A week ago my wife and I learned that her cancer had spread to the lining of her brain, and that time is running out for her. In a phone call, my mother-in-law asked me what I believe happens to us after we die. This is my reply.
I believe that acts of kindness are not wasted. Those who receive them, witness them, or even hear about them, are more likely to behave kindly themselves in the future. Kindness emits a binding force that unites people over time, families and friends, and from there flows into increasingly coherent, compassionate and civil communities.
I believe that our words live on. I remember being astonished to hear my parents’ words come out of my own mouth after I had children. Some words that were first uttered thousands of years ago live on, though we have no idea who the authors are. Because Leslie uses words well, but not in a competitive or self-aggrandizing wit, we may not carry Dorothy Parker-like phrases around, living on as a monument to her cleverness. What we will carry instead is her quiet insistence on getting it right.
As a writer, Leslie lives on in her products. The words she released into the world are like her: accurate and honest, with understated humor and a deep vitality. As a social historian she championed the value of ordinary people living their every day lives. In her book about Iowa photographer Pete Wettach, Leslie gave people a slice of their history which otherwise would have been lost. It got old people talking to their children and grandchildren, so that their memories, too, have not been lost.
Of course our values live on. If a parent insists on order, then order will be had. It may take two generations of people who live like slobs on purpose, but eventually, their children’s children will counter-rebel and order will be established once more. If a parent is political, her children will pay attention to power and its just and unjust uses. All kinds of other things live on, through the miracle and mystery of genetics. A girl has her great-aunt’s eyebrows, her grandfather’s temper, the exact shape of her mother’s head.
I have been changed because I have loved Leslie and have been loved by her. For example, not only did she influence my choice of my second career, but her love also helped me to succeed at it. Anyone whom my work might help has her, indirectly, to thank.
That example may be clear, but there are thousands of untraceable tiny ways that anyone who met her on the street, saw her briefly on television, or heard a friend talk about her were changed. I am amazed at the consistency of that influence. When someone is all over the place, their tiny influences from moment to moment and encounter to encounter could cancel each other out. With someone like Leslie, who has such integrity, and such a coherence and constancy of self, all of these momentary encounters reinforce each other, and they multiply.
I do not need God, or the Messiah, do not need reincarnation or the immortality of the soul, nor some cosmic continuity of consciousness outside of a body, in order to believe that we live on. We live on in the effects of our actions that touch other people, in our words, and in our works. We live on in our children and those who remember us, but tiny bits of us continue on and on even without memory, as long as human culture continues, as long as people live by the examples set by others, as long as having been loved helps us to love.