In the past few months we have lost several elders from our community. These are people I have known my entire life. Several were “neighborhood parents” when I was growing up. In small communities like this we had more than one set of parents. Everyone in the neighborhood watched out for us and had the authority to correct us when we needed it. It was not unusual to do something ornery on the way home from school and by the time we arrived at our front door our mother was waiting for us having heard of our latest indiscretion from one or more of the other Mom’s.
The passing of each one of these lives feels as though it has created a tear in the fabric of this community. There are certainly holes where each once lived, gave, smiled, laughed and loved. Each one had a space and place in the community that cannot be completely filled by someone else in the same way. Each gave of themselves and their resources in a distinctly individual way and their absence is now palpable.
So with each one there is great sadness at having to live on without them. But there is also some trepidation. I have never known life without Henry, Leroy, Judy, Jean, Edna Mae or any of the others who are no longer here. And although no one can take their place, they did leave work behind for someone else to do. They left places of giving that still need to receive. They left songs to be sung that someone will be called to sing. They left families behind who still need to be loved.
And they left my generation to wonder, “What is this new place we find ourselves occupying?” The elders were our insulation from our own mortality. With them passing we are left pondering our own place in the order of life. If we look at life as a ladder, as long as I have my elders a rung or two ahead of me, I don’t have to worry so much about that last step. But with my elders passing that leaves me feeling rather precariously perched on higher rungs than I now feel comfortable.
Most of the people I’ve had to say goodbye to lately lived lives that were full of family, service, community, adventure — life. They left behind amazing legacies. They were active in the community, serving on boards, committees, volunteering in places where they saw needs that they might fill.
I really do none of that. In fact, I avoid most things that would require me to attend meetings. So I wonder what will I leave behind? What will be my legacy? And what am I doing with my life that may count or matter?
I am grateful for the opportunity to ask these questions, since my mortality is certain. Maybe that too is part of what my elders have left behind. Their passing reminds me that I can’t change the fact I too am going to die. But I am in total control of how I live. I am also grateful to my elders for being such good examples that a life well lived is the only life to live.