Saturday, March 17, 2012

A life well-lived

I have written about two so-called "Christian" preachers who predicted that the world would soon come to an end, one in May 2011, and one in May, 2012.

A lot of New-Agey people have made a big deal about the fact that the Mayan calendar ends sometime in 2012, asserting that the ancient Mayas knew that the world would end on that date and therefore there was no need for more days on the calendar.

For those who believe in God and an afterlife, the date of the world's ending should be totally irrelevant. Whether you're here on earth when it happens, or whether you die first, doesn't matter. You're going to meet your Maker one way or the other.

What matters is not when the world ends, or when you die, but how you live. This is true whether you're a New Ager, a Buddhist, or a born-again Christian.

If you don't believe in an afterlife, then you still have some measure of immortality to look forward to, and again, it all depends on how you live.

At the end of this life, if you believe in an afterlife, all you can take with you are your deeds, your memories, and your character. Everything else, rich or poor, you have to leave behind. And what you left behind becomes your legacy.

How you live determines, in large part, the legacy you leave behind, and it is your legacy that makes you immortal (that is, if you don't believe in an afterlife - but stay with me here, okay?). People like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks and Mother Teresa will live forever, because the things they did have impacted so many generations.

Small people who live out their lives in front of a TV with a beer in their hand don't have much of a legacy to leave behind. And rich people who hoard their money while they're alive and leave it to be divided up among greedy and ungrateful heirs don't leave much of a legacy, either. And the legacy of tyrants, although their evil deeds will still be felt for a few generations, eventually crumbles to dust like the statue of Ozymandias in Shelley's poem.

Your legacy comes from all the things you did to try to make the world a better place. I had a Sunday School teacher once, an immigrant from Finland who could barely speak English and was so poor that she wrote out her lesson plans in pencil on scraps of cardboard. No, I'm not kidding. But we, a bunch of rowdy 14 year olds in Montreal, felt the warmth of her love and the power of her testimony, and it made a difference in our lives.

I know many wealthy people who are determined to use their wealth to make the world a better place - by generously giving of their time as well as their money to help other people. Their legacy will be measured in the lives that they changed, not in the money they made.

I just finished writing about Bashar Assad, and I predicted that he will die within a year, the pitiful end of the Assad dynasty, hunted down and killed by his own people. It could have been so different for him, had he chosen to live differently.

* * *

Today I celebrate the legacy of a woman who was born on March 16, 76 years ago, and who succumbed to multiple sclerosis at age 52. I honor her for how she lived.

Patricia Ann French was born and grew up in western Canada, the only child of a young bank executive and his pretty wife. She attended teacher's college for two years and became a schoolteacher in the early 1950s. Her legacy began with her students, who adored her as much as she loved them, and who carried the lessons she taught them into successful careers all over Canada.

She married Donald Albert Depew, the son of  a cowboy and the stepson of a long-distance truck driver, a high school graduate who dreamed of doing something more than driving a truck. When children started coming, she quit teaching to become a full-time mother. When Don got a job as a lab technician for a large chemical company, she packed up the kids and followed him, first to eastern Canada and then all over the eastern U.S., as he gained experience and changed jobs, following promotions and opportunities across the continent.

Wherever they went, she used her hands. She played piano and organ, she sewed and quilted and knitted, she painted and wallpapered and upholstered and hung curtains, she cooked for her growing family and for others in need, she tended sick children and sick neighbors, she planted gardens, she dipped chocolates and gave them as gifts, and she made costumes and decorations for countless parties and school plays. With her hands, she touched hundreds of people - no, more like thousands - all of whom were permanently changed by her touch and made better in some small way.

Although an only child, she managed to raise six children - three boys and three girls - and all of them became contributing members of society. None of them were ever drunk or stoned or high. None were ever arrested or thrown in jail. None of them became pregnant in their teens or out of wedlock. None of them beat their spouses or children. All of them attended a college or university. Of the three sons, one is a doctor, one an orthodontist, and one an engineer, and all three have become teachers and mentors of young people, passing on her legacy to another generation. All three of them have been missionaries in foreign lands, spreading her gifts of music and love on three different continents. Of the daughters, one became a banker, one an accountant, and one a real estate agent.  All three have been married, and although only one is still married, all three of them are raising daughters of their own (huh! and only two sons among the three of them!) who are growing up to be much like their grandmother.

She gave all of her children the joy of reading, the joy of learning, and the joy of music. She and Don gave all of them the gift of teaching and the gift of writing. Pat and Don worked together to teach their children morals, values and character. They worked as a team to support their children in activities in school and out of school.

At age 40, Pat began to develop symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Back then, the drugs and treatments to combat MS and drive it into remission did not exist yet, and she endured 12 painful years before losing the battle. In those 12 years, she affected more people than she had in all the years before.

Even in her weakened state, she and Don opened their house to young people and not-so-young people who had nowhere to go, giving them a safe and reliable place to call home until they were back on their feet and strong enough to strike out on their own. She insisted on holding parties which included square dances and other fun activities, even though she just sat on the side in her recliner and smiled.

Long after she had lost the use of her hands, with which she had blessed so many people, Pat published a book: a history of her ancestors, which has become a reference work for people she has never even heard of.

Even when Pat could no longer walk or see clearly, and when she could barely talk, people were buoyed up by her cheerfulness and enthusiasm. She never let the pain get her down. People called her "indomitable." Her example inspired everyone around her to see their problems differently and to rise above them.

Her greatest gift was one that she gave to her beloved husband, Don, and to her best friend, Linda, shortly before her passing. It was a selfless gift, one that few can comprehend, but one that continues to bring people joy today, 24 years later.

Patricia Ann French Depew left a legacy of thousands of lives made better for her having touched them. But her greatest legacy is her six children, 28 grandchildren, and  11 (so far) great-grandchildren, and the difference they will make in the world. If you believe in heaven, then Pat is already there, waiting for everybody else to join her. If you don't believe in heaven, then Pat is still immortal, because she has left a mark on the world that will never be erased.

ADDENDUM:
For other examples of lives well-lived, see the following entries at Zyzmog Galactic HQ:
- Steven R. Covey
- Steve Jobs
- Ray Bradbury
- Mark Miller

2 comments:

Joan said...

Your Mom was a wonderful woman, I feel honored to have known her.

barb said...

I inherited your mother's genealogy pages and I treasure them. Hayden French was my great grandfather. I always knew your mother's name, but that was about all.