The Finish Line Gives Us Focus: An Excerpt from "Death By Living"

The long living room with the cracked plaster walls had never changed. Chairs had been moved here and there, the old couches that my grandfather used to flip up and push together into forts were long gone. But the rest was the same. This golden brown carpet has been on this floor longer than I have been alive. I know what it feels like beneath socked feet; I know its texture beneath my hands and against my cheek. I slept on it beside that old fireplace every New Year's Eve.

I lived in this house. I loved this house. But I loved what it held far more.

My wry grandmother in a pull-over apron, yellow rubber hands in dishwater. My ever humming and hymning grandfather. A cracked green cookie jar full of Fig Newtons more often than not. My grandmother's Canadian loyalty to the queen.

She is not on the couch now, watching her Jeopardy. She is not up to her elbows in dishwater or steeping her tea or filling the cookie jar.

She is in the back bedroom, lost in a deeper sleep.

This time, I lead five children back to where my grandfather keeps his constant watch -- to where he sings to this sleeper, to where he read her the New Testament (twice) as she faded, to where he listened to her speak to people he could not see.

We cannot see every moment of our own stories, let alone any other mortal story. None of us even have firsthand knowledge of our own early years of existence -- what we think we know is all taken on faith.

But God has been there every second. He has crafted every step and gesture and breath of every mortal you have ever passed, of every driver on every road that has ever flicked by you at night, of every kicking child in every mall. And He will be there when we end.

Look around. Can you see time flowing past your edges? Can you see the future breaking around you and becoming the past?

Does that thing we call now exist? Is there actually a present, an empty moment in which the future is not and the past is not? Can you find the edge of the shadow of a speeding car? Sure. Just tell me when and I'll freeze the frame. The problem is that when is the speeding car.

Truth: We are the present. We are now. We are the razor's edge of history. The future flies at us and from that dark blur we shape the past.

And the past is forever.

We are authors and we are writing every second of every day. A child scissors a couch, and that action is forever and always. It cannot be undone. But now it is your turn. What you say and what you do in response will be done forever, never to be appealed, edited, or modified.

If life is a race (and it is), then it is run across wet concrete.

If life is a story (and it is), then that story is the cumulative spatter of our tracks.

Of course, we try to edit. We dump lies and lies of whiteout behind us. We are always explaining and attempting to recast our actions in "better light." Did you not see that child scissoring my couch? God wanted me to yell and glare and grip that small wrist far more tightly than was necessary. Justice. Righteousness.

Who among us can truly make that request to God without both knees buckling? Are you ready to ask God to deal with you only as graciously as you deal with others?

But she totally lied about me.

But he's been mooching my groceries.

Death By Living

But ...

But ...

Does it matter?

As my grandfather watches, I lift each of my children up to kiss their Chi-chi-pa. Her fast breathing doesn't slow. My turn comes and her head is hot to my touch -- hot with effort.

But this isn't sickness. There is no disease here.

This is what living looks like.

When it ends.

We will sing on a hilltop, beside a box, above a hole. In a few days, I will be asked to stand in a sanctuary and scatter words at this life. Along with other grandsons, I will look out at remaining mortals and use my allotted two minutes to honor my father’s mother as best I can. Two minutes or two days, there's not enough time.

There never is. But the finish line gives us focus.

Adapted from Death by Living: Life Was Meant to Be Spent by N.D. Wilson. Copyright ©2013. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc.


N. D. Wilson is a best-selling novelist, professional daydreamer, and occasional screenwriter. He enjoys hilltops, callouses, and the smell of rain on hot asphalt. He and his wife have five children, and he is currently a Fellow of Literature at New Saint Andrews College, where he teaches freshmen how to play with words.