Eight Things Two
Deaths Lives Taught Me
This has been a year of tremendous loss. I lost my father and my aunt within a few months of each other. I could write a lot about what that’s done to me psychologically, but I’m choosing to focus on the lessons these two important people taught me.
- Be kind. Quiet kindness is always remembered by those around you. My father probably could have been voted most likely to pick you up from the airport. He did favors for people with a kind grace and humility that almost made you think you were doing him the favor by asking him. My aunt was an active member of her church who served as a member of the choir, tutored English to immigrants, and helped out the homeless in her community. They taught me that being there for others brings our lives meaning.
- Be a traveler. Whether you choose to go to exotic places as my aunt did in her career as a travel agent, or travel to visit family, don’t be afraid to leave your neighborhood. My father’s presence at family graduations, marriages, and other events was important, but my aunt’s efforts to be there for her brother’s family was extraordinary. My father was super cheap, but he would not shirk a plane ticket if it meant seeing his children. They both taught me that money spent tin pursuit of experience is well worth the expense.
- Be creative. My father had put aside his art for many years, but after retiring, he developed his own graphic art technique and joined my mother, also an artist, in actively seeking art groups, organizations, and galleries to associate with. My aunt was a member of Sweet Adelines for many years, sewing her own costumes, and singing on a real stage with sparkly shoes. She was also a choir member at her church from a very young age. My aunt had also painted, and her work hung prominently in her home. These passions gave them places to go, people to socialize with, and something meaningful in their lives.
- Have a moral compass. People knew where my father was coming from, but he hardly ever got into a discussion about religion. My father and aunt were quietly religious. He attended church and took his kids to Sunday school every week. Not only a member of the choir, she was also a deacon and a decision maker in her church, helping to institute plans to save it. They taught me to lead by example, that evangelism is about showing not telling.
- Be active. My father was a runner. He ran half-marathons and joked as he aged that of course he often won as there wasn’t anyone else running in his age group in the smaller races. Joking aside, running availed him the opportunity to run and hang out with people of all ages and from all walks of life. My aunt played tennis for many years. She swam. She wore sneakers or tennis shoes so she could walk long distances. After having heart surgery in late middle age my aunt was asked to do physical therapy. She went like clockwork, ran the treadmill, lifted weights, did whatever the therapist asked of her to do. I don’t have to tell you that her recovery was remarkable. Like her mother before her, she walked block after block in her own neighborhood even as she moved into her seventies and eighties. It’s not just about longevity or being prescriptive. Exercise can be enjoyable for its own sake.
- Write letters and personal cards. My father wrote up funny, personal rhymes; he printed the rhymes up in cards with pictures of the birthday person and sent them electronically and through snail mail. My aunt taught me to always read a card first, that no present is as valuable as knowing who signed the card. You can bet we read one of Dad’s homemade cards at his funeral.
- Trace your roots and share them with your family. In my father’s later years, he was looking through his family tree, tracing his ancestry through those genetic testing programs that are so popular these days. My aunt used to take out tin boxes of family photographs, show me how much my Dad looked like my brother, tried to write the names on the backs of photographs for posterity. Frankly the joy of hearing those family stories told by my father and my aunt far outweighs the value of any information they imparted to me.
- Be a minimalist. While I love history, I say get rid of junk while you can… there’s nothing sadder than going through a deceased’s personal items, but it can be extraordinarily sad if the items themselves are sad. While some stuff should be kept for obvious reasons: photographs, art, choice mementos from trips, letters, an item of your signature costume jewelry—items like that in small quantities can be an absolute pleasure for your children or nieces and nephews to remember you—other items are just a chore. Old receipts, old clothes you haven’t worn since 1973 (and maybe not even then), broken things. And, again, their value often goes down with their quantity. I love books, but working in the library, I’ve witnessed people desperately trying to unload basements full of old, musty books.
Yes, I’ve dealt with a lot of grief this year. I’ve seen how my father and my aunt impacted the world around them. I’ve seen how my family can pull together and celebrate the lives of those we love. And I’ve felt inspired to live my life a little more fully.