Forgotten in Life, Remembered in Death
Artist: Pink Floyd
Track: The Great Gig in the Sky
This is an essay I’ve been working on last night, on the idea of legacy. It is the first draft, with minimal edits, and I think it reads better that way given the nature of the topic. Thank you for the overwhelmingly positive response to the previous long-form post.
There was a post on a subreddit called “Showerthoughts” that’s stayed with me through the sheer power of its absurdist reduction of human existence.
One week, a carton of milk in your fridge will have an expiry date that you won’t be around for.
Maybe postmodernist pithy isn’t your cup of coffee. How about a verse from Henry David Thoreau, used to great effect in Dead Poets Society?
"I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived."
The miscalculation here is the assumption that we will continue to live the lives we have now till we are ripe in age. Like a vintage wine, we assume that our bottled selves will be sheltered from the elements, preserved well in a cellar, and when finally opened, be alive with the flavors of our time in the sun. Ah, a fine vintage, no doubt. My friends, I am here to ask you—what if someone drops that bottle before it’s meant to be opened?
The thought sparked off the Great Resignation at the start of 2021 because people suddenly remembered that they didn’t have the luxury of dying in their old age. You could be going about your day, get symptoms of the flu, and before you know it, the full stop has been laid to the end of your sentence. You were going to write books, travel the world, and experience parallel existences through ayahuasca. Instead, you were working at a job where you were miserable, underappreciated, fungible, and underpaid. All for the illusion that you will be left alone in peace at 60 and you can finally, finally start to live.
But as we know, life isn’t fair—it’s random, uncaring, callous. A friend (and former colleague) of mine was taken too soon; just two weeks ago. She is survived by her mother, husband, and young children. There are two very specific reasons why this hurts more than it should.
First, it wasn’t COVID19; it was a vehicular accident. In the two years since the pandemic, our brains have evolved the coping mechanism for hearing bad news. We’ve seen horrifying pictures of people in India and around the world gasping for air in their final minutes, on a stretcher, outside a hospital, that wouldn’t take them in because there simply was no space.
But she passed away from a vehicular accident—something that the mind isn’t accustomed to or hoping to hear. There is a sheer degree of unfairness in that scenario: this isn’t a disease that one contracts because we’re all destined to breathe air at some point—it’s a case of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time. I grappled with chaos theory: had they driven a minute earlier or later, the sequence of events might have played out very differently. She might be here today. It didn’t feel fair.
The second reason why it hurts is that people seemed to have moved on. The gravity that a person, whom we knew, spoke to, and ate lunch with is no longer with us seems to be lost. I’m not saying we should lose ourselves in tears, but it just feels like people have deemed it a tragedy and just…carried on. I’m not sure if I’ve misread this or if the pandemic has desensitized us to human loss.
I want to share a small story because it’s the only way I can process what has happened and come to terms with it. In 2019, I had to submit a medical report as part of my Canadian immigration process. Only certain hospitals were authorized to do these tests and as luck would have it, the closest hospital to me was on the outskirts of Bangalore. Unlike others, who would hide the fact that they are emigrating from their co-workers, I was an open book.
So when I told her about this little conundrum, she said her house was nearby and that I was welcome to stay, wait for the test results, pick them up and then go home. “On second thought”, she added after a moment, “come home for lunch after you finish with your tests”.
So, on 19/09/2019, I went to the hospital, and then to her home, and she received me with a beaming smile. We went upstairs, and after a bit of chit-chat about work, she set a metal plate in front of me and started flipping hot phulkas straight from the stove. She spooned a generous amount of dhaal (lentil soup) and added a dollop of a homemade pickle. Then came the white rice. I’m usually a reserved person, but I was so tired from the travel and testing, that I put away all semblance of modesty and just attacked the plate like a wild saber-toothed tiger on The Flintstones. I took a siesta, and then went back to the hospital to pick up my acknowledgment forms. When I went home, she texted me and asked if reached safely.
Note that I included the date in the previous paragraph. The reason I remember the date is because I wrote about this in my immigration journal. It was a simple sentence: “Had lunch at ____’s place and finished up med tests”, but I could as well have just mentioned the tests. This simple act meant something to me and I thought to write it down.
Building one’s legacy is a passive, long-term process. It involves acts of kindness, empathy, and human decency. Money is almost never required. A rich person, on their deathbed, can put their name on a hospital wing in hopes of being remembered. But when the building is renovated or demolished, so is its donor’s name. True legacy is about being forgotten in life but remembered in death, being an indelible imprint on someone’s life, in a moment of quietude.
She lives on in my diary entry. That’s part of her grander legacy.
Take care of yourselves,