The Inevitable and What we Leave Behind

What good is a life lived as if it made no difference at all to the great life of the world?  A sadder
thing I cannot imagine.  Why should not a mother say to herself, if I raise this child aright, if I love
and care for her, she shall live a life that brings joy to those about her, and thus I have changed the
world?  Why should not the farmer that plants a seed say to his neighbor, this seed I plant today will
feed someone, and that is how I change the world today?  – from Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

Death frightens me. It always has. Back in high school I became depressed for an entire year because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. One day I will cease to exist. I keep depression at bay by willfully not thinking about it. However, as the years march steadily on it becomes harder not to. Especially now. Parenthood has brought to the forefront how incredibly fast we grow up and get older. I look back at pictures of myself in highschool and it doesn’t seem all that long ago. My mom has vivid recollections of me as an infant. Children grow up in the blink of an eye, though the process is much slower in their minds. I remember when I was five years old and a month seemed like a year.  Now days blur together and the months fly by.

As I’ve mentioned before, while I do have family traditions with a religious background I have no religious beliefs. My mother and I had some frank discussions while we were visiting recently. She grew up a Catholic and while she doesn’t really believe she misses the community feeling of church and thinks she will miss it all the more as she gets older. My stepfather believes in god but is not a religious man, so if she ever did go back to church it would be alone. One day, when he is gone, she might just do that.

“It would be so nice to believe, but you can’t make yourself believe.” she told me. I told her about a scene in The Invention of Lying, a comedy that wasn’t as funny as I’d hoped, but contained a very poignant scene on death and the afterlife. The main character’s mother is in the hospital, and he’s so stricken with grief that he invents the concept of heaven so that she can die peacefully. It was such a powerful scene (especially for a comedy) that it made me cry. Many atheists are not scared of death. After all, it’s not something that can be prevented. Others, like myself, are terrified of it.

My maternal grandfather was raised a Lutheran. His church was very into the whole fire and brimstone type of preaching, and this put him off religion for good. As a young boy, he discovered his favorite grandmother dead in her chair. When they buried her it was pouring rain and he saw the coffin slurped into the muddy ground. These events marked him for life. His funeral arrangements included a cement barrier around the coffin so that no vermin or mud could get in. He was also terrified of dying. When he did go, we all agreed it was probably the best possible way for him- suddenly and (hopefully) painlessly. He blacked out, either from heart failure or a clot in the brain, and was pronounced dead by the time he reached the hospital. His funeral was particularly sad, as we all knew he had many regrets about his life.

My paternal grandfather was a polar opposite. He was raised Protestant, though I don’t know what beliefs he retained or lost throughout his life. It didn’t matter though. He lived a good life. His whole philosophy could be summed up in How to Win Friends & Influence People. When he finally lay dying from lung cancer he had no fears and no qualms about death. Instead, he became rather irritated every time he woke up. He had hospice at home and the whole family took shifts hanging out at his house for several weeks. He was surrounded by loved ones and his funeral was a celebration of his wonderful life.

Granddad

Lately we have been discussing what we leave behind when we die. After my maternal grandfather died my grandmother went through all his things and threw out a lot. My grandfather was quite the packrat. One time I was with her as she went through the garage. He had been a metal worker at one point in a factory, and we found his tool chest that he’d taken to work all those years. It was like an archeological dig as we went through his things. We found a ton of old canceled checks. We also found an envelope containing photographs that was lovingly stowed. “I wonder if there will be any pictures of women” my grandma winked. Instead we found pictures of orchids, my grandfather’s favorite gardening pastime. After his death I took as many of his orchids as I could before my grandmother threw them out. I kept them alive for a few years but they died when I moved to northern California.

The one thing that stuck around after my grandfather’s death was a book he made. Before he died my grandfather spent several years creating a family tree. It goes back decently far with names and dates. The problem is that it’s only names and dates. I have a piece of my family tree but I know nothing about most of these people. What were they like? What made them tick? I don’t know them and that piece of who they are has been lost forever. Mom and I said we should each write biographies, even small ones, of ourselves and other family members for posterity. It would be nice to compile such things in a book, like my grandfather did, for future generations.

Recently I purchased From Your Grandfather: A Gift of Memory for My Grandchild (AARP) for V’s grandfather to fill out for her. We haven’t gotten it back yet. I wonder how often such things end up going untouched. The book is definitely a good idea; how many of us want to write down something about ourselves but never get around to it? The only problem with this particular book is that it’s aimed at one child, has some areas of limited writing space, and is not easily reproduced. Ideally, such a book should be able to spawn multiple copies for all the grandchildren. My grandfather gave each of his family members a copy of that family tree I mentioned. Even if one of us loses it other copies abound.

The older I get the more urgently I feel that I need to leave something behind- anything that will live on after me. I’m still young and there is technically still time, but the years slip through my fingers so quickly and life has not often gone as well as I’ve planned. Even worse, many times I have given up on myself and thus let a certain goal die before I could complete it. I never planned on becoming a stay at home mother. I was going to have a career just like my mom. I kept putting off having children until I had a career, until at last I decided that the career thing was taking too long and my childbearing years kind of had a time limit. It was easy to give up my job to become a stay at home mom. I was working in retail, and the horrible pay that I brought in would have probably only covered childcare costs. It was a wash, so I stayed at home and so far I have enjoyed it.

There is still the itch though. The itch to get out there and make something of myself. To create something or write something or contribute something that will live on long after my body has failed. Children are certainly one thing that we leave behind I just want to leave more than that. Maybe one day I’ll get over it and learn to live like my paternal grandfather, to treat life like the precious, amazing, temporary thing that it is and to enjoy every minute of it.

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