Fair warning, folks, this post will probably seem a little maudlin and morbid. I promise it’ll be worth it in the end. Well, at least I’ll try to make it worth it in the end.
On Saturday morning, my paternal grandmother, Eleanor, passed away a few weeks shy of her 93rd birthday. Today marks the first anniversary of the passing of a dear friend. I have a friend who is currently staring down a terminal illness. When faced with these sorts of things, you can’t help but start thinking about your own mortality.
At a certain age, we realize that there will come a day when the people nearest and dearest to our hearts just won’t be around any more. At first, it’s a scary thought. One day they’re there, the next they’re not. That train of thought inevitably leads you to the station where you realize that you, too, will someday die (unless you’re immortal at which point this discussion hardly seems relevant). For some people, the idea of death is frightening. In some cultures, death leads to a judgment of the sort of life one lived. For others, it’s simply the end and there’s nothing beyond. In any event, it’s not necessarily the most pleasant of thoughts for most people.
Last year, a few friends and I made a last-minute trip down to Florida to have one last visit with the aforementioned dear friend, Liana. I remember feeling humbled as I spoke with her and saw her talk with people. For her, death was, as Gandalf eloquently put it, “just another journey.” It wasn’t “good-bye” with her. It was, “See you around.” After we left her, I remember saying to myself that when my time comes, I want to take it with such grace.
My immediate family and I live a few hundred miles away from where my dad grew up and my grandmother spent her life. Every year for Christmas, we’d make the drive up to see her and that side of the family. I remember the phone calls between my father and her as they traded dirty jokes. She had a wicked sense of humor that I didn’t fully appreciate until I was old enough to get the jokes. We still have the anatomically correct Adam and Eve toothbrushes she gave my parents somewhere in the house. This past Christmas, there was the sense that it was the last time we’d all be together. She was frail and tired. Still, she made an effort to be present with us. I’ll always be grateful for that.
When we got the news on Saturday, it wasn’t unexpected. Her health had been fading the past few months. Yes, it was sad, but we had decades of memories to look back on fondly. That’s when I started thinking about legacies and what happens when those we love depart. How do you deal?
Oddly enough, I go back to Tolkien for this. Well, Tolkien as interpreted by Peter Jackson. Sure, Gandalf’s pep talk to Pippin about death is all well and good, but it’s Theoden’s dying words on the battlefield that really stick with me: “You have to let me go. I go to my fathers, in whose mighty company I shall not now feel ashamed.” See? Those are some pretty awesome final words. They also remind me of one of my new favorite television obsessions, “Vikings.” Before almost every big battle, some older guy reminds the fighters not to fear death but to embrace it as they will join their fellows in Valhalla. That’s kind of an awesome outlook.
The thing I’ve decided about death is not to worry about it. It will come for me some day. There’s no sense in worrying about the inevitable. The best I can do until then is to live a life for which my gods will be proud to receive me at the end. When I go, I don’t want sorrow. I want people to remember me fondly and laugh about the shenanigans we used to get into. When the end comes, I want to know that I’ve touched lives and left behind beauty and a crap ton of nerd references.
Thank you for the memories, Grandma. I hope your journey was peaceful and that I’ll be seeing you again someday. My friends appreciate the sense of humor I inherited. Liana, I am grateful to have known you and to have shared laughter and mini-Salisbury steaks (those things were tasty). Until our next meeting, I’ll be here just doing what I do because I can think of no better tribute to those who have gone before than to live well and live honestly.