The legacy we leave behind
Well it’s still that time of the year for me, the time where my anxiety is pegged at an 11, the stupid feelings inside my head keep telling me others would be better off without me, and honestly I start to believe it because who do I have besides myself? It’s exhausting, painful (in the literal sense), and I hate it. This time of the year also seems to come with a fair bit of bad luck. In this case, another death.
About a week ago, although it feels like a lot longer, we lost someone who worked with out group. A caregiver to one of the people who helps manage our lab (here). It’s very surreal to have someone so close to us die from COVID, but as it turns out she wasn’t vaccinated. I haven’t really had time or energy to process that, even though we weren’t particularly close, I liked her as a person and she was always very kind.
Not long after we had a second death, this one was thankfully due to old age, but the circumstances leading up to it and the death itself made me wonder about the legacy we have. Like it or not, when we die, we go it alone. Once we’re gone there’s no longer anything to contribute, no reminder that you even existed. Not only are you gone, you’re slowly forgotten.
Now, I don’t mind the first, or even last bit in that sentence, but oftentimes I wonder about the opposite. The people with an enduring legacy, the kind of people who have buildings named after them and the divide between the people who strive for that kind of legacy and those who actually achieved it. Like a lot of things in life, it probably comes down to luck, resources, and the family you were born into.
You can be poor and go on to become a great and famous doctor, but there’s no denying that the barriers between the start of that path and the end are far greater than someone coming from an affluent family no matter how smart or gifted the person coming from the poor family is.
We lost a doctor who has been praised for all the work he does. I’ve heard people call him a pioneer, a visionary, and a great person. At the time of his death he was near 100 years old and hadn’t retired from the hospital. He died without taking a break and there’s something both humbling and sad about that. The explanation from my PI for why people do that, because this is just one of a handful of people whom I’ve seen working well past retirement age and are still working, is that they are trying to stay relevant.
No one wants to be left behind and I think the motivating factor for a lot of these people is fear that they will no longer be good at the thing they do. It’s a sobering thought that the level of fear of being forgotten is so high they force themselves to keep working until they literally drop dead. Maybe they just want their lives to mean something, I never got to ask him why he decided to keep working, so I sadly don’t have the answer.
We have been working in this persons office now for almost a year. He has not been well for some time and I was hearing rumors he was planning on retiring soon, but those rumors kept going until he died, so I don’t know if they are true. But it’s weird being surrounded by this man’s legacy. His offices are packed full of awards, posters, papers, books, things he’s done, written, or was interested in. I’ve seen awards and honors dating back to the 70’s and that’s just the stuff I can see that is out in the open. I’m surrounded by the accolades of a man who was by all accounts better than most of us and has literal rooms full of awards to back it up. It’s humbling, seeing all the incredibly stuff he’s done and how little I’ve accomplished in my life, things I will probably never accomplish. And yet, I’m not sure that’s even what I want.
One summer, midway through my military career I took a full month of leave. I had no real plans, but quickly found myself staying with a friend and their family. Honestly, I probably well overstayed my welcome, but I was young, dumb, and had no concept of how normal families behaved. They never said anything, but looking back through the lens of the years I’ve lived I often wonder if they were just waiting for me to leave or if they really didn’t mind having me there. Truthfully, my view of families is so jaded I couldn’t answer one way or the other. They were kind and treated me like one of their own, so for the briefest moment in my life I got to see what a family looked like and I got to pretend I was a part of it.
They had a pool and I joined the Marine Corps because I loved water, so naturally I lived in the thing. Every day, I would clean it, swim in it for basically the whole day, and repeat the next day. I was told it was the most the pool had ever been used, but I loved it and they seemed happy for me. I would just sit floating just above the water and for the first, and quite possibly only, time in my life I felt peaceful.
I thought that must have been what happiness felt like. I was surrounded by liquid happiness. I didn’t want the moment to end, but made the mistake of blinking. That was close to 15 years ago now, time hasn’t been kind.
I think it’s the dichotomy of when I was at my happiest and the office I work in, the life I’m supposed to want, that is really throwing me off. It makes me question what I really want, what’s important to me, and if what society tells me I should want and what I actually want are even compatible. Of course, to own a home with a pool you need to make money enough to afford both the home and the pool, so I don’t get much of a choice.
It really comes down to society and how we shaped the world we live in. We need money to live, need to work to earn money, and if you’re lucky you can retire before you die. If not then, well sorry. The sad part about our recent death is the way people discussed it. We were trying to coordinate the switch, we were going to take over his office and he was going to retire, eventually. But someone made a flippant comment about a week ago saying that the problem would resolve itself soon. It didn’t even click when I heard that to think they actually meant the doctor’s death until well after the fact.
Now that he’s gone, his legacy, the stuff crammed into this office space, will be slowly cleared out and possibly end up in a landfill somewhere. All that effort, time, and work, just to go into the garbage. There will be no buildings named after him, not even a park bench. He hasn’t been gone a week and they are already religating him to history. Some are sad that he didn’t retire. We never got to celebrate his legacy while he was alive. We never got to give him recognition for all the work he did. It was a missed opportunity.
If my PI is correct and he, like so many others of that generation, were simply afraid of stopping because they didn’t want to be forgotten while he was alive, then he succeeded in that aspect. I don’t know if that’s what I want for me, to work until I drop dead because I am afraid of no longer being relevant or needed, but that was ultimately his choice. I don’t know that I’ll ever understand why and even if I could still talk to him, I doubt I would find the answers I’m looking for.
In the end, maybe that was his liquid happiness. If that’s the case he was a far luckier man than I am, but I can respect that.