Driving back from Hitchin, having just seen my oldest friend, I found myself musing on life after death - in the sense of what survives us after we die. I've known my friend since we were both 14 years old. That's 35 years ago now. We don't get together very often (hence I received my belated birthday gift from her today - just 3 months late), but the friendship is important to both of us and we keep the link going.
My friend is coping with cancer at the moment. We don't talk about the shadow of death. She's very strong, very positive, and - despite the cancer coming back a year ago - this time metastasized (it was orginally breast cancer), the last year of treatment seems to have it on the retreat at last.... for now.
To be honest, based on the pessamistic appraisal of her chances from a couple of mutual friends who are doctors, I had thought her survival for even a year was unlikely. But here she is! Every so often a phrase slips out that reveals that she knows her time may be quite limited. And in this her 49th year she has been doing plenty of special 'bucket list' things - while at the same keeping life as normal as possible for her 12 year old son. She goes to work, she does all the normal stuff. For now. But will she get another 5 years? 10 years? Another 20? A full life-span?
As for me, I'm currently happy to be alive. That may sound trite, but it's surprisingly novel for me. My recurrent depressions are always marked by finding it hugely onerous to have to go on living. But I'm not depressed at the moment - I like not being depressed! I am, however, being rather careless with the gift of my life. I had an abnormal smear a few years ago and had to have laser ablation. Got the all-clear thereafter, but am still supposed to have a smear every six months. For the second year, I have ignored the recall letter - putting it off till it's more like 12 months since the last smear. Is this sensible? Of course not!
And in the car, I was thinking about how we live on - in people's memories and the like. I no longer believe in a spiritual survival after death - so as far as I'm concerned when you die you die and that's the end. But the effect we have on the world can live on after we have gone. The most obvious way, for me, is through my sons - and possibly (in due course) their children and their children's children. There's the biological survival of the DNA - but there's also the shaping of their formative years and what they take into their adulthood and future parenting (if any). And so on.
There are other marks we leave on the planet - good and bad. For example that blithe carbon footprint and all those disposable nappies in landfillI on the down-side (how will the next generation - and the one after that - cope in the world *we've* taken for granted and left spoilt? Will there come a time when it would seem kinder not to bring a child into such a world, I wonder?).
I once did the thought experiment of writing my own imaginary epitaph, choosing what I would like to have achieved, what I would like to be remembered for (we were encouraged to dream rather than restrict ourselves to what was strictly likely in a prosaic sense). My epitaph was mostly about family stuff (eg 'a greatly loved great-grandmother', that kind of thing) rather than (say) inventing some new amazing gizmo. Perhaps I also included a bit of credit for my role in scouting - I like to think some of the Beavers over the years might retain some memories of the things they enjoyed doing, and that had an impact on them, thanks to that Beaver Leader of theirs - what was her name? Keema??
I love the quip I read once - no one ever looks back and says ' Oh I just wish I had spent longer in the office.' Apart from the vocational saints and geniuses, work is not 'life' - it is not where our fond and meaningful memories are to be found (although now that I'm in an educational job, rather than an administrative one, I do feel more connected: the effect of what I do now to help these young children, especially the ones with special needs, seems so very very important.) I don't remember the name of my Brownie leader, or (even younger) my Bunnie Leader, but I do have a few tiny memories of doing things in those groups. I remember my P2 teacher a little bit (mostly the negative aspects - cos she was very scarey!), but I don't remember my P1 teacher at all. One primary school teacher in particular (P3? P4?) had a HUGE and very positive effect on me - Mrs Cook. She was a wonderfully enabling and permissive (yet strict) teacher, and I blossomed in ways I might not otherwise have done thanks to her.
Books and the like are all very well (the other kind of children you can leave behind you and which carry part of you into the future (until all the copies in the world are lost...or just unread), but they're not the same as living in someone's memory (unless, perhaps, you are Shakespeare; although now some say the man called Shakespeare wasn't the true author of the plays - 'the play's the thing' not really any man behind them - he hardly matters in the end.)
Not sure why it should matter, but the thought of being forgotten seems sad. Of course most of us do eventually get forgotten - the history books only record a very very tiny minority of all the humans who have ever lived. I can still remember both of my grandmothers. Even my eldest son (possibly the youngest too) has tiny bits of memory of them, having visited them many times when very young (great granny who can't hear and great granny who can't speak). But eventually I will die and eventually my sons will die - and in the end there will be no-one alive with any first hand experience or memory of my grandmothers. The chain only stretches that far. The hands linking one-generation-to-the-next-and-the-next is fragile and short. A limited daisy chain, pretty but soon broken.