Of a Great Person

About a month ago, the world lost a soul. Not a celebrity; no one famous. One of thousands who die daily for no reason other than it was their time to go. It was no global catastrophe, no tragic demise; simply the passing of someone who lived their life simply, selflessly, and straight to the very end.

Death is oddly easy to come by, yet so far from easy for the people who knew the deceased. Funerals, wakes, memorials and services and wreaths and tombstones … all these efforts are done not for the person no longer with us, but for the people left behind. And it kind of sucks, because the last thing you want to do when you lose someone is worry about funeral arrangements and burial costs. Mounting bills and gathering family last-minute hardly fills the void left by the departed in your heart, but these processes perhaps hold some value, because they’re a painful reminder that in the dead’s absence, life goes on. The world doesn’t stop turning. Work gives you a few days off, and then it’s back to the grind.

So before I discuss what I think was important about the departed, I need to recognize my wife’s strength, resilience, competence and willfulness as she laid her father to rest. She mourned and wept, and amidst it all simply made shit happen. No one asked her to, and she didn’t need to be asked; there was little doubt as to who would bear the heaviest burden of actually giving her father the rest he deserved in the best way possible. Her family attended what she arranged.

This strength didn’t grow in a vacuum. My wife has led a difficult, troubled and at times traumatic life, but her strength grew from the person who raised her: her father. For whatever suffering she’s dealt with, her father almost certainly dealt with just as much. From a lonely childhood to war service and the mental breakdown of his wife early in their marriage, he suffered and fought for fairness and justice like no one I’ve ever known, and he did it entirely for his children – his legacy.

You see, whenever someone dies, you can’t help contemplate their importance; you can’t help but wonder what impact they left on the world, and if their life really mattered much – or at all. These are – on the surface – easy questions to answer when said deceased was known to the world at large; the world is immeasurably worse off for the loss of Robin Williams, or Chester Bennington, or [insert celebrity here], because of course these people made an impact on our psyches and left indelible impressions in our emotions. We miss what these people could have brought to the world, and reminisce about what they left behind. We feel like we know these people, and their deaths definitely leave a void behind.

But what about the residual importance of those deaths that are a little closer to home? What about when our father, or our brother – uncle, or grandparent – dies? What if they spent their life toiling in a factory making communications circuitry? What if they sacrificed any possibility of renown for the happiness of their own children? What if they were, ultimately, forgettable to all but their closest family?

I say this makes them not less important, but all the more so.

This argument, of course, comes down to how one chooses to measure the importance of a person’s life, but I think it’s fair to say that an individual’s significance can be told by the impact they made on others – the influence they had on the people who knew them. And in this argument, I believe that the true measure of influence is in its quality, not its quantity. It doesn’t matter that Robin Williams made millions of people passingly happy, whilst my father-in-law might have done so for fewer than a dozen folk in his life, because the depth of influence is immeasurably greater on the latter.

My wife’s father was quiet, humble and generally inconspicuous, and if you never had the chance to talk to him and get to know him, you would never guess the tragedy and trauma hidden behind his soft brown eyes. Many other men, I believe, would have walked away from similar circumstances given half a chance, and yet he spent years balancing a tenuous living and desperately fighting through courts to win his children back after their mother suffered a nervous breakdown early in their life. He abandoned career ambitions and sacrificed his personal life entirely to ensure that his children had the best life he could provide for them.

And that life he gave them formed the person who is now my wife. For as long as I’ve known her she’s idolized her father; looked up to him as an example of virtue and strength of character. She’s modeled her own life on many of his characteristics, and the upbringing of our son is a testament to his own work in raising her. He was her mentor, her confidant, her advisor and friend.

So in looking back on his life, does it matter that he was wounded in the Korean War saving others’ lives? Or that he build the communications systems that sent men to the moon? Does it matter that he was disowned by his Jewish family for marrying a Catholic woman? Or does it matter that, when the odds were stacked against him and the chips were down, he soldiered through to protect his children, because their own happiness was the only thing that mattered to him?

I like to think that the measure of a person’s importance is not in whether they influenced a million people or only one; it isn’t in whether a person goes down in history or is forgotten to the annals of time. It’s in the subtle influence they leave on those closest to them, and whether that influence was to their benefit or detriment. And in considering my father-in-law, the influence and legacy he left behind is in the person my wife became, and her siblings, and his grandchildren, and – perhaps one day – theirs.

And so I suggest that he was as great a person as any out there. He didn’t write books that changed the world; he didn’t leave behind a canon of film or music or scientific achievements. He left behind, quite simply, a strong, virtuous woman, who will remember him with love for the remainder of her own life. He changed her world, and I think that’s at least as important as any other.

He used to say that he just wanted to be remembered and thought of. I don’t know how he wanted to be remembered, or by whom, but I remember one thing clearly. A few years ago I had the opportunity to talk to him one-on-one, and I asked him simply what he wanted. What, I said, would make him happy?

His answer was to see his children happy. Nothing more, and nothing less. The same driving motivation to keep his children happy never wavered from the moment they were born until the moment he died.

If that isn’t a worthwhile legacy, I don’t know what is.

Fifteen Years Young

My son turned fifteen this weekend. Fifteen. That’s five-and-half thousand days he’s walked this earth (well, walked and crawled), and with a few small exceptions I’ve been there with him for every single one of them. This doesn’t by necessity make us close, but it makes us … well, something.

There’s no connection in my mind between the helpless, crying, infantile baby that came into the world fifteen years ago and the moody, sarcastic, increasingly self-aware teenager that thinks swearing is cool but doesn’t quite know when it’s appropriate. These are two different entities, and frankly I’m not sure I really know either.

My memory of his life is sporadic – fleeting moments in time, stuck in my mind like a photograph without context. I know he was once six – and twelve, and many other ages – but I don’t seem to be able to draw a line connecting these moments to each other. Like each memory is of a different person, one who no longer quite exists.

At the risk of being a cliché, it makes me wonder what I was like when I was fifteen. Where was I? What was I doing? What did I think? Fifteen was my sophomore year of high school; it was a summer of forgetful abandon. It was a year of adventure, of climbing and mountaineering, of school and exams and friends and excitement.

It was also my last year of happiness.

The following year, my junior year of high school, was the first year I learned depression, and I’ve never forgotten it since. By the summer of sixteen, I was catatonic in my room, drinking with my goth friends, staying up all night with candles, and cutting my arms. And it only got worse from there.

To some extent, I wonder what fate awaits my son. Will this be his last year of happiness? Will he succumb to the deep, numb despair of depression? I really can’t say, of course – the future is the future, and I’ve never really been good at predicting it. But I can see that he is, in many ways, a stronger person than I was at his age. He cooks, he cleans, he reminds me to take my meds, and he can’t stand how dirty I let my car get. He’s responsible, has a girlfriend, and frankly doesn’t get into much trouble at all. These are all things that were not true of me.

In fact, reflecting on that past fifteen years of my own life, he’s more of an adult now than I ever was – and more so than I am today. While I mope in bed and struggle to get through each and every day, leaving dishes and laundry to pile up, he actually takes care of things around the house. He doesn’t enjoy it, but it does it nonetheless.

Fifteen years ago, I was a scared, naive, miserably depressed kid who didn’t see a path forward in the world. Not that many young adults do, but for me, the end was visibly near. I was on a speeding train of mental turmoil, rushing headlong toward the abyss with no bridge and no brakes. What I’m trying to say is that without my son, I may well have tried to kill myself.

But I didn’t. And whilst I’m certainly not ‘better’, I survived. I mean, that’s probably as much as I can say for myself, really – I survived. It’s up for debate if that was worth it or not, but the point is, I’m likely alive because of my son. So there’s something.

We share interests – a love of movies, Lord of the Rings and heavy metal music, for starters – and we talk. I’ve never been secretive about my mental health with him, and I hope he doesn’t resent me for it; he talks to me (on occasion) about the things that trouble him, and I hope he continues to.

What I see when I look at him is no longer my child. He is no longer helpless. I mean, I may never have really come to terms with a person in the world being my descendant, but the point is that he is a young man, whole and independent, with thoughts and opinions that are not mine. He is a good person, and whether through my actions – or lack thereof – or not, I believe he will become a good adult. I have faith he will become a hard-working, functional member of society. And I guess I really couldn’t ask for more.

What I see is simple: my son is a better person than I am.

I couldn’t be more proud.

Thought of the Week: Vanilla Water

Some time ago, I set up to brew coffee in our filter coffee maker. I put a splash of vanilla in the bottom of the carafe, because that’s what we do, and I set it going. When the carafe began to fill with an extremely pale, yellowish water, I realized I had forgotten a rather important ingredient.

Another time, I thought I’d be clever and set the coffee maker up the night before, so that it would be fresh and waiting to go when we woke up. I filled it up, put the coffee in because I’d learned from my mistake, set the timer, and went to bed. I woke up in the morning to find the kitchen floor flooded with water; I had forgotten to close the lid on the coffee maker.

These are the things I deal with on a daily basis (though I doubt I’m alone). Tonight I couldn’t remember if I had taken my medication this morning, so I took a double dose. The other night I took out the garbage and forgot to leave the door unlocked; I nearly broke my leg trying to climb in through a second-storey window. I’ve also forgotten all the witty things I was going to write in this post.

You see, this topic has come up because I realized the other day that I’d forgotten to post a thought of the week last week (I had to write down that I wanted to write about this in case I forgot). I forget an awful lot of things, both minor and major. I often forget where I left my glasses, or my iPhone (thank goodness for Find My iPhone). Probably the worst thing I ever forgot was Valentine’s Day (I don’t dare forget my wife’s birthday – I have approximately sixteen reminders for this). I’ve even forgotten my son was in the back of the car and drove him to work instead of school.

I read an interesting publication a while back on the nature of forgetfulness. Apparently, walking through doors can affect this greatly. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve gone into a different room and had no idea what I went in there for (I’m trying not to think too hard about that sentence). In the study, they had participants play a simple computer game where they looked at an object in a room, then walked away from the object and were asked to recall what it was. They discovered that significantly fewer participants who walked through a doorway could recall it compared to those who didn’t leave the room, even if they walked a comparable distance away.

Similar studies have shown that memories are often grossly distorted from the actual reality of the event. One example had different subjects taste – or not taste – a piece of chocolate. Some of them were simply given the chocolate; others were told beforehand how wonderful and delicious the chocolate was going to be. Some time later, they were asked to describe the taste; those to whom the taste was described recalled the taste far better – even those who had never tasted it!

These occurrences are so frequent for me that I am becoming increasingly concerned, often to the point of doubting my own thoughts and and considerations. Things I adamantly remember – clearly, vividly, blow by blow – turn out to have never happened. I recall conversations with my wife that never took place, and forget the ones that did.

These two aspects of failing memory – false and absent recall – make me worried for my own sanity. I am already disposed of an ill mind, and these symptoms seem only to reinforce my maladies. Even now, as I have begun to reread my book for editing, I have come across entire passages I don’t recall writing.

So what am I to do? I have tried many memory aids – pieces of string, notes, reminders; often, though, by the time I find pen and paper, I have already forgotten what I intended to write. I don’t remember what the string was for. A date pops up in my calendar, and I can’t remember why. I realize this must seem mundane – perhaps normal, even – but I worry that my memory will continue to degenerate, and I will soon be unable to remember even the simplest of things. Early-onset Alzheimer’s, perhaps?

Tell me – what do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments; I just hope I remember them.