By Nancy A. Shobe
As a journalist, I am paid to ask questions that stop people in their tracks. It’s what turns an article from good to great.
Over the years, I have spoken with CEOs, priests, speechwriters for U.S. Presidents, community leaders, and homeless women. Trust me. They all have their stories, well-rehearsed wordplays of their lives. I can tell when I am getting that story because of their monotonous intonation, the glazing over of their eyes. Even they’ve become bored with their own stories.
It is at these moments that I ask, “What do you want your legacy to be?”
“My legacy?” the interviewee almost always echoes. Then, silence. And, then, more silence.
Once I was interviewing a priest. When I asked about his legacy, he held up his hand and said, “Stop the interview. I need to ponder your question.” I sat in silence for twenty minutes until he began, again, this time relating transformational moments of his life.
Last year I spent a month and a half at the hospice bedside of my mother. Previously healthy, a sudden onset of symptoms led to her diagnosis of terminal cancer. A transfer directly from the hospital to hospice resulted in Mom quickly having to process her imminent death.
As Mom reflected on her life, she didn’t talk about her career, her years of volunteerism, the places she traveled, and the houses where she had lived—in fact, she didn’t talk about the black-and-white facts of her life at all, the ones obituaries highlight.
Mom spoke about her children, her friends, and her husband, my father. She relayed family stories about her mother’s life.
When my daughter and granddaughter were visiting hospice to say goodbye, Mom held the hand of her two-year-old great-granddaughter and said, “You’re a very sweet young girl and will do well in your life.”
As they walked out of the room, Mom turned to me and said, “I’ll be nothing but a name to her,” her voice trailed off, “if even that.”
Mom spoke of her dreams for her five children and ten grandchildren, how she longed for each to excel in the happy pursuit of individual purpose. She prophesied how her eldest grandson would go into the business of medicine and not the practice of it. She suggested that her second eldest granddaughter would expand her view of design and create something new and different. She even proposed that I would get remarried and named the type of man.
A guitarist walked into Mom’s hospice room at one point to play songs. When he strummed “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the musical Carousel, Mom turned to her granddaughter, my daughter, who had recently separated from her husband. “I’m dedicating this song to you,” Mom said, “to give you the strength to carry on.”
Mom’s legacy was about people: her belief in them and compassion for them, and her faith in them to reach their highest potential.
I asked Mom if she would write her obituary with me. I decided with her input, the facts would be accurate. It wasn’t easy to ask Mom to fill in “the dash” between the dates of her birth and her death.
I penned the first draft. It was a typical obituary in that it highlighted the mandatory snippets of factual information. I added in some personal sentiment and humor like “she was beloved for her vivacity, strength of character, continual search for intellectual pursuits and her ability to organize anything or anyone.”
My voice broke and sputtered as I read the draft to Mom. Always stoic, Mom listened like a professional editor—verifying facts, suggesting a different word or two…even three. We bickered a bit about how to write one sentence. When it finally sounded right, we both laughed. Mom was an excellent writer, only her stories were imprisoned in bankers’ boxes in her closet.
Despite my journalistic experience, I never asked Mom the one question that would have most freed her truth: “Mom, what do you hope your legacy will be?” I don’t know why I didn’t ask. How I wish today that I had her legacy in her own words instead of in the words of a standard obit.
There’s a movement afloat called “selfie” obits, where people are encouraged and taught to write their own obituaries. I’ve been pondering writing my own. I keep telling myself: It can’t be more painful than writing one for each of my parents.
I know writing my own obituary will help elucidate my life purpose. But, I never begin the task. Why not?
Because I struggle with the answer to the question that I ask most of others: What do I want my legacy to be?
What I know is that my legacy isn’t about where I was born, or from which college I earned my degree, or the name of the corporation that started me along on my path. These facts are easily forgotten, in fact, mostly unknown by my family and friends even while I’m alive.
What do I hope my legacy will be?
My compassion? My inspiration? The times I have cheered on special needs children to cross the finish line, paid the tab for a stranger’s dinner, massaged lotion into a dying person’s hands and broke the amniotic sac for a struggling newborn kitten?
My humor? The times I have made people laugh when they were divorcing or deeply in pain?
My ability to give others a voice—like the time when I wrote several articles about the plight of homeless women?
Will I ever have the courage to write the inner depths of my heart and my life into my final words?
I hope so.
But, until then, I will carry on—fulfilling what will ultimately become my legacy.
Copyright Shobe 2016