Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Writing My Own Obituary. What is my Legacy?

My life: slightly off-kilter but focused on my sons.

Most of my high school years are now a blur.  I don't remember the facts I memorized or the even the names of all my teachers.  However, I can't always remember my own sons' names in time to yell the correct one.  I do remember some very poignant discussions. I was an honor student but the lasting memories have nothing to do with what would now be on the Achievement Tests.

One assignment I do remember involved writing our own obituary.  A very morbid and, at first glance, inappropriate topic for high school underclassmen.  For teenagers,  facing their own mortality is earth shattering.  At that age we can't see past the next big social event or test.  Trying to picture our whole life is next to impossible.   With the guidance of an excellent teacher, I did.  After talking to former classmates, I think this was during 9th grade Oral English with Mr. Thom Stanley. 

I have no idea what I actually wrote but the assignment helped me to understand what makes me tick and how I want to live my life.  More importantly, it made me think about my impact on others.  Alfred Nobel unintentionally faced his legacy several years prior to his actual death.  A mistaken report of his death led a French newspaper to publish the obituary of Mr. Nobel and condemn him for his invention of dynamite.  The newspaper saw only the destruction caused by Mr. Nobel's invention.  In reality, he was inspired to create a way to stabilize the highly volatile nitroglycerin after a factory explosion killed five people including his younger brother.  Mr. Nobel wanted to save lives, not destroy them.  In response to the devastating realization of how people viewed his life's work, Mr. Nobel left the bulk of his wealth to the establishment of the Nobel Prizes.(1)   Now people remember him for the endowment that celebrates awards to those who help humanity.

How will I be remembered?  I have no illusions or desire for the world at large to note my life and mourn my death.  Fame has never been of interest to me.  I do want to have an impact on people.  During my senior year in high school, we read "Self-Reliance" and "The Divinity School Address" by Ralph Waldo Emerson in a class called Philosophy and Literature. We also read a poem often mis-attributed to Emerson called "Success".

To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest citizens and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give of one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded.

 These three writings have impacted my life and guided me through difficulties more than all of the facts that were ever drilled into my brain.  The last line of "Success" helped me keep a healthy perspective.  To know that at least one person's life was better because I lived, was my mantra.  I have never had a high powered job where I have an impact on multitudes.  I live my life on a much smaller scale. 

My obituary will not be published in newspapers around the world or across the country or even throughout the state.  The news stations will not even mention my death in their broadcasts.  If they do, it would mean that I died a violent, unnatural death or I had caused harm to people.  That is not the legacy I want.

I want to be truly mourned by the people whose lives I touched.  My family. My neighbors.  My friends.  The students I had taught throughout the years.  I want them to say, "Mrs. Payne died.  I remember how she helped me to...".  "Kristan's writings helped me ..." or "Her jewelry and rosaries were beautiful." "I will miss her."  Those are the things I want said when I die

My true legacy consists of three sons who are growing into caring, independent, productive men.  Raising them has not been easy.  Our lives have not been blessed with wealth or perfect health.  We have faced job losses, surgeries, relocation and  developmental disabilities.  My oldest two are now in high school and I know that if I die today, they would be able to survive.  My youngest is just 9 years old and still needs my guidance.  Everyday I notice his growing independence and self-reliance.  This morning he told me it was time to stop typing and take them to school. 

1. Alfred Bernhard Nobel. (2013). The Biography Channel website. Retrieved 07:02, Apr 03, 2013, from