A Fond Farewell

IMG_0358I’ve never been very good at saying goodbye, especially to someone I really like.  So when I heard that one of my very favorite staff members at the animal shelter where I volunteer was planning to retire this month, I didn’t react well.

First I tried to convince her to stay.  When that didn’t work, I tried to convince management that she wasn’t really old enough to retire yet.  Sadly, I never did figure out how to forge a fake birth certificate that would back up my claim, so that didn’t work either.  All I had to fall back on was denial, but as the day of her actual retirement crept closer, that stopped working as well.  You can’t help plan someone’s retirement celebration without also recognizing that they actually are going to retire.

I know my friend deserves to retire and that she is ready for this new phase of her life, and I also know I need to support her in this decision.  That’s what friends do.  But the problem is that knowing she won’t be at the animal shelter anymore just makes me incredibly sad, and even a little bit lost.

She taught the volunteer orientation class I took when I first started at the shelter over fifteen years ago, and I still remember what a great job she did of preparing us for the realities of volunteering in an open-admission animal shelter.  It wasn’t long before I, along with most of the other volunteers, learned that she was an excellent source of advice, guidance and support when we needed it.  I saw how protective she was of the animals in her care, and how compassionate she was towards the people she worked with, and how helpful and patient she was with people who came in to adopt a new pet.

Lots of people are good at their jobs, but my friend was one of those who always went the extra mile, both for the animals and for the people around her.  She sent regular texts and emails, letting volunteers know that a favorite dog had finally been adopted so we could celebrate the good news even when we weren’t at the shelter.  She listened to us when we needed a sympathetic ear, and cheered us up when we were down, and was rather well known for her habit of breaking into an impressive “happy dance” when she thought the situation called for it.

My friend was a fixture at the animal shelter and her departure is going to be felt deeply by all those who worked with her.  I suppose our grief over her retirement is the proof of what a terrific job she did during her time there and what a wonderful friend she was to all, of both the two-footed and the four-footed variety.   We only miss what, and who, we truly value.  And we will miss her very much.

I still can’t quite imagine what the shelter will be like without my friend, and I know that the next few weeks are going to be a major adjustment for many of us.  But we will continue our volunteer work, doing our best to help the animals, celebrating the successes, and offering support to each other when we need it.  And I can’t think of any better way to honor my friend’s legacy than that.

What Will They Say?

IMG_4471Yesterday, I attended a beautiful and moving memorial service for the husband of a long-time family friend.  Afterwards, we all gathered at her brother’s house for some food and drinks, as is often the custom after such services, so that family and friends can comfort each other and share stories and memories about the one they have lost.  I’m sure most of us have been to several of these gatherings, but there was something especially touching about this one.  The toasts and tributes were so heartfelt, the memories were so special and the sense of loss so deep, that there was no doubt that my friend’s husband was not only a very special person, but was also dearly loved but all who knew him well.  Clearly, he had left a powerful legacy of goodness, tolerance, and love.

Afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder how different our lives might be if we thought just a little bit more often about how people we will remember us after we are gone.  I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve attended a funeral or memorial service, people don’t really talk about the sort of things that seem so very important to us as we live our daily lives.  No one mentions what car the deceased drove, how much money he made, how she always looked ten years younger than her actual age, what advanced degrees he earned or what a prestigious job she held.  Sure, some of that information might make it into an obituary or be a part of the life story shared during the service, but when the time comes for people to share their own memories of their loved one, that’s not what they talk about at all.

In the personal tributes and toasts, people talk about the real gifts that their loved one gave them.  They talk about how he was always ready to listen to their problems, without judgement, and without jumping in to offer quick and easy advice.  They talk about how she always made time for them, no matter how hectic and stressful her life happened to be.  They talk about the good examples he set by the way he lived his life, or how she had the courage to follow her own dreams and encouraged others to do the same.  In short, they talk about the important things, and not the inconsequential stuff that occupies far too much of our attention.

I have always been taught not to worry about what people say about me (easier said than done), and I understand that is meant to be good advice about not letting other people’s opinions dictate how I live my life.  But I’m beginning to think that it’s a good idea to consider what people are going to say when I’m gone, and how they are going to remember me.  Am I a positive and encouraging influence on other people?  Am I helping others when they need it, and not just when it’s convenient for me?  Will anyone be able to say, honestly, that I left this world just a little bit better than I found it?

The beautiful tributes and heartfelt toasts I heard yesterday are the kind that can only be earned by living our lives as fully and compassionately as we possibly can.  And I can think of no better way to be remembered, and no better legacy to leave behind.

Legacy

IMG_0911I love a good estate sale.   Nothing is quite so much fun as spotting an estate sale sign when I actually have time to stop and check it out.  I’ve found good pieces of older furniture, lovely glass serving dishes, antique Christmas ornaments, books, tools, old linens that I can donate to the Humane Society, and lots of other useful stuff.  I especially like going on the second day of the sale, when there isn’t quite as much to choose from, but everything that remains is marked “half off.”  I’ve found some terrific bargains that way.

But even though I love estate sales, wandering through the houses in search of bargain-priced treasures is also just a little bit sad.  I can usually get a pretty good sense of who lived in the house, even though I’ve never met them.  As I go from room to room, I can see what the person’s taste was in books, home furnishings and clothing.  Sometimes, looking through the remains of their worldly possessions, I can even tell where they went to church, what their hobbies were, or what they did for a living.   I am reminded that the items for sale belonged to a real person at one time, and some of those things were probably very special to them.  And yet now they are sitting in an empty house with a price tag attached, being pawed through by total strangers.  I can’t help but wonder how that would make the person who owned them feel.

IMG_0346Even though I’m a minimalist at heart, I know that sometimes I still spend way too much time and money acquiring possessions, especially the things that are special to me.  I have certain authors that I love and I buy every book of theirs that I can get my hands on, and I have eight prints hanging on my walls by my favorite local artist.  Even though the two Christmas trees I put up every year are already loaded with glass antique ornaments, I still buy more, if they are in good shape and reasonably priced.  Every single room in my house has at least one thing in it that I treasure. And yet I know that some day (hopefully in the distant future), any and all of it could end up in my estate sale, priced to sell quickly.

The thing is, no matter how much “treasure” we manage to accumulate in our lives, there’s no guarantee that any of it is going to be valued when we’re gone.  Our stuff is not who we are, and it’s not what people are going to remember us by.  When I shop those estate sales, I can understand only a little bit of the person whose possessions I’m sorting through.  I may see their tastes and some of their life story, but I have no idea how they acted, how they treated other people or what their deepest values were.  Because I didn’t know that person, and I only see the stuff they’ve left behind.

So I don’t want to make the mistake of putting too much value on my things, even the things I value the most.  When I’m gone, I know that what I’ll really be remembered by was whether I was kind or cruel, generous or selfish, willing to take risks or always playing it safe, etc.  In short, I’ll be remembered by how much I was willing to try, in my own clumsy way, to make the world around me a better place.  That’s not something that will be put in my will or sold at my estate sale, but ultimately, it’s the only legacy that really matters.