When I die, I hope you remember my words.
I hope you form an unimpeachable anthology, augmented with sketches and director’s commentary and deleted scenes and bonus features. I hope I make the front page of Reddit and they declare it “Learn to be Happy Without Being Satisified Day” in Evansville, Indiana.
But, God as my witness on the day I hope to meet him, I never decided to be a writer. I don’t think it’s a prudent choice. I think, blessed with even an ounce of neurological well-being, people settle upon less lonely pursuits. Writing is so aggressively solitary that we’re often prone to celebrate luminaries of the craft for their pathological reclusiveness. I hope I never be that lonely to become that good, because I already miss too many people way too much – and it’s only going to get worse.
Our lives are loaded with an unfurling of a cast of characters that careen into and out of focus. They become our stories, and then form the backbone of our legacy, and yet they’re always leaving – taking our words with them and leaving us with lumps in our throat in their place.
I miss my family, strewn across this vast continent like volcanic ash. I miss my cops-and-robbers-playing neighborhood riff-raff, my high school clique and my college bros. I miss my one-night stands and my late-night coffee drinkers. I miss my home, my drinking buddies and my hopes and dreams from long ago. All have been replenished; none have been replaced. And with each ebb and flow, my spirit animal becomes less wolf and more amoeba.
This universe is too temporary for comfort. The brilliance of an autumn leaf, fraying radiantly in the crisp October sun, grips tenuously in its final, luminous days. With the whoosh of a trade wind, it sighs, releases, and hovers aimlessly before meandering down to a soft resting place near a pile of others who dared to last forever.
But beyond the leaf, the regal tree, a testament to unfettered endurance, will still age, wither and crack, if it’s spared from being cut down short of its useful life. Forests rise and fall from weather and fire, as do the grasses and sands beneath them. Rivers dry. Seas change their shape. Even the sun, long after you and I have gone, will transform to cosmic dust.
I hope I live to see it. I hope I live forever. The idea of death, the act of saying goodbye, the knowledge of so much lingering unfinished — because it all goes unfinished – breaks my transient heart. Some people reach peace with their eventual demise. I doubt I ever will. I fear and loath this more than death itself.
When I was young, I used to stir frantically at night, crying, as I would wind up my floppy, plush elephant and listen to it play, “You Are My Sunshine.” I’d imagine my mother clutching me lovingly in her arms, singing it to me, smiling. Then, as the elephant’s melody slowed its cadence, I would envision myself aging, my mother aging faster, and, as the elephant wheezed to a halt, I would foresee myself holding her frail figure in mine, crooning that same line to her as she slipped into an endless night.
Expecting our lives to neatly climax is the perpetual folly of youth. We are wrong. So many of our life’s myriad milestones – the first kiss from a lover’s lips, our first pump of the gas pedal, a carefree fling of our graduation cap, our first whiskey-face, loving with reckless abandon, a ginger walk down the aisle, landing our dream job and holding our precious newborns – can be checked off and wrapped up in life’s first act.
From that point on, the hellos fade and we become an endless parade of goodbyes. It’s an overwhelming emotional series of parting scenes between ourselves and every supporting player. The tectonics of life cause friends to drift apart slowly. You’re forced to find a “next” cat with which to snuggle. Your coworkers wish you “bon voyage” and bestow you with a watch. Your friends bid adieu, then expire without warning. You hold your mother in your arms as she draws her last slow breath. Father Time claims your father. You kiss your wife goodnight one last time.
But, before the finale … the agonizing, slow descent from vibrant, youthful beacon of society to incapacitated, immobile burden on it.
And, failing any sort of graceless descent into madness, we’ll be painfully aware of our growing inability to care for ourselves every step of the way and unable to do a goddamn thing about it.
You end up all alone, or, in an un-meditated supreme act of selfishness, you French Exit the party early and leave a trail of sorrow in your wake.
So much … so very, very much of our macro-existence is squandered as decaying cells charred into ash, buried under leaves or swallowed by the sea. And those decaying cells no longer have a say in how they’ll be remembered.
The world will not commit to memory the way we write our stories. Likely, they will remember us in a frame on the mantle and an obit in the Times as expensive as our estates will allow — ultimately written by someone who is not me in my case (and probably in yours, too).
There will be a eulogy ringing to the heavens yet only heard by a privileged, grieving few. Words we cannot write. Legacies we cannot control.
Long from now, before the seas rise and humanity falls, I hope my descendents will share stories about the way I lived. But, more than likely, their imperfect memories will craft tall tales from words that are not mine – if they tell my tales at all.
Perhaps if I write more. Perhaps if I write better. Perhaps if I die young, or arrange my own execution, sparing myself the long goodbye. Perhaps then I’ll be remembered more for who I am and less for who I’m thought to be.
I’ll cobble together a last, luxurious meal. I will fix up a caprese salad. I will soak up a rich bouillabaisse, and hand-make spaghetti, with a rustic red sauce of tomato, olive oil, basil, garlic, salt and pepper – life is complicated, sauce should not be. I’ll crack open a lobster tail and chow down on a medium-rare prime rib. For my dessert I’ll savor a tiramisu, a chocolate chip cookie, and finally a bittersweet bite of dark cacao. I’ll wash it all down with a bottle of Nero D’Avola. But I will have waited too long. Because I could be doing it now. I could be living as long as I’m alive. The greater the concentration of memories stacked atop moments, the longer my story will take to tell and the longer my life will seem.
When you wait, you roll the dice – with an ever-increasing chance of coming up snake-eyes. How you’re remembered isn’t your dice to roll — what matters is what you do, how you live, how much joy and meaning you smash into the sides of every waking second.
So when I say I hope when I die that people remember my words, I guess what I really mean is I hope when I die I didn’t let my best stories go unwritten.