My friend Lucas is having a tough time. Like many of us in our ‘middle years’ he finds himself ‘going through the motions’ of life and wondering what the hell it’s all about. You go to work, pay the bills, pick up the kids from school, do the shopping, do the housework, watch television, go to bed – and then the next day you wake up and it starts all over again.
Not all of us can be (or want to be) someone who has demonstrably ‘changed the world’. But too often, we get to thinking that just living our lives isn’t enough. We think that, for our lives to be of any value, we should achieve something earth-shattering – and instead, we’re stuck in the frozen food aisle at Woolies wondering whether there’s enough in the bank to cover this week’s shopping. It’s very easy to feel that, in comparison to some, we are leading very small lives; lives, perhaps, that are just not worth very much.
My brother died of a brain tumour a couple of years ago. He was nine years older than me, but I was always the ‘big sister’ and he was my ‘little brother’. Like Lucas, he struggled with his self-worth. He wanted to be rich – and, oh, there were so many network marketing scams just waiting to exploit his ambitions. He wanted to invent something enormous. He had visions of grand engineering and architectural and maritime schemes that would revolutionise the way we live. He wanted to save the world. The fact that he didn’t really achieve any of these things made him, at times, angry, depressed, bewildered and sad.
When he looked in the mirror he didn’t see the same person I saw. I saw someone whose life was a success, he saw a failure.
I looked at him in comparison to me. I was single, childless and penniless. He had achieved everything I hadn’t.
Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t all doom and gloom. I had a lovely relationship with my brother. He was, for the most part, happy and funny and loving and generous and he did appreciate his great good fortune in having a long and successful marriage, great kids and grand-kids, a loving family, a nice home and financial security. He just wanted more.
The problem was (at least as I saw it) that wanting more compromised his ability to fully rejoice in what he already had. He was pining for ‘success‘, and failing to realise he already had far more real success than 99.99 per cent of the world’s population.
My brother didn’t waste his life, but he often felt as if he had. I’m trying to think how to put this. Perhaps it’s like being a hypochondriac. Imagine having all the advantages of good health, but never being able to fully enjoy it because you are constantly concerned that you’re really a physical wreck. Or perhaps it’s like having the kind of body dysmorphia that leads one to see their perfectly healthy sized body as morbidly obese.
When my brother died, I had just one overriding thought; that I wanted to honestly address his life-long concern that his life had not been a success. I’d never really managed to convince him of that, but I hoped I could use his death to to make those he left behind really think about the true ‘meaning of life. And no, Lucas, it’s not 42; although it’s almost that simple.
Have you ever really listened to what people talk about at funerals?
When you’re lying in your coffin with your friends and family gathered to say their last goodbyes, do you really think someone’s going to pull out your bank statement and say, “Ah, Joe, what a fine fellow. Look, $2.5 million in the bank and another $3 million in shares!”
The fact is, when you die, the people who love you – the ones who really matter – aren’t going to give a rats arse about how much money you made or your brilliant career achievements. They’re going to talk about the most mundane and pedestrian of things – because they’re the things that matter.
“Remember the time he ….”
“Wasn’t the funny the day we ….”
“I loved how he always ….”
Ultimately, when your time is up, it turns out that what was important wasn’t the world-changing widget you invented, but the time you lost your boardies in the swimming pool at Aunty Maud’s 70th birthday party and had everyone in hysterics. Like it or not, that’s the story that’s going to bring you immortality – and that’s a good thing!
When you go, when everything is stripped back to bare bones, if you’ve lived a successful life your family is simply going to say: “We loved him, and he made us laugh.”
It’s taken me a while to be ready to do this, but I think now is the time. For Lucas, here is the eulogy I wrote for my brother.
To make this public has been a bit of a difficult decision. I feel honour-bound to say that as a devout Christian, my brother would not approve of this blog or the causes I support on it. I was always very cranky when he tried to drag me into his ‘schemes’ and I want to be careful not to draw him into mine.
So, to draw a respectful ‘distance’ between him and my activism, and to protect the privacy of his family I’ve removed identifying names from the eulogy. Otherwise, it’s pretty much as it was spoken at his funeral.
Maybe it will help my dear friend Lucas, or maybe someone else, realise that what changes the world is not grand schemes and achievements, but little people, just like us, living and loving and learning and, most importantly, laughing together.
The greatest legacy that anyone can leave is joy.
Neither money, nor great works, nor brilliant inventions are a proper measure of a person’s worth.
When we come to the end of our lives, our value will be measured, not by our professional or material success, but by the love and the laughter we brought to the world.
Those are gifts which are not extinguished by death.
Joy is eternal. When a truly fine human being dies, they live on in the smiles and laughter their memory brings to all who knew them.
By this measure, my brother, was a truly fine human being .
My brother was a seeker. He was always seeking “success” and I think he always felt it eluded him. Our mother summed it up in a letter she wrote to him some years ago:
“My tender, loving, son. I like you because you are so vulnerable. You care for the whole human race and find it difficult to accept there are those who are less than perfect.
Like your dad, you love to be loved and you return that love a thousand-fold. I see the joy and pride your family brings to you and I know you are deeply devoted to them.
Although you have two married sons, to me, you are still my ‘little one’ who needs all the love and comfort life can bring.
You struggle so hard to find what you term ‘success’, but don’t realize you have gained this already as a wonderful, caring human being.”
I know his family will agree that, for all his seeking, my brother already had all the success that matters:
A loving wife whose devotion and care for him through some very difficult times, went far beyond the call of duty.
Two fine sons who, following his example, are devoted to their wives and children.
Two beautiful grandchildren, who will grow up with their own wonderful memories of times spent with Grandad.
And parents and siblings who adored him.
That kind of success is precious and rare. And the legacy of my brother’s success is the love and laughter which his memory brings to us.
Mum smiles when she remembers him as a little boy.
She says, “He loved to help me at home and would regularly clean out the kitchen cupboards. The trouble was, he was so meticulous, it would take most of the day. After about half an hour he would say, “Cup of tea, Mummy?” and we’d sit and have our tea and cake and rest a while.
She also smiles tenderly when she remembers how sensitive he was. She says, “I would suddenly realize things were too quiet and I’d think, “Where is he?” After a hunt, I’d find him fast asleep rolled up in the mosquito net at the back of his bed.”
Mum says, “Obviously I’d said something to upset him and he’d hidden away to ‘lick his wounds’. But a cuddle and a kiss soon fixed everything.”
Mum also recalls that, after my brother was posted to Western Australia for his navy training, she received a telegram saying:
“Starving! Please send bread pudding!” (a family favourite).
She made the pudding and wrapped it up but she says, “When I paid the postage, I realized it would nearly have been cheaper to fly over with it myself than to pay the cost of sending a 4 kilo pudding by airmail from AirlieBeach to Western Australia!”
Perhaps the memory which most encapsulates my brother’s humour, endearing personality and ability to deal with adversity is the story of the haircut.
Feeling the heat in Darwin, my 14 year old brother took himself off to the barber and asked for a trim. The villainous barber spun the chair around from the mirrors and gave him a crew-cut. He was horrified when he saw himself in the mirror. He slunk home, donned a baseball cap and curled up on the sofa in a fetal position, refusing to speak to anyone.
After a while, though, he started to see the funny side of it and, with the twinkle back in his eye, he removed his cap, pulled a face like a monkey, let his arms hang loose, and began loping around the living room, chattering and shrieking like a chimpanzee. Poor thing! He received monkey themed birthday cards for the rest of his life. His boys even bought him a pair of gorilla slippers with eyes that lit up when he walked – and he wore them!
As a little girl, my brother was always by my side. In Darwin, he famously took me out for a Sunday walk in my very best dress. When we had not returned after an hour or two, Mum and Dad went looking for us – and found us picking over rubbish, looking for treasures, at the local tip.
When he was diagnosed with brain cancer his strength and humour helped us all cope. I remember him showing us a sketch that his doctor had done to show him where the tumour was in relation to his brain. There had been some additions to the sketch, though – his oldest son had got hold of it, added ears and a tail and transformed it into a drawing of a mouse. He thought that was hilarious.
Just last year, he arrived at our Christmas-in-winter celebration with a fake tattoo on his head, drawn by his son, featuring a train-track inked over his surgical scar, complete with a jaunty train and the words, Polar Express.
During my last conversation with my brother, we talked about all the silly things we’d done together and he said, “We were always the best of friends.”
He is gone now, but what is important will never change. I will still love him, and he will still make me laugh. That is his legacy.
I hope when I go – and when you go – love and laughter will be the gifts we leave behind. And what’s more, to his children and grand-children – let your memories of him remind you of the real meaning of life, and live your lives in pursuit of what is really important. When you die, if people talk about how much love and joy you brought to their lives, you have done your job. You, like him, will have left the world a better place, and your life, like his, will have been a success.