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What We Leave Behind

A woman I really loved died last week. In her final hours, the hospital chaplain came to her room and talked to those of us who were there with her. He asked us each to tell a story that we remembered about her. After we had all spoken of one of her kindnesses or an example of her generosity, he reminded us that this was her legacy. I have thought of this so many times in these days since then, partly because she left such a gracious, loving legacy. But it also occurs to me that we don’t always think of what we leave behind in that way.

More than the job we had, or the house we lived in, or the clothes we wore, when people think of us, they will remember what it felt like to be with us.

And yet, unless we are wealthy, or have been diligently saving, or have created something enormous in our lives, most of us will be remembered for the ways we treated each other. More than the job we had, or the house we lived in, or the clothes we wore, when people think of us, they will remember what it felt like to be with us. This is rarely foremost in my mind when I am engaging with other people. More often than not, I am focused on getting something accomplished or having things turn out the way I want them to. Sometimes, I’m simply tired and want the interaction to end. Rarely am I focusing on my actual connection with another human being.

I’m not suggesting here that when we engage with others we should concentrate on how we want to be remembered. I’m just saying that what we take away from our exchanges with each other stays with us. When we were in the hospital that afternoon talking about our friend, we remembered her big-heartedness, her efforts to stay in touch with us all, her small (and large) gestures of love. Sometimes I actually forget that the relationships I have with other people are infinitely more important than work or money or any of the other things that engage my crazy, busy brain.

Amid recent bouts of regular life anxiety, I have been working on grounding myself instead of always racing down the road of torment. I remind myself to look around me, to keep my eyes on real things, like my dogs or the trees in my back yard. I can feel my body start to relax. Just moving my thoughts from “what if something terrible happens” to “look at the way the sun shines through those branches” actually slows my breathing. It’s when I remember that I can’t literally think of more than one thing at a time. If I’m appreciating a slant of light, I’m not lamenting some decision I made. The result of all of this is that—at least momentarily—I’m living and breathing in my actual life, not caught up in some crazy web of self-created thoughts. What that means in terms of my interactions with other people is that the more present I am, the more my focus is on making a true connection with the people in my life.

All of this also makes me think more about my legacy. How do I want to be remembered? What parts of me do I want to live on after I’m gone? When I think of all of the time I’ve spent working, worrying, planning, and re-planning, it almost makes me laugh. As the old joke goes, on our deathbeds, no one wishes they’d worked more.

No “big life issue” musings can guarantee how we’ll feel or how we’ll behave in the future, but this legacy notion has touched me in a way that surprises me. My friend was a truly gracious and kind soul. What we remember when we think of her is how someone reached out her hand to us, touched us, helped us through whatever we were experiencing along the way. I have been thinking about that wonderful Ram Dass line, “We’re all just walking each other home.” Especially as I recognize growing old, I want to pay attention to the people in my life in a more conscious way. As my friend did, I want to offer an arm and an ear, and the very best version of true companionship I can muster.

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