At my last book club meeting, we discussed When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi. It’s the memoir of a resident doctor in his mid-30’s who explores the dance between medicine and philosophy against the backdrop of mortality and meaning. It was a book he started after his terminal diagnosis of lung cancer and finished shortly before he died. I enjoyed this thought-provoking, reflective piece of literature, which was at times written at arms-length from the emotional baggage of impending death. It can be refreshing to talk about death that way – as in what can we learn from this thing we don’t know a whole lot about? While sitting in an intimate circle, the fireplace casting warmth, the 7 of us book club members spent a significant part of the evening on legacy.
I think about death and legacy a lot. I think this is largely because my mom passed away just before her 56th birthday. In fact, 9 years to this week, she was admitted to the hospital (for the second to last time). During our visit with her, my mom sat up in bed and told my brother and I she was sorry she wasn’t ‘leaving much’ for us. I’m sure we mumbled some reassuring words about how that wasn’t true but I honestly don’t remember the conversation going past that. Talking about her inevitable death made us uncomfortable even as the curtain of denial slowly slipped off the truth we needed to face.
What I would say to her now is that what she left us continues to show itself day after day, year after year. Her legacy lives on in the way I love my children, in the way our family continues to gather in good times and bad, in the way we support the hungry, in the way I dance around the kitchen. I see her in all those moments and more. While my memories of her come in snapshots and I now have to think really hard to remember her movements and the sound of her voice, what has never dulled are the intangible things.
Legacy and Writing
Legacy is also heavy on my mind because as a writer, I consider my work to be my literary footprint. The thing that will outlast me. Some people write their memoirs solely for that reason, and I encourage it in the classes I teach. Our articulated thoughts and ideas, and the way we affect one another, are all part of what we leave behind.
Thinking about our mortality is not morbid – it’s motivating. Admittedly, it’s not easy for most of us, but it truly can guide us to living our most meaningful lives. Throughout his book, Dr. Kalanithi shared how the decisions he made at each stage of his illness were all weighed against what was most meaningful to him at that time. Of course, he knew his life would be much shorter than what a healthy man his age could expect so there were probably a lot of things he threw out the window. When we don’t know how long we have to live, but can assume it’s a fair chunk of time, our options look different.
But maybe it’s not just about how long we have to live. Maybe it’s about how WIDE we want to. I’ve written before about wanting to live a wide life, not just a long one. These kinds of thoughts have always steered me toward a deeper satisfaction than anything I have ever chased mindlessly.
As a woman, a mother, entering her 40’s in just a few months, the lenses with which I see this world are changing a little. I’m excited by this shift. It’s helping me consider my legacy, define my values and fine-tune my goals. I’m embracing all of it and looking forward to the gems I will find along the way. Stick around – I’ll share more about my road to 40 as I tap my happy feet toward this new decade!
What is something you hope will be part of the legacy you leave behind? I’d love to hear in the comments below!