cream parlor downstairs, I just knew it would be the venue for many happy gatherings. I am so proud of you for sharing your home with young people — and older people such as us! — and I will send you some potential dates for get togethers very soon. If I don’t please bug me about it! I’m dropping balls left and right lately, and then not even able to find them most of the time…

  11. Excellent, Julia.
    Thank you.
    I believe as we reach middle age and beyond we come to understand that the most important thing in life is love. And in those advanced years we are truly in a place to know how.
    “The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.”- G.K. Chesterton


    • Alan, that’s a great quote from Chesterton. I am just now becoming somewhat familiar with his work, but I can already see where he was a big influence on C. S. Lewis, my favorite author. I love the energy, flair and creativity of young people, but I have always loved older people for their wisdom, stability and sense of humor. I count myself fortunate to have lived to be among their number.

      May we all age gracefully into the full understanding of what Paul meant when he said “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” as the introductory sentence to his timeless words about love in I Corinthians 13.

  12. LB

    Julia, you’ve been on my mind so much this week. As I’ve worked through the challenges / opportunities that life has presented me with, I have kept you and Jeff in my heart, and wished it was in my power to increase the number of days for you and Jeff, not decrease them.
    Reading the many replies to your post reassures me that you are surrounded by love.
    Know that I’m sending love and comfort.
    P.S. You were the inspiration to my post this week.

    • LB, thanks so much for your kind words and warm thoughts. You are on my mind often, too! I am honored to be mentioned in your post, especially one that features Edna St. Vincent Millay. She was the first poet whose work really connected with me. Others followed — Sandburg, Frost, Vachel Lindsay, Langston Hughes, among many others — but Millay opened my heart’s door to poetry. I loved the first and second figs, but it was Recuerdo that enchanted me most. It would be years before I rode the Staten Island Ferry for the first time, but when I did, that poem came back to me and I felt as if I had been there already. 😀 Thanks again, for everything! I hope you have a wonderful week ahead.

  13. OK, wakeup call. I’ve been secretly moaning about my age due to an upcoming birthday. How dare I ‘go there’ given what you and Jeff are enduring. It’s rather egotistical to want to look as young as I feel. In my head, I feel 25 but then catch a passing reflection in a window and the truth is apparent. I have nothing to feel despair about these blessed days and should celebrate more gratefully every day. It’s so easy to get off track, then you shine your bright light on this and remind me. Your first words today turn my heart inside out and tears are pinching my eyes thinking of you and how much you shoulder Julia. With no guarantee of tomorrow for any of us (regardless of our health), we need your wise words to remind us to relish today. I wish I could pop in and spend the day chatting and laughing, just thinking of it makes me happier. Love you xo K

    • K, you just did pop in! I wish it could have been for a whole day (or week or month) but even a short visit is delightful. I have a funny little something I have been intending to send you for comic relief. I meant to show it to you when you were here, but forgot. I’ll have to try to get it in the mail soon. I think you do look young! Besides, passing reflections don’t really capture a person’s spirit, and that’s where a youthful heart shines through. I hope you can enjoy your birthday (when is it? I already forgot — send me an email). I am always proud to be another year older. I think most people get better with age. Here’s a great quote from Sophia Loren, a timelessly gorgeous woman who said it well: “There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.” P.S. Love you too! ❤

      • That’s a fantastic quote by Ms Loren. what a great philosophy. Thanks too for your kind words about my age. Honestly, it’s more a genetic thing than anything I do. Dad had great skin. You have beautiful skin! I do think staying out of direct sun can really help. I’m very consistent in that department. Sunscreen is the first thing that goes on my face and body every day. I’m shocked at how many don’t wear it. There was a recent local news story where they interviewed random folks on whether or not they were wearing sunscreen. I think only one gal said she was. One young woman said, ” “No, because I tan very easily”. Really? The naiveté is astonishing. What’s that saying, ‘you can lead a horse to water, but can’t make them drink’? There’s so much reported on the ill effects of sun damage but until they’re effected personally, they think it doesn’t apply to. Weird hey?

        • GUILTY! I grew up in the south, traveled all over the Caribbean, lived in California for over 8 years, plus three years in Hawaii, and three in south Texas, and I used to lie out in the sun at every opportunity, sunning myself like a lizard on a rock. And during all those years, never did I wear sunscreen. My excuse was that I had oily skin prone to break-outs, and that I didn’t sunburn easily. Mainly it was laziness. By the time we were ready to move from CA in 2004, the damage/discoloration was beginning to show pretty badly, so I had it lasered off. It was kind of an icky process but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. My brother (who has a much darker complexion than I have) had just been diagnosed with malignant melanoma on his face, and I had the fear put in me. The doctors told me “from here on in, we don’t want you even walking to the mailbox without 30 SPF sunscreen” and I’ve been very diligent about that. We can be very foolish, ignoring warnings about this or that until it hits home. What freaks me out are the people who still go to tanning beds. That’s one thing I’ve never ever done. I hope they don’t ever find out saunas are bad for you, because I’d have a hard time giving that up.

  14. Sorry to hear about your brothers health scare. Hopefully, it will turn out ok and it will serve as a precautionary warning to change behaviours. I’ve never been to a tanning bed either. I’m too claustrophobic for one thing and have never had the desire to ‘look’ tanned I guess. My Girlfriend in BC just posted FB photo’s of herself in the sun relaxing. I’ve never layed in the sun (except back in the 70’s as a teen). A) it’s boring for me B) I hate being hot (menopause is enough of that treat) C) it can be a life treatning pastime. If you ever see me laying in the sun, it’s because I’ve fainted from the exhaustion of yard work, LOL. xoK

    • K, he’s fine. That was many years ago and aside from a scar on his face (which you can’t see because of his beard) he’s none the worse, but he was one of the lucky ones and it was caught in time. How I wish I didn’t love to bask in the sunshine! I still miss it. Sitting in my sauna is my substitute, supposedly healthier.

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