My old high school buddy, G., sent me a text two weeks ago. One of our high school classmates had died, and while I hadn’t been in touch with him for many years, his death stirred up old memories. G., once the student body president, has stayed in touch with the majority of classmates from our high school class. I did not, losing touch with most of them soon after university when I left California for Canada. But I pulled out my old high school yearbook and studied the photographs of our younger selves. All of us had grown up in a small Northern California town and the majority in school together from kindergarten through high school. Several of our classmates remained in that same town throughout adulthood, as our now deceased classmate had.
In his inimitable style, G. made the drive from his home in Washington state to our old hometown to attend the memorial service. “He was a good guy,” he wrote me afterward, “and I always liked him.” I only remembered the playful football team athlete I briefly had a crush on my freshman year, and how he married right after high school. None of us would have guessed then, how he remained in our little town and over the years, became a valuable community leader. At his memorial, the remembrances were of the man he became, the love he had for his family, his generosity, warmth and community involvement. These were the remembrances shared, the stories told, and his enduring legacy.
…I have learned that story assuages grief, and it also grants the chaos of our emotions some shape and order…Even as I watch my mother become more and more distant from the lives around her…I am doing what I have been preparing all my life to do: listening again to the old stories and committing them to memory in order to preserve them. (From: The Cruel Country, by Judith Ortiz Cofer, ©2015. University of Georgia Press)
Like you, I have lost loved ones and friends, writing group members and others to death, unexpected as well as anticipated. I’m never ready for the unexpected losses, although I have learned to accept death as part of life, but even when I think I’m prepared for the death of someone, like a neighbor, elder relative, or one of those who has shared so much of themselves and their lives in my cancer writers’ groups, I discover that I am never quite ready to have someone die. I am still doing my work in terms of what I have come to believe defines immortality. Being remembered. (Judith Ortiz Cofer).
It’s not just about being remembered; there is a larger question: How do I want to be remembered? Few of us get to choose how and when we die. My father did not want to be remembered as a man dying of lung cancer, thin, frail, an oxygen tank his constant companion. My cousin likely did not wish to be remembered as the one relative who hung himself, and I am quite certain my first husband did not want to be remembered drowning drunk when he was only 38, a university professor with a bright career future yet to be realized. Were it not for the stories told, written and shared by all of us over the years, the manner of their deaths might overshadow the remembrances of who they were in life.
“Death steals everything but our stories,” author Jim Harrison wrote in a poem. It’s the stories shared, the ones retold, of those we’ve loved and lost that live on. Then how do we begin, if you like, creating those stories about ourselves that are important, the ones that tell who we are; what we cared about; what we deemed important in life? What stories will people tell about you? Will they be ones that reflect how you want to be remembered? What if you sat down today and wrote you own eulogy? Does it reflect the way in which you live, work and interact with others in the present?
Author and consultant Peter Drucker, often called, “the father of management thinking,” told this story in The Daily Drucker: 366 Days of Insight and Motivation for Getting the Right Things Done (2004): “When I was thirteen I had an inspiring teacher of religion who one day went right through the class of boys asking each one, “What do you want to be remembered for? None of us, of course, could give an answer. So, he chuckled and said, “I didn’t expect you to be able to answer it. But if you still can’t answer it by the time you’re fifty, you will have wasted your life.”
Asking yourself the question, “What do I want to be remembered for?” is one way, Drucker said, to induce you to renew yourself now, in the present. You’re forced to see yourself as a different person: the person you want to become. It’s a similar question Lloyd Garvey wrote about in a 2009 issue of The Huffington Post. “Somebody quite wise, he wrote, —I think it was my rabbi—suggested that people should write their own obituaries, now, regardless of age or medical condition. That way you’ll think about how you want to be remembered and what you want to accomplish in the rest of your life” (June 27, 2009). Drucker would agree. Asking what you want to be remembered for “pushes you to see yourself as a different person– the person you can become.” He recommended you continue to ask yourself that same question throughout life.
Writing your own obituary is an exercise I frequently offer to the men and women in my groups, often using the poem, “Cover Photograph,” by Marilyn Nelson. Notice how she repeats “I want to be remembered” at the beginning of each stanza, describing the different aspects of herself that she wants others to remember—the person she strives to be. Perhaps you can follow her example. Here is an excerpt:
I want to be remembered
As a voice that was made to be singing
The lullaby of shadows
As a child fades into a dream…
I want to be remembered
As an autumn under maples:
A show of incredible leaves…
I want to be remembered
With a simple name, like Mama:
As an open door from creation,
As a picture of someone you know.
(In Mama’s Promises: Poems, 1985)
- How do you want to be remembered? Try writing your own obituary or eulogy. Or, try a poem in the style of Marilyn Nelson’s.
- Think about the things that really matter, the things that will ultimately define your life’s legacy, and the way in which you would like to be remembered by others.
- Does your eulogy or obituary reflect how you are living and have lived?