There’s a saying, a version of which is attributed to David Eagleman, that details three death points for humans. The first is when the body dies. The second is when the last person who knew you dies. The third is when your name is spoken for the last time.
When I consider this as it applies to my dad, I wonder what he would have thought about it or if he had considered it, what exactly his thoughts were.
My dad was humble, modest and kind. I loved the heck out of him, respected him enough to disagree with his point of view and admired his tendency / passion / compulsion for learning. I tended to view myself as very different from him because there were things about him that I didn’t like. For example, he was always able to see the point of view of the less fortunate. Maybe I viewed that trait as a weakness, maybe I realized that those who roll over and crush people tend to acquire more things, maybe I really didn’t like this part of me. There were a number of things like this and over the last few years I’ve come to terms with the possibility that I just didn’t like that I had them too. I wanted, as my dad did for me, more than he had and to become many of the things that he didn’t, either through his circumstances or by his choice. It struck me that by becoming all the things he wasn’t it would be a good way to ensure that I didn’t live the same life.
Silly isn’t it? I wasn’t going to live the same life as him because he and my mom saw to it that I was given opportunities that he didn’t have. Moving to Canada, being raised as a socially tolerant liberal and getting the chance to attend university ensured that he and I would not live the same life. Plus, it was 30 years later and the world had changed enormously in the three decades between his birth and mine.
That is a big part of his legacy, his children may be like him, but they were not going to be the same as him. Whatever good we do, it is in large part due to his efforts to raise us and to lift our experiences into the realm of the things he never got to do.
Something that I hadn’t consider as being a possibility was the impact that my father had on people. During his wake, an event that I maintain he would have really enjoyed because all his friends were there, with lots of great food, drink and merriment, was a comment that an old neighbor made to me and my brother.
George lived across the street from my parents and was an unstoppable old Scot. A few heart attacks, a number of surgeries and various health issues associated for living fully couldn’t take him down. His doctors didn’t like that he just kept doing whatever it was he wanted but they were powerless to stop him. He didn’t play it safe, ever. 100%, all out, always was what he did. My dad liked him both because he was a decent and interesting man and also because he didn’t take short cuts and thrived on work hard.
George approached us at the wake and said “your father was a great man, he never said a bad thing about anyone.” I thanked him for saying that and muttered some other stuff that I cannot remember. The comment floored me because, while I had countless times heard my see the other side of everything and not just giving people the benefit of the doubt, but actually creating that doubt out of what I imagined was thin air, I had never considered that he was doing it because that was who he was. I always figured it was him being a good parent trying to instill in his children a rule of life that makes living with other people easier and more collaborative.
About a year ago I met another person who I did not know my dad had met. When she found out who I was, she told me that she had met my dad once and had really enjoyed it because he was kind and interesting, and that he had a great sense of humor, with a shameless roaring laugh. Hearing that made me happy, and I considered it a gift, one that I shared with my mom.
Now, as the time rolls on, it has been more than three years since he died, I’m starting to get a handle on what his legacy means to me. I am a lot like my dad, in many of the good ways and some of the ways I once believed were bad. I’m a little more passionate and a lot more dogmatic and single-minded at times. I enjoy learning and always have. I love laughing and can be enthusiastically joyful, a lot of the time.
But when I perceive a lack of fairness, it hurts me and I want to lash out and crush those who are slighting others. And I know this part isn’t working for me and has never. It isn’t helpful because it manufactures a sense that someone is wrong. My dad was able to identify that things were not right, but he was also able to understand that there was a good reason why someone would treat others unfairly. It wasn’t acceptable to do nothing about it, but crushing out of existence the perceived wrong doer wasn’t his way. And I have no problem admitting that I was wrong to view his approach as a weakness. It’s a strength to be able to allow people to be who they are and to try and work with them to change a situation from win:lose to win:win. He understood the important of other people and made the effort to get along with them.
This is a part of his legacy that I am going to try to genuinely emulate. Not just to keep my dads alive, but to keep alive the legacy piece of everyone who came before me who made this their way.