What is a legacy? It is what we leave behind, something that shows we were here? We walk the Earth for however long we are alive. In our wake are the people we have touched in our life, what we have built, worked for, and the impact we made on others.
Most of us are not Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King. Yet, we each grow a legacy by what we do, those we touch, what we stand for, how we use our time, skills and resources, and importantly, how our fingerprints live on.
When we die, people talk about what we did and the newspaper prints something resembling who we might have been. That is not really our legacy, it is part of it, but that’s our life condensed into a few short paragraphs.
Most people will not endow a scholarship program or build a hospital wing. We leave our assets to family and maybe make some donations. But an important part of our legacy is more personal and runs through the people that somehow crossed our path.
When does our legacy start? Is it when we are born, when we become an adult, when we accumulate assets, or as we leave those fingerprints? Legacy often has nothing to do with money. A legacy might be the intersection of our life and someone else’s, a bullseye of sorts.
I had a great aunt, who when she died, there were less than a handful who really noticed. I always felt saddened by that. When they put her in the ground, you could count on one hand the attendees. She had a son, four grandsons, a brother and a few distant relatives. That was the extent of her world. Her husband died unexpectedly and left her with nothing. She never worked a day in her life and knew few people outside of her family. I spent time around her growing up as she was living with my grandparents. After a big fracture in our family, I lost track of her. It was not that she taught me a lot in life, or shared many stories that enriched me, but she did spend time with me and I appreciated her gentleness. That was her legacy. Forty years after she passed, I still remember it.
When my stepfather died a little more than two years ago, I thought I understood his legacy, but I really only understood part of it. He was kind and saw the best in people, and he helped more people than I knew. I learned a lot from knowing him in life, but I might have learned more from him after he passed away. His legacy was much more than what you saw; it was the countless ripples that migrated from the center, which went on and on. These ripples continued long after his death.
In the past two years I have thought a lot about life. Is a legacy what we set out to build, or is it a product of what we do and who we are? Yes. I guess it is all of that.
As Father’s Day is approaching, it is a reminder to me, not so much of loss, but of gain. No one can promise forever, just to the horizon; nothing is guaranteed past that. We hang on, crouch down, close our mouths to keep the bugs out, and scream like the wildest roller coaster ride ever.
What we are left with is the exhilaration and slight tremor in the pit of our stomach from the ride. And what a ride it was. A legacy is feeling we were part of something special and unique. And the memories are forever.
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” – Dr. Seuss