Life, Meaning, Legacy, Exit, Thanks (Regrets or Lack Thereof)

Posted on July 11, 2014


My mother-in-law died last week.  Though her heart condition was known, her death was sudden and unexpected as she had not been ill and had been enjoying life right up to her final moments.  She was 86, but did not seem that old as her demeanor and way of interacting with life was about the same for the 30+ years that I knew her.  She is survived by six of her seven children (five of whom are in happy, long-term first marriages), eleven grandchildren, and one great grandchild.  Services are planned for this weekend.  As far as I know, all of her descendants will be there.

Over the holiday weekend, my wife and I were staying out at our timeshare in a more rural area of northeast[1] San Diego County.  I went for an early morning run back into those deserty hills.  Alan Parsons was singing “Day After Day (The Show Must Go On)” through my ipod, and I was reflecting upon the way we find meaning in our lives.  For me, meaning ultimately comes from our relationships and the way we attach to the important people in our lives (if this were not so, I would be in a different line of work).  Sometimes through my therapy practice, I have met clients who are coping with the existential concern of “what is my life about?” or “is this all my life is about?”  We explore together where they find meaning in life.  There can be a sense of satisfaction in our careers and our work, but it seems a frightening prospect if that is the sole source of our meaning and worth.  What if something should happen with my work?  Who am I then?  I am reminded of the old cliché that says, “No one on his/her deathbed ever says, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”  Human beings are made for relationships.  We do very poorly in isolation and are quite distressed when our primary relationships are not going well.

Let’s talk about our legacy.  The greatest gift Barbara gave to me was that she gave birth to and raised the delightful woman who has been my life partner for the last 30 years.  In my office at home, I have a framed Successories poster that reads, “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove…but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”  Our greatest legacy is played out in our closest relationships.  I cannot change the world, but I can try to be a blessing to those to whom I am closest.  As Theodore Hesburgh observed, “The most important thing a father can do for his children is love their mother.”  For my Christian readers, I would point out that Jesus commanded us to love one another.  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  The mark of the Christian is supposed to be that we are loving to each other.  This is the most difficult and most important to carry out with those closest to us.  To cite a more secular source, the musical Rent asserted that you should “measure your life in love.”  Or as Emily Saliers suggested, “If we ever leave a legacy, it’s that we loved each other well.”

Previously, I was a counselor at San Diego Hospice (which sadly is no more).  I have oft observed that there is not an easy way out of this life and into the next.  To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, which is really good, but dying really sucks.  We have precious little control over the number of our days or our manner of exit.[2]  So this was what happened to my mother-in-law.  At the time of her death, she was on the speaker phone with my wife, her sister, brother-in-law, and nephew.  She was happy and looking forward to a family cruise at the end of the month.  Her speech became briefly garbled and then she was unresponsive.  They called her son who lives nearby who called paramedics and performed chest compression until they arrived.  The family is reeling from the sudden loss of their matriarch (I mean that in a positive sense).  For Barbara, I rather envy her the exit strategy.  Happy, talking with your kids and grandchild; having things you were still looking forward to, but really no unfinished business; ostensibly little or no suffering.  My brother-in-law forwarded a picture to the family that was taken the day before her death in which she is smiling with a fancy waffle breakfast in front of her.  Not a bad finish.  “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

When my wife and I bought are first condo (back before we had kids), we had a running joke that the second bedroom would be Nick’s room, so named for my best friend.  When we moved in, Nick showed up with a little plaque for the door that said “Nick’s room.”  He did not live with us, but sometimes came to visit on the weekend.  On one of those visits, I had been being kind of pissy to Carol at the end which made things uncomfortable.  When Nick left, he said in an apathetic tone, “Thanks, Scott.  I had a good time.”  It became sort of a one liner we delivered to each other after we got together.  “Thanks, I had a good time.”  It was always delivered in a flat tone.  I usually modeled my delivery as a cross between Eeyore and Lee Marvin (even though I don’t have that deep a speaking voice).  We don’t know how long we have.  At what point God calls me home, I want to go on record as saying, “Thanks. I had a good time.”  A friend recently sent me a Facebook message out of the blue asking if I had it to do over again, what career would I choose.  I responded that I would not change anything.  Had I made different choices, my life would have come out differently.  For example, had I not gone into banking right out of college, I would not have met my wife.  There are certainly individual incidents in my life that I wish I had handled differently, but no regrets on the major life decision.  Whatever happens from here, thanks, I had a good time.


[1] I realize that “north” and “east” are not generally associated with San Diego.

[2] Suicide leaves a terrible legacy.  I have counseled the survivors, and it is devastating.  Don’t even go there.