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October 31, 2012 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

What Do You Want on Your Tombstone?

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Most doctors think a lot about death - probably because it's our job to fight against it and to prolong the life of our patients. When these thoughts arise, I personally find that the issue of death brings me new reverence for life - how we spend it and the lasting impact we will leave behind when we are gone.

When I think of my own passing, I don't picture my loved ones getting one last glimpse of my corpse or even a grave with badges on the tombstone like "father," "husband," or "really good person." Don't get me wrong. I'm really proud of these things, and I would even say that they help define me, but I want the "tombstone" marking my existence in this world by the things I taught my children, the improvements I have helped to bring into people's lives, and the stories that people tell about me – my legacy.

"Tombstone" Legacies  

1: An Album

I have a patient who is quite passionate about music. He spends a lot of his free time in a band and even writes songs. He related to me this week about a friend of his whose health is declining, and, to be frank, he'll likely die soon. According to my patient, this man is a rocker through and through, singing and playing several instruments. His unfulfilled goal, however, is to create an album. With tears in his eyes, my patient related their goals to write and record an album together. This record of musical talent will endure beyond the man's passing-- a fitting "tombstone".

2: A Documentary

Forrest, a patient of mine, turned 90 some months ago. Recently, we got talking about his life and legacy. Though he's had quite a life thus far, he defined himself at the age of 19 fighting for his country - as many men did in "The Greatest Generation." Forrest was wounded and nearly died on the battlefield. He told me that he has since considered life a gift, but does not fear death at all. I've never seen him without his baseball cap bearing the symbol of the American flag and the 95th Infantry, his brothers in arms. Forrest's friends and family have always enjoyed his candid stories, especially those about his time in the military.

In discussing his legacy, Forrest related that he always wants his stories to be remembered, not only for his sake, but for those who didn't make it back home from the war. Forrest came over to my home on a Saturday afternoon and we let the video camera roll for hours. Just this week, I presented him with a DVD of the cleanly edited chronicles of his best stories - a fitting "tombstone."

3: Inspiration

This week, I saw a patient of mine who is 99 years and one month young (it's more optimistic to use young than old in my opinion). He told me that he wasn't sure he'd see me again for his next scheduled visit in six months: "just playing the odds". He has told me this for the past two years. I asked him how he spends his days. In between the routine stuff, like exercise class and meals at the nursing home, he told me that he's "working on a couple nurses."

"One nurse," he said, "needs to find religion, and the other nurse needs to stop smoking."  I told him that his work is not done on this earth, and, as long as this is the case, I would likely be seeing him in six months. I asked him if he would like to be on Good Morning America to celebrate his 100th birthday. He thought about it briefly and replied, "no" (not part of the legacy). Finding religion, encouragement to stop smoking, and a million other small gestures remembered - a fitting "tombstone."

What will your "tombstone" be? It's never too late or too early to start working on it!

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