Just a thought… What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. [Lin-Manuel Miranda]
I promise this isn’t a downer, but I’ve been thinking a lot about death this week. I mean, how could we not, right? We’re surrounded by reminders of the toll of this wretched, stubbornly mutating virus, and then in the obituaries we read the names of people we knew and respected, even loved in some cases: Betty White, Sidney Poitier, Bob Saget, Marilyn Bergman, Peter Bogdanovich, Ronnie Spector. And that’s just since New Year’s Eve.
When you first hear of the passing of someone whose work you watched, enjoyed, respected, you kind of give a bit of an involuntary gasp, and then an “awww….” And then you start remembering the moments they gave you that impacted you. Whether it was as a sitcom star or a bawdy talk show guest, a beloved TV dad or an Oscar-winning trailblazer, we each have those moments in some performer’s life that resonate with us. Long ago they may have stopped contributing to their body of work, or maybe they did a show the previous night. It doesn’t matter. Their legacy is in the moments that touched our souls.
So what about the rest of us: the regular non-Walk of Fame folks who wake each day thankful for another chance to get it right (or just to be upright)? For us, you and me, a legacy means a different thing.
You may have heard the story of Alfred Nobel – you know, the Swedish prize guy. In the 19th century, his brother died. But an obituary was mistakenly written about Alfred instead. In it, he was called the “Merchant of Death” for having invented dynamite, furthering the growth of armaments and destruction in the world.
This error in journalism, what Emperor Tang of the 21st century would decry as “Fake News,” could have infuriated Mr. Nobel. But instead, we are told that the wealthy and brilliant Swede used the mistake to examine and then alter his own legacy. For two years, he and an assistant toiled to come up with the answer: funds from his vast fortune towards Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Literature, Medicine, Physics and Peace. So, rather than be remembered for blowing things up, his name is synonymous with building people up.
Few of us have the resources to leave that sort of legacy. But look at Betty White: on her 100th birthday this Monday, many are donating to their local animal shelters in her memory. Bob Saget, best known as dad Danny Tanner on TV’s Full House, and later host of America’s Funniest Home Videos, who was, onstage and off, about as dirty a comic as they get, was lauded as a kind and supportive friend to all. Whether or not people liked or got him, that comes in a distant second to the kind of person that he was. And Sidney Poitier? Respected for class, grace and his fight for human rights. And, yes, for being a fine actor who broke colour barriers.
A legacy is so much more than how many people bought tickets to your latest show or downloaded whatever you’re putting out. How kind we are to people who couldn’t repay us: that’s what really matters. What we give to someone when they need it most, or better yet, anticipate it before they do – that’s the legacy. Simply signing an organ donor card because we might save several lives when ours is over. That’s all it takes to live on.
Tomorrow is promised to no one. Bob Saget had gigs booked for the year ahead. Betty White was looking forward to a big 100th birthday celebration.
Morgan Freeman’s character said very memorably in Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption: you better “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
I’ve done the math: if I live as long as my mom (who died way too young) I have 18 years left. On the other hand, if I stick around as long as our friends Helen or Mira, I’ve got well over 30. But in the case of Helen Mirren, we don’t know. It’ll never be enough, but we get what we get and, yeah, in some cases, maybe earn, I guess. Better get busy.