Friday, September 5, 2008

What does your dash look like?

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine emailed me a story about the obituary of Dolores Aguilar. The deceased woman's family wrote her a rather unflattering obituary in the local newspaper.

The obituary, written by one of the woman's seven surviving children, charges that she made no contribution to society, was mean to everyone she came across, and had spent her life sowing discord in her family. That a person could be so filled with pain and bitterness that they could find nothing positive to say of the dead (or the presence of mind to say nothing) is mournful. That someone went to their grave leaving such anguish and malice behind is woefully tragic.

A county commissioner I used to work for always said that the dates of one's birth and death are less relevant than the dash in between. Our lives are measured by the people we impact, the things we accomplish, and the feelings we leave behind - more than by the number of days we happen to stay alive.

In one of my first classes in graduate school, I was asked to write a narrative about my own funeral. That assignment gave me nightmares. I honestly had not, before that moment, thought about my life or my role in the world. I wondered who would come; what my eulogy would say; and if their would be snickers in the congregation. I had pause to question whether I had been a good daughter, friend and person. I had taken it for granted that I was, but being asked to look at me from my friend's and family's perspective gave me a great deal of uncertainty and self-doubt.

The exercise was catalytic. I think everyone should sit and think about the life they need to live to have a eulogy they can be proud of. I now think regularly of what I do with my time and my life and the impact I have on my family and friends and those I come across every day. I am clear about what I want my eulogy to say, and I spend my days writing it. Of course, there are some lines I hope get left out, but that is o.k. I know enough not to aim for perfection.

It is worth noting that days after Dolores Aguilar's obituary appeared in the newspaper, a neighbor wrote in to the Vallejo Times-Herald describing a very different woman. To Maria Guevara, Dolores had been like a grandmother. Maria described a woman who had loved her late husband and still grieved her son who died in Vietnam; who was good with people and loved animals; and whose hugs she would miss.

Dolores Aguilar must have done something right. At least one person thinks so. Who thinks your dash is worth defending?

1 comment:

  1. Monique ArmbristerWed Sep 24, 01:18:00 PM

    An interesting post, considering that I recently was charged with the unfortunate task of writing my father-in-law's obituary (at the request of my mother-in-law and husband). Emotions aside, this was not as difficult a task as it may seem since my father-in-law's “dash” was a life filled with devotion to his wife and children, selfless service to his country and community, and genuine goodwill and kindness towards all who crossed his path. These sentiments were echoed by all who eulogized him at the funeral -- a fact not lost on persons in attendance, even those (like friends of my husband and I) who didn’t know him very well.

    So like you, I've now become more conscious of my “dash” and the legacy that I’ll leave behind. There may still be a few snickers in the congregation on the day that I’m eulogized, but hopefully my "dash" will speak loudly and clearly for itself.