My mother, her brother and her sister all lived with Alzheimer’s disease. In a family prone to Alzheimer’s, I have watched this process of unraveling up close. I feel the urgency of writing this down to remember. We all need mechanisms for recording the stories of our lives in order to remember from them, learn from them, and leave them behind for others.
We are all only a step away from losing the stories of our lives. I write to remember. It is a strategy not unlike the multitude of calendars or a phalanx of Post-its or a daily journal. It is also a strategy for learning. And for determining who and what we are – and who and what we yearn to be.
It is our stories of ourselves and of each other we keep in our hearts. That’s what makes us us. “Who are you?” someone asks. “I am the story of myself,” comes the answer.
My Mom used to teach us with stories. One she heard in church about generosity I’ll always remember because I wrote it down.
Mom said, “Keep one hand open and clench the other into as tight a fist as you can. Now open the clenched fist and compare how much sand you have in each other – the hand you clenched and the one you left open. Which one has the most sand in it?”
“The open hand,” I said.
In trying to hold on to the sand, we squeeze it out.
And then Mom would go on to explain that there are people in life who hold their hands open, and there are those whose hands are chronically shut. There are those who use their open hands to help others to their feet. And there are those whose hands are closed to connection, particularly with those they perceive as different from themselves.
What does it take to have a generous nature, to hold your hand open, to live a life in which you give when you don’t have, when you gift rather than hold, and when you are generous enough to see the deeply rich humanity in people unlike you?
Generosity, it turns out, is a way of being in the world, not a way of giving to the world. It has little to do with giving gifts and everything to do with giving space to others to be who they are.
A Life in Review
In my work at Hosparus Health, we encourage people to use a “Life Review Workbook” to record their life’s sacred moments to share with family and friends.
We ask our hospice patients to reflect on their life history, especially those parts they think their family may not know, or that are most important to them. This will help those they love know and understand them more fully. We encourage them to write about their early years, teen years and adult years.
The review includes the following questions:
- What are the two or three most wonderful things that have happened in your life?
- What do you feel most proud of in your life?
- How would you like to be remembered?
- What values are especially important to you?
- Are there particular things you feel still need to be said to your loved ones?
- What are your hopes and dreams for your loved ones?
- What have you learned about life that you would like to pass along to others?
- What is the greatest regret in your life?
- Is there anyone to whom you need to say “I’m sorry,” “Thank you,” “I love you” or “I forgive you?”
- Are there other precious memories, stories or thoughts you want to include so they are not forgotten?
It’s astounding that every other human being you will ever meet has the same richness and texture of experience and memory and story as you do – whether that’s a 12-year-old girl or a university professor or a person in a homeless shelter or a hospice patient. We are all complex, textured, layered beings – all of us. This is true of every single person we meet. This is the story of life that needs to be written.