We all want to leave a legacy. An imprint of ourselves on the world that will be remembered. By a few, by many, by anyone. I believe the biggest question we all face is how to create this legacy. Because within a legacy is where you find life’s meaning. The reason you were ever here in the first place. Some people would say that if you manage to leave a legacy then you have succeeded.
This poem, often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, sat on Michael’s desk in a card given to him by his father:
“To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty; To find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded.”
I know of few people who can hope to compete with Michael’s success in these most important of ways. He must have pondered this poem’s meaning and owned it, because no one laughed more than Michael. Without a doubt, he left the world a bit better than it was before he arrived. He was a shining success.
As he grew into an adult, Michael’s mind began to discover the pockets of passion in the world, the slices of spontaneity, the cruel holes of injustice. He lived for experiences, all feeling, all emotion. Never boring, never dull. You have to admire someone who lives that way, sniffing out the beauty, uncovering the laughter. He absorbed things. Everything.
4 years old and all energy. Frequent fits of laughter and sometimes fits of crying. A little rapscallion, persistent in his attempts to play with his sister and me. Constantly looking up to PJ, literally and figuratively. The face of an angel atop a tiny body, and a brain focused on finding all manner of mischief.
Flying face first off the back porch into six feet of fluffy snow. Mastering hysterical impersonations of his father. Almost ripping the blinds off of his bedroom window as we all watched from outside the house, doubled over with hoots of laughter. Calling my mother “cupcake” with a straight face. Constantly wearing flip flops, even when the weather turned cold.
Traveling the world to serve the needy, and bathe in the world’s beauty. Finding the forgotten classrooms of Honduras, rebuilding the destroyed homes of New Orleans and educating the ignored hypertensive population of the Dominican Republic. This is certainly to have succeeded.
But all of this merely illustrates that the sum is truly greater than the individual parts. Because as many memories of Michael that I share, no one will ever be able to grasp the immensity of his spirit unless he shined his light on you. Even for just a moment. For those of us who knew Michael, it was about how he made you feel when you were with him. That was the gift of Michael, one of those rare, fine people who always made you feel good. Few can hope to find this particular type of success.
So while it’s possible all of our many memories may fade in and out of our minds, there’s one memory that will always stick. The memory of how Michael made the world better by lighting our minds up and making our hearts glow under the heat of his love. What a success he was. What a legacy he has left.
In the most bittersweet realization of my life, his departure has given me enormous gifts. Love, laughter, memories, unity, focus, wisdom, appreciation, kindness. All of this has been augmented and amplified…because of his absence. My life will be better because of the way Michael lived his. And that is to have succeeded.