During one of my frequent visits to Kentucky, my parents talked about their obituaries. I reached for paper and began to write. This was long before either had infirmities. Probably they were gauging time, measuring the future against the past with the realization that they’d lived much longer than they had left.
I listened, listed, and wrote paragraphs, the numerous activities defining meaningful lives, and then read it to them. Wait a minute. I still have this among memorabilia. Be right back.
This piece would be too lengthy if I included everything I wrote that day. But here’s some of it: During high school, Geraldine, known as Gigi, was a volunteer with the Red Cross, rolling bandages for the wounded. She studied music at the Boston Academy, was a charter member of the Junior Woman’s Club, chair of the Republican Party, chair of the Jessamine County Polio Foundation, scout leader, den mother, library board member, soloist in the church choir, was known for her baking and candy making. In later years, she denounced the Republican Party.
Daddy’s accomplishments were vast—his education, military service and discharge as a captain after 38 months overseas, his career, membership on many boards at both the city and county levels, his church involvement as adult men’s Sunday school teacher, elder, deacon, trustee, and then an active retirement during which he was city commissioner, Jessamine Arts Council member and, well, on and on and on.
After entering the names of their children, their children’s spouses, and the grandchildren, I called it a wrap.
Years later when Mother and Daddy moved in with Laura and Erma because they couldn’t take care of themselves without help, we talked again about the obits. Neither wanted any more than a mention of their love for each other, their children, and grandchildren.
All week, I’ve thought of Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz’s desperate need for attention—to be immortalized for a self-orchestrated act of violence. “One day I’ll do something that will change the system, and then everyone will know my name and remember it,” he’d said to his girlfriend.
And I’ve questioned the meaning of this. What’s the significance of having one’s name remembered by everyone and especially for causing immense anguish? Really, what motivates craving remembrance for any action, period?
I think about my own death. I’m not as old as my parents were when they asked me to compose their obituaries. But I clearly see what they wanted then and what they later shed. As death neared, love was all that mattered.
Right now, I might say I want to be remembered for my sense of humor and compassion—but only by my children, my grandson, Laura, Erma, my brothers, and my closest friends. Maybe that they’d mourn for me a little while, just a little while, and then carry on, living fully. But when death is waiting close by, I know what will be substantive, love only, and I won’t care if they remember anything after I die, except that I loved them with all my heart.
Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email: email@example.com