What Can I Leave Behind?

What started as a bountiful year took a sour turn after the summer. After an immobilizing tooth infection, a heart wrenching break up and nights plagued with sleep paralysis and insomnia, I found myself battling the remainder of 2016 with a few gasps of breath I had left. Between having to face my father getting ill and hustling for jobs as a freelancer, I did a fairly decent job at pretending that everything was okay; no one has suspected a thing.

But it was a different story on the inside. And just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they did.

I found out in early December that my grandfather was dying.

The news didn’t come as a shock. With a prosperous life of 90 years, my grandfather had shrunken over the last decade to a skeleton hunched over life. What remains now is a silhouette of a man who left his hometown and immigrated to a different part of the world in search of a better life for him and his bride; a feat of bravery and fortitude. When I last saw him six months ago, I was struck with awe and tenderness; what sat before me was a frail man who could not remember me, yet smiled and patted my back with a set of bony quivering fingers. The grandfather who used to once tell the best stories and tickle me to tears was no longer there; he was now a man dissipating and surrendering into thin air faster than ever.

Watching a grandparent die is not easy, but having done it before I now understand that death is simpler than a life lived in pain and agony. The difficult part, on the other hand, is watching your parents break apart as they prepare themselves for that life altering phone call. My mother, whom I inherited my sensitive side from, is a woman easily swayed by anger, melancholy and passion. Her emotions peak and crash with the gentlest currents, and although they are mostly unjustified and uncalled for, her tears always fill my heart with sorrow. But to console her, I must play the part of the strong one, the rock and the support system while I break down on the inside because there is nothing worse than watching your parents cry.

But what can you say to someone who is confronting the most -if not the only- substantial fact of life, which is that we cannot avoid death? With its firm grip, death comes to all of us, clasping onto our parents, our children, our friends and eventually, us. And it is only in these moment of receiving that dreadful phone call or saying our last goodbyes in a dark hospital room that we realize this, even if only for a few days as we prepare for a funeral and receive hundreds of empty condolences.

With the impending doom lingering over us from the moment we are pushed out into the world, do we truly live? I spent the remaining few weeks of the year contemplating my existence; how long will I cling on to finding happiness in a paycheck, a busy Sunday morning or a growing pile of business cards? Like every other human being on earth, I crave to leave behind a legacy, but after much thought I came to realize that perhaps that is not my purpose in life.

So why do we feel the need to leave something tangible behind? A son to carry our name, a business empire, a collection of prized items? Won’t everything be handed over to a group of strangers to take over once you are six feet under anyway? Why don’t we opt to leave behind a gentle word, kindness and love?

The notions of legacy are misconstrued and laced with pride, ego and greed. Like our flesh and blood, money and big houses decay and decompose and what remains are memories and stories. My grandfather is a poor man who came from a poor family with only a scanter of money to leave behind. However, the story of how he managed to build a life in a country where he didn’t speak the language or understand the culture will live on forever. His kindness to strangers and generosity to neighbors have been illustrations of his values in the community and in the region. I have often heard stories about his grace and goodness from complete strangers.

So is he aware of the lurking shadows of death? Is he welcoming it? After leading such a life, I believe he is. I tell my mother that as I hug her close to my chest, the roles of mother and daughter reversed for a few moments. I speak of his gentle smile and the way he lavishly handed them out to everyone who crossed his path. I talk about the way he spent every afternoon immersed in his books, his fingers scanning the pages and how he always had new knowledge to share. I remind her of how he spread his wealth around, even when he had none.

And so, dear death, I see you hiding in the corner. We are not afraid of you because you can never take away the most valuable thing my grandfather would leave behind, and that is that one’s legacy lies in the good deeds and not in bank accounts.

“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” – Shannon L. Alder