Sometimes, in nameless dark spaces, I like to think about life after death. I do this because it strips events and goals of their messy impermanence and helps to place them in a broader perspective which, by and large, is a worthwhile exercise. Of course, formally speaking, there isn’t much for the dead after death. But every single time I conduct this arguably morbid exercise, I get this strong sentiment — a hazy, extrinsic desire that, once my days were written and closed, I be remembered.

This seems odd. I had long felt I understood the futility of finding self-worth or value in external elements — the pointlessness of material goods, status, excess riches. Logically, my mind understood that there is nothing post-death. All that matters is what’s happening now, as it always has and always will, and I knew this. We aren’t the ones who preserve our post-mortem legacy. So why bother worrying about it? But I just couldn’t shake this desire, I could not shake this near-primal want to be remembered. How could I achieve this less-often valued sort of legacy? How could I be remembered?

My father loved telling me about my grandfather. My appupa ­— grandfather in my Malayalam tongue ­— was still a small boy when his father passed, but old enough to remember it. His character exuded diligence in both thought and action, and he eventually served as a lieutenant colonel in the Indian Army, where he ended up working for decades. He worked tirelessly to give those close to him a good life, both inside and outside the home. He worked with the will of a man wanting to give his sons a life better than he ever had. I know this because of the countless stories my father proudly told me. I remember my appupa as a tall man with grayed hair, who always stood as if he was aware yet humble of his own deeds. It may have been many years since he passed, but I still remember him.

While I might have only heard about my appupa’s life, I witnessed much of my father’s. I saw him wake up early every day; I saw him work and pray and cry and shout and smile. I was there for all his anger and honesty, all his pain and his love. I was there for all the stories, adventures, sacrifices and everyday happenings. My father made many sacrifices, most of which I will never hear about or understand because of the age gap between us. When I was a child, most of what my father did went unappreciated, but not unnoticed. I would come to realize that he, like his father before him, worked tirelessly for something larger than himself. I didn’t only hear tales through the ages; I was there. I saw my father living his life, trying to be a good man.

Legacy, as it turns out, is not ordained by fame or fortune. It is purely about remembrance — at any scale. I know that in a few generations, my name will most likely be forgotten. There’s nothing to be done but to accept that fact. I can, however, take heed of my forefathers. They were men like any other: anxious, burdened, sad, afraid. But what matters is that they worked past that, they went beyond their own mortal aches and did whatever they could to ensure something better for those around them. They will not be forgotten for that.

We will be remembered within our families and through our children. We will be remembered through the tales we tell one another before bedtime. We will be remembered through tender, comforting memories, in times both dim and merry. True, this isn’t a grandiose legacy. There won’t be parades or speeches or poems in our honor. But even if it is just for a little while, we will live on.

Sometimes I dream of the day I would get to hold my baby son tightly to my chest. I would pray that I never have to let him go. I’d well up and smile and look at a face too pure to live in this horrible, cruel world. I’d hold a hand so tiny that it could barely wrap around my finger, a hand I’d hold and keep safe for as long as I possibly could. And as I sit there with him, it would dawn on me that my life was no longer solely mine. The reins have been handed over to this little child whom I would gladly protect and provide for.

Truth be told, I cannot wait to be with my child, standing with him through all the good times and bad, making sure he is doing fine and telling him that everything will eventually be all right. I cannot wait to tell my son about my appupa, the resolute army man who always stood tall. Most of all, I cannot wait to tell him about my father, and how he was not only a good man, but a great one.

Bharat Nair can be reached at bnair@umich.edu.

 

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