I have been a little bit preoccupied by death in this last year. This past year I lost my brother. One of my key employees and friends’ boyfriend is in his final stages of cancer. A parent of one of my gymnasts lost a great friend. All this while a family friend fights for his own survival.
The topic of death terrifies most of us. Facing our own mortality is neither a pleasant thought, nor is it one that most of us would choose to entertain on a daily basis. Even as I type the word “death,” I am suddenly reminded of the absolute truth that all of us will die, including myself and all of those whom I love — or not.
With last week’s passing of Westboro’s infamous Fred Phelps, I was reminded once again that death comes for us all. It matters not how we live our lives, for death is an immutable event and one of life’s few universal commonalities, though the chosen trajectories of each life may dictate the timing of our day of ultimate atonement.
While some have chosen to celebrate the passing of a man whose life was dedicated to shaming others for their choices and most often doing so during times of mourning, others, such as famed internet persona George Takei, have taken a different path — offering a poignant, yet unexpected commentary, considering Takei’s own membership within Phelps’ primary target group:
I take no solace or joy in this man’s passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding “God Hates Freds” signs, tempting as it may be.
He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.
As for me, this reminder of death’s certainty has provoked me to embark on a strange task: to write my own obituary. While I am no closer to death than any other healthy, nearly 50 year old male, I felt this was a good time not only to reflect upon my life to date, but more importantly, to make reasonable predictions for where my life will be later, so that I might have a document to hold me accountable to the life I want others to know me for, once I truly am gone. I do not plan on writing it like one would write a life history, but more as a list of the qualities I want to be remembered for…
Lessons from the early years
While I’m sure friends of mine from childhood might remember me differently, what I want to be remembered for most from my younger years is that I had creativity and initiative. Coming from a single parent family (it was my MOM, my brother and I) that was immersed in poverty through my adolescent years, I learned creativity. When one is poor, having more intentions than means with which to carry out those intentions, one becomes inventive. The imagination soars when enough limits are applied, forcing us to think beyond the painfully obvious.
That creativity extended to relationships as well. In a family where poverty extended beyond financial exigency into a sustained emotional vacuum, I learned early on that if I wanted immaterial wealth such as friendship, respect and even love, I had to take initiative to seek it out myself, since it wasn’t going to randomly perch itself at my doorstep. Through the painful process of trial and error, I learned that, to obtain these things, I had to give them — generously, sincerely and often.
Lessons from early adulthood
Coming out of poverty and striking out on my own as a young man, I wanted to live a life free from the shackles of being poor, whether literally or in spirit, and as a result, I developed a rabid sense of ambition. I put myself through college and I was determined that my life was going to eclipse my own parents life in terms of what I thought was success. While trying to avoid the mistakes my parents made, I became ignorant to the ones I was really making, even though they were painfully clear to those around me.
My job as a gymnastics coach became my life, and I gave all to this sense of ambition at the expense of time spent with my two children. Fortunately, I met the love of my life when we were pretty young , A person who succeeded in pulling this downward spiral to a screeching halt, against my will. It would not be until later when I realized the significance of her act of selfless and unconditional love. Only after several years of putting up with my childish antics would I come to the conclusion that the reason my partner stayed with me was because of her selflessness, hope and undying love.
Once I realized this, ambition took on a new meaning for me. Nearing the end of my 30s, I set out to redefine how I saw myself. Say what you will about Sigmund Freud, but one of his quotes defined the decade that would follow:
How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved!
How bold, indeed. Before I knew it, I was the father of 2, the owner of not one, but two gymnastics clubs. I worked tirelessly to set a strong example for everyone around me: wife, extended family, children, friends, etc. Often, I had to worked CRAZY 18 hour days to make ends meet, and still, we were again immersed in near abject poverty, but this time, with a stark difference.
We were happy.
The times when life’s challenges were at their most extreme are the ones I remember most fondly. While we didn’t have cable or satellite television, we read more books, spent time outside, played cards and board games with each other, or raced laundry baskets up and down the hallway of our house. Around this time, I recall re-reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and a quote from early within its pages struck me:
One time, as a child, in a power failure, his mother had found and lit a last candle and there had been a brief hour of rediscovery, of such illumination that space lost its vast dimensions and drew comfortably around them, and they, mother and son, alone, transformed, hoping that the power might not come on again too soon…
My newly redefined ambition not only sparked, but engulfed me in a blaze of desire to become the best father and husband I could be.
Lessons from the life left in me that has not yet passed
I’d like to believe that I’m not exactly middle-aged yet, or at least, the Peter Pan archetype prevalent in my personality tells me I’m not. In fact, my kids still jokingly buy me anniversary cards every year to celebrate yet another anniversary of my 29th birthday.
However, that doesn’t mean I can’t predict what my obituary should say about this time in my life. My personal goal is now to mentally write an “obituary” for myself from others’ perspectives. The question I ask myself now is,
“What will people most remember me for, during this time in my life?”
Fred Phelps may be gone, but the effects from his life will last a long time, despite our best efforts to forget. Whatever we plant today through our actions will have a ripple effect for generations to come.
I’d like people to remember me as a dreamer, a true friend, one who loved and could be loved. All I really want to know is that I made a difference.
How about you? What might people say about you if you were to die tomorrow?
Better yet, what do you want them to say?
Now that you have that thought planted firmly in your mind, take charge of your own story.
Live your life’s story by writing it through the actions by which you want to be remembered.