What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.
A box full of dusty plush toys, mildewed books, moth-eaten fabrics, dozens of rotten eggs scattered and hidden like a long abandoned Easter egg hunt, along with a myriad of accumulated and forgotten trinkets.
The dust is thick and suffocating, the sweet musty smell of mold sticks to the hairs in my nose. Everything I touch is covered in it. I imagine the ghost of the woman who once lived here, watching as family and strangers sort through her treasure searching for worthwhile keepsakes, cracking jokes at her expense.
I did not know this woman. I found myself rummaging through her belongings because the guy I was dating (and subsequently wed) was this woman’s great-nephew. He thought I’d find de-cluttering a dead woman’s house interesting (such a romantic). I felt embarrassed for her, but humbled by my presence in the total sum of her life. She was a compulsive collector and her legacy was the cluttered piles and boxes left behind after a lifetime of accumulating other people’s discarded things.
My thoughts turned to her legacy, to how she will be remembered. This woman is warmly remembered as the hoarder, which is all I will ever know of her. I wish I could have known the woman. In the end, after a lifetime of collecting memories, experiences, knowledge, things and things and things, what do we have but the life left in people’s hearts and minds?
Her funeral was unremarkable really. Only a few friends from church, and a couple of family members went. It was quite evident that she lived in a very small localized world. She did not get out of her suburb. I was affected by the lack of affectedness.
People’s expressions were serious and sombre. Everyone seemed to like her but there was no crying, no real expression of emotion. There was a eulogy but it read like a dry biography – she did this, born here, lived there, held this or that job, traveled, worked at the tax office as the secretary to the head of the tax department. It was remarkably dry and un-touching. There was a lack of sweet reminiscing or anecdotes.
My own thoughts on mortality are still evolving. I am, and supposedly always have been, well aware of the inevitability of death. In my brief lifetime, I have been exposed to tragedy time and again. The older I get, the more frequent it becomes. And in this brief history of my life, I have learned to take death less seriously. This is not to say that life and death are not serious or worthy subjects. Quite the contrary, if I have learned anything from what I have seen, it is that people, when faced with death, learn to appreciate life. They learn to laugh.
There is a progression of thought when it comes to growing old. But growing old is such a relative term, completely dependent on health. When I think about my own life, I cannot separate my thoughts on my own mortality from that of my younger brother. I try, but our lives are too intertwined. I sat down with him for lunch one day and we talked. For the first time in our lives, we really talked.
Geoffrey is 29. He is living and dying every day with kidney failure. In his short existence, his experiences have made him an old man in many ways, and at the same time kept him extremely young. Faced with his impending demise, he has had to make choices to create a more complete life as quickly as possible. Geoffrey’s only true legacy is his six-year-old daughter.
“If it wasn’t for Jessika, I wouldn’t be here,” he said, “Every day I have to face the fact that I’m on borrowed time.”
What can he really offer to our memories of him? How will his daughter get to know him? How will I remember him? He has made youthful mistakes, but has not had enough distance from them to be redeemed and forgotten.
His drug addictions and abusive behavior are the last things I want to remember him for. He obsesses over forgiveness and redemption constantly. He yearns for it.
“The last thing I want you to remember me for is what I did, and how I treated you back then,” he said, “I want there to be more of me for Jessika to know.”
All he can really do is create every day with life and vigor. Life has given him a chance to create a new life, and in her birth, he was reborn. His past is still very much a part of his coarse personality, but it becomes less important with each passing day. With each passing day, he gets closer to becoming a memory. We all do, really, but Geoff has always had to do things faster, to live life faster and harder. In the end, is it really what we have done or the individuals we have become along the way that matters most?
Jessika does not know the Geoffrey who stole family heirlooms, and violently robbed people to sustain his crack addiction. Does she really need to? It was a part of his personal journey. He will carry that to the end. There is no reason why I, my family or Jessika should. The hurt he caused others pales in comparison to the guilt he has endured and the lessons he has learned. When I ask him what he really wants to take with him, he responds simply, “Love.”
“Everything before Jessika was fear and hate. I hated myself. I want to be remembered for trying my best, for how far I’ve come, and for loving her.”
When he was 26, Geoffrey decided to go back to school to study electro-mechanics — to make something out of the rest of his days, and to provide for Jessika. School was to start the day after he underwent a surgery to fight the infection in the tube in his stomach. He forgets – or tries to forget – his health and his personal limitations. He gets these ideas in his head that he can smoke, drink, work, study, and live like any healthy twenty-something-year-old. And he expects himself to. When his health fails to live up to his expectations, as it inevitably does, he spins into depression and self-destruction. It reminds him that he is dying, and he gives up.
“I need to distract myself with things. I want to go to school, I wish I could work,” he says, “I don’t want to have to deal with myself and my illness. I think too much about dying, it is depressing.”
His reality becomes too much and the crack and methamphetamine whisper sweet nothings in his ears. Sometimes when life seems too heavy, Geoff forgets about what is important. Quick to anger, I am starting to realize that I cannot judge him for it. My anger and disappointment only feeds his guilt. He carries enough of his own anger and disappointment. I am not the one who is dying. Not today.
A few months ago, just two weeks before his 29th birthday in mid-May, Geoff had been on a real clean streak and the Universe recognized it as genuine. After 10 years on dialysis, he received a kidney transplant – and not a moment too soon. The kidney took almost immediately. The doctors called it a miracle and sent him home ‘a healthy man’.
About a month later, the complications started. Whatever caused his initial kidney failure began attacking his new friend. The doctors are baffled. He is crushed. But this time, instead of turning to his chemical consolations, he has held tight to what matters most to him –family, love, and spiritual fulfillment.
He no longer asks for forgiveness, but recognizes that he has grown, that he has learned, that he is full of love. I am so proud of how far he has come, and that is how I will choose to remember him whether it is his time to go or not.
My friend Richard is a father of five. In 2000, he suffered a massive stroke that left him with aphasia, the loss of the ability to speak or understand spoken or written language, apraxia, a disorder characterized by an inability to perform purposeful movements, and partial paralysis. What he was left with really was his sense of humor.
Stuck inside of himself, he can no longer communicate his deepest thoughts, and is often frustrated by his lack of ability to express himself to others. He loves to laugh. He laughs when he finds himself unable to say what he wants to, he laughs when family members fuss about his health, he laughs and shrugs his shoulders when the subject of life and death comes up.
Rick has lived a life rich with experience. When the end does approach, he will have lived shorter than some, longer than others. He has raised and loved unconditionally five beautiful human beings. He has loved and honored his wife and best friend. And he continues to do so in the best way he can. His eyes have deep wrinkles, set in constant joy and laughter, and in his eyes is the story of a life without regret, of love not lost or wasted on fear, of joy, vigor, and of a youthful lust for life.
Richard’s attitude toward mortality makes his family uneasy and angry at times. But in the end, their uneasiness and fear will fade. How can it not? His memory is that of a wonderful father, a loving family man, and a beautiful painter, with an infectious laughter, and an incredible joie de vivre.
Some of us are immortalized in public memory with great accomplishments, or great works of art, or great injustices. Most of us do not necessarily make it to such immortal status. Our little piece of immortality rests in whatever small things we create in life and pass down through generations, such as memories, names, genetic traits, tiny tokens or family jewelry.
Some of us can afford to be immortalized in stone with a grand epitaph, others would prefer a cold grave not be our final place of rest and reflection. What seems to hold in people’s memories is not where we finally lay our heads but how we live, love and laugh as a sum whole. What matters most is how we face adversity, overcome hurdles, and whether we look death in the eyes and smile.
Oscar Wilde is rumored to have said on his death bed, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.”
This quotation sums up a unique outlook on life and humor in the face of death.
As for myself, sitting in a box of dusty plush toys, plucking mildewed books from a bookshelf to be sold off in a garage sale, sneezing, smiling, and reflecting, my head spins when I think about how I want to be remembered. The idea of dying does not scare me. I have seen death, I am OK with it.
As long as I live, love, run, dance, write, laugh and make lots of love, as much and as often as I can, then I am ready. If in the end I have eyes wrinkled with permanent smiles, I have done well. How would I want my memory to be preserved? I am still deciding who I am with each passing day.
I never wanted kids or a familial kind of legacy. I had planned to be a kind of spinster, an independent free-spirited woman with many lovers – at least that was until I met ‘the great-nephew’ you met at the beginning of this story. He totally ruined my plans. And as I grow old, perhaps there is a (small) part of me that wants someone to grow old next to and have young ones with to bask in their youthful exuberance.
I am reminded of an aunt who never married or had children. She was free and exciting, full of ideas and life. She was my idol until I last met her. She is lonely and a little mad. Her partners and fleeting lovers will not be there to hold her hand in the end. No children will cry for their loss and laugh in her memory. She is bound by no one, but nobody is bound to her. Suddenly I am aware of an immense lack of love in her life.
In the end, we are not alone. Not all of us. How I want to face my end and be remembered may change how I live my entire life. More than wanting people there who will cry for their loss, I want people to share joy in my memory, love me long after I have left them, share stories about shared experiences. I do not want my eulogy to be a sombre summary of the mundane things I have done, but a passion and adventure-filled story about a strong woman who loved life and loved family and friends without restraint.
I do not want a tombstone minimizing my life to a name, a date, a few words and a piece of rock. Cremate me. Use my ashes as fertilizer or throw them off a mountain top, whatever. Give my things away. You do not need them. Anything I have not already given you is unimportant. Read my stories and my poetry. Feel my blood running through your veins. In lieu of flowers, write my name when you see wet cement, write my name when you pee in the snow, or carve it into a tree “Andrea was here”. Because wherever you go, I will be there in your heart.
Perhaps I will be immortalized in my writing. One can only hope. But from where I am sitting, maybe that is not as important as my immediate memory, the memory that remains with the people who I love and those who love me. They may pass photographs, or video, kind or not so kind words and memories of me on to younger generations, but will their children, and their children’s children, know me?
It is bittersweet to think that you achieve so much in a lifetime, only to fade into dying memories after just a few generations. At the same time, if I live wholeheartedly, maybe all that matters in the end is the experience, and how I lived. My memory from generation to generation is insignificant in the entire span of humanity’s existence, humanity’s existence is but a blip in Earth’s existence, Earth’s existence is but a blip in the Universe’s existence and the Universe is always expanding.
As novelist and poet Charles Bukowski so aptly expressed, “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”
Andrea Sheldon is a writer and visual artist living with chronic illness. She is currently working on a book of poetry and her first novel. Andrea lives in Sydney, Australia, with her little wolf pack, where they don’t frequent the beach as much as they should. You can find fragments of her on Instagram and Twitter.