Friday, October 07, 2005

On leaving a legacy

“I’m afraid of dying,” a patient confessed to me today. This is a patient who has spent the past four years of her life in hospitals, she completely missed out on her high school years because those years were filled with treatments to combat her particularly aggressive cancer. Her fears are reasonable; she is flying to California tomorrow for a stem cell transplant, a procedure that she will most likely not survive. I didn’t know how to respond to her confession; every response that came to mind seemed so shallow in comparison to the profundity of emotions she was expressing. But she didn’t speak about being afraid of the process of dying, of being afraid of pain, or any of the “textbook” fears that children express when confronted with death. She spoke about being afraid that she wasn’t “leaving a legacy.”

We had a lengthy conversation about what a legacy was. My patient was largely convinced that it was about leaving something concrete behind: a piece of writing, a building, a revolutionary science experiment, a profound thought. She was convinced that having her picture in People Magazine, or a story about her struggle in the Times was a measure of a success.

We spend a lot of time in our lives chasing this sort of notoriety, this sort of success, but in the end what does it count for? I inevitably started thinking about my own life: if I were to die tomorrow would I be able to say that I was successful?

I have never been published, I haven’t come up with the cure for a disease, my resume is not a remarkable one. But I can say that I try to appreciate the little things: the way the air smells after it rains, the warmth of sheets out of the dryer, the way it feels to return home after a long absence. I listen to criticism, I listen to compliments, I listen to people. I try to learn from people, and absorb everything that they have to give me. I give back. I laugh a lot; I cry a lot, I am guilty of wearing my emotions on my sleeve. I have great friends, and I am a good friend to them. I write love letters. I invest in others, and am thankful for those who have invested in me. I try hard: if I’m handing in a paper with my name on it, I make sure that it’s something I’m willing to stand behind. I stand up for what I believe in even though it can be lonely to stand alone. I try not to be hindered by regret. I try to continuously grow.

I have managed to craft a life, not a life that is noteworthy by anyone’s standards but my own, but I’m not so concerned with anyone else’s standards. I am happy with the work that I do, and the people that I surround myself with; I am happy about who I am as a person. I hope that my eulogy will reflect on this sort of success, as opposed to the impact I had on science, on art, on the economy at large. It is this sort of legacy that is worth the pursuit.