It matters how our stories come to an end. We want to live for something bigger than ourselves. At least that’s what Dr. Atul Gawande says in his book Being Mortal. He researched how we, and doctors especially, don’t always handle the end of life well.
When life is cut short, especially in our prime, the end becomes something doctors and patients start striving to “fix.” Many times the attempted fixing goes on too long and the little time left is spent in pain from “hopeful” treatments (such as, excessive chemotherapy). As humans, and especially as doctors, it is a hard choice to stop fixing and instead start helping a person let go and plan to live well with the time left, says Gawande. And, at the end of life, people tend to think long and hard about how they want to spend their final days and what they are leaving behind.
This made me think. Just maybe, this is something we should ask our loved ones and ourselves a lot more often when we are healthy. The book, most definitely recommends it.
Life is filled with curiously intersecting situations. Last weekend my 94-year-old grandma fell and broke her hip. I spent hours in the hospital as she underwent hip surgery. This was two days before I lead a group of youth through an activity on being a hero and leaving a legacy—a lesson I’d prepared a week earlier. And, just three days after I listened to the Frontline audiocast of Being Mortal, a book that has been recommended to me by two people in the last few weeks.
In my lesson with the youth, after a round of crazy superhero games, I asked the middle and high school students what they thought the definition of a superhero and a hero was. Then, I had them watch three YouTube videos. (If you are curious here they are: Zion’s Hand Transplant, Nicholas’ Shoes, Katie Ledecky’s Swimming.)
I asked them who were the heroes in these stories. What legacies might they leave? I asked them what they might want their own legacy to be. And, I asked them if it mattered how many people were affected by their legacy.
Then, I asked myself the same thing.
We are not superheroes. We cannot save the world. But we can be heroes, whether we think about ourselves that way or not. And we WILL leave a legacy. What will it be? We can create that legacy with every interaction we have and with every new footprint we leave on the Earth.
When I went to visit my grandma yesterday, I brought her a Happy Meal from McDonald’s. (She enjoys a little fast food now and then.) To my surprise, the toys inside were superheros. Again, with the intersections of life!
Out of the Happy Meal, I extracted the mini figure of Hawkman—a superhero who used a rare gravity-defying metal to help him fly. His wings were part of a costume he designed to help him control his power. My son and I showed my grandma how to expand his wings.
I pondered how I might expand my own.
Our powers. What are they? How will we control them?
Our legacies. What will they be? What should they be? If I can ask it of teenagers, I can ask it of myself, and I most certainly can and should ask it of my grandma.
Thankfully, for now, my grandma is improving, her mind is coming back into focus, slowly, and her surgery will enable her to sit up in her wheelchair and see the world. What does she hope her legacy will be? I’m going to find out.