Obituary: Live it, Write it
On his faith walk, Gary deals with the death of his mother
As evening waned, my mother lay on her side, head on the pillow after another difficult day. Accelerating kidney cancer filled her with nausea, fatigue, and lack of appetite. She called me to her bedside and said, “Be certain to have these things in my obituary.” In the next few minutes, she ticked off the main points: 63 years of marriage to my father, 50 years as an active member of United Methodist Women, 27 years with the JC Penney Co., and more. She closed her eyes in sleep. Awakening the next morning, she burst out “Gary, I forgot two things. Write these down!”
When she passed away in July, I dutifully followed her instructions, adding my own reflections to her obituary on both the facts of and the meaning of her life. While Mom provided many details, it was mine to find amplifying words like loving, caring, strong, determined, and dignified. The writing assignment for two newspapers in Kansas City and Independence, Missouri was short, shorter than a River Journal column, but far more demanding.
As it happens, Stephen Covey also died in July. Leadership and management consultant, author, Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” has shaped the organizational and personal lives of tens of millions across the last 20 years. In his chapter “Begin with the End in Mind,” he asks us to visualize our own funeral and to ponder what we would like each speaker to say about our life—family member, friend, work colleague, church or community member where we have served. Likely, those things we would want to hear from the speakers would highlight our many activities in life, the “what” of our living. But, Covey suggests, wouldn’t we really be yearning to hear about the “how” of our living, the “how” of our relationships with others?
In a quiet moment after my mother’s death, I again sought the wisdom of Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister and her recent “The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully.” She challenged me with these words: “Meaning—the message of my life, the substance of my being… What do others see in me now? ... What does God see in me now? ... What do I see in my life now? ... What am I doing with my time now?”
As this demanding summer ends, all these events, all these words swirl in my mind. To make sense of recent weeks, I turned to the Gospel of Matthew in the in the New Testament. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. And, a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22: 37-40)
Dubbed the Double Love Commandment, the charge to love boils down to a guide for living. While I can’t fully know my mother’s, Covey’s, or Chittister’s invisible love of the Lord, I can see the visible signs of their love of neighbor. In my mother’s life, the love for and care of others abounded—immediate family, elders, friends, and work place colleagues. Her memorial service was filled with expressions of her outreach, care (sometimes stern, sometimes gentle), and concern. For me and so many others, she modeled “love your neighbor as yourself.”
As my faith walk continues, I ponder the task of writing my own obituary and visualizing my funeral. Activities are a list of the “what,” but before me lay opportunities to improve the “how” of my living and my relationships with others.
I’ll list the “what,” the major activities of a lifetime. But the “how,” the meaning of a life, can still serve as a road map to be followed in the months or years ahead. By writing and visualizing, there still remains time to change, time to love more, time to deepen relationships. In my opinion, it’s a spiritual exercise well worth doing. Excuse me now, I have some serious work to do.
Gary Payton can be reached at gdpayton(at)aol.com