No, not only pictures of us remain.
When we're gone, we live on by the memories we created with others.
We’re up to over 320 subscribers. I’m genuinely shocked by this support. People have been sharing excerpts of my writing and that’s the most amazing feeling ever. This newsletter was inspired by a nice text message I received from my friend in how my sister inspired him to get out of his comfort zone and buy an olive green t-shirt. Now he loves the color. This newsletter is dedicated to anybody that has struggled with missing somebody and feeling like they’re gone forever and also to anybody that feels like they aren’t making a difference in others’ lives. You absolutely are, I assure you. Take the time to read this and sit with it. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Thank God Frank got rid of that mustache.
It’s easy to forget the Earth was once uninhabited by living things. For hundreds of millions of years, the Earth was a rock floating in the Universe, nothing really differentiating it from the infinite other rocks floating in the Universe. Eventually, livings things appeared due to a few quirks of chemistry. More interestingly, though, is that living things begin to transform the environment. These microbes were tiny, essentially invisible, and did not have the power to think or conceive of the environment. In a way, they aren’t that different from rocks aside from being “alive.”
Every single day, we’re surrounded by an altered environment. We are humans—collections of cells that have evolved the ability to think, solve problems, communicate, and contemplate our existence—traversing a world we created, both physically and societally. When you break it down, society is nothing more than a conception. It isn’t real. The taboos that exist—talking about death, cheating on our significant others, lying, whatever—exist because of rules we’ve implemented to make this existence better for others. As we live our lives day to day, we travel using human inventions, we pay bills because of human constructs, we exist as living things—materialistically composed of the same particles that make up rocks, chimps, and microbes but capable of so much more—making a difference on the world around us. As microbes changed the environment billions of years ago, we as individuals change the worlds of those around us that happen to share the same blip in time.
Then, one day we’re gone.
And only pictures of us remain.
Or at least that’s what it can seem like. I’ve watched three of the most important people I’ve ever known as they took their final breaths. It’s a strange experience to watch a human die. Not many of us have watched someone we care about die. Maybe we’ve seen an insect or raccoon die, maybe even a dog or cat we really loved. When you watch someone you love die, you’re actively watching their final moments. That’s not a light circumstance. As I watched my sister die, I was overcome with the realization that I would never create a new memory with her alive. I would never crack a joke and hear her laugh again; I would never get a text from her bitching about the nurses waking her up at 5am only for me to respond with some tough love; I would never get to tease her about her goofy modeling facial expressions. There would never again be a complete family picture with her; there would be no new memories created ever again. The only way a new memory could be created was by somebody telling me a story about my sister that I hadn’t previously known. All that remained of my sister were pictures and videos that had been taken over the years. But even those seemed so different, suddenly coated with the sepia filter that we flash over in memoriam compilations. The photos of my sister began to carry a spiritual message; photos and videos are a moment captured in time. They are miraculous in that way, that we can see a person fleshed out in a two-dimensional plane.
When we die, our corporeal bodies are gone. Some of us are religious or spiritual and believe the essence of who we are—our souls—remains around even once our bodies have gone cold. I’d venture to say that even for those that are as atheistic as they come still feel the presence of those they’ve lost in some way. We see our dearly departed in the passing glimpse of a stranger that barely resembles them; we hear them in our laughs or our coughs (Alyssa and I had similar coughs); we feel like they’re talking to us when a song that reminds us of them comes on randomly. When somebody we love is gone, it’s a paradoxical feeling; they are gone, fossilized in pictures and text messages, but we still feel them present, always there in the back of our mind as memories.
We often think about death as the end of our lives and the end of our impact on the world. But the impact we leave on the world is so much broader than we realize. Alone, it’s true we are small. It can often feel like we aren’t making a difference in the world or in others’ lives. When people aren’t telling us how much we mean to them, how much they love us, or how they admire the way we’re trying to make a difference, we can get down on ourselves. We all have insecurities and most of us are probably insecure about our place in the world.
It’s crazy how memories exist both in our mind and our brain. They take up actual space; our brains, as supercomputers, store memories in the folds in our brain. We actually make a physical imprint on the brains of others in the form of memories. Our lives have an impact on the world around us more than we tend to realize.
While we’re here, our daily life makes us forget very simple, profound truths. I think we all mostly know the profound truths of life. We just forget them. Life helps us relearn them. Re-learning them can be extremely painful, but every struggle is a chance to learn a lesson. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t recognize the hardships we go through, but it is to say that we have to continue to move forward. The more we’re convinced of our lack of influence on the lives of those around us, the less credit we give ourselves. We have to learn how to view ourselves outside of ourselves; as in, learn to recognize you are a human in the same way everybody else is. No shit, right? I think it’s more complex than that, though. When we’re hard on ourselves, the vast majority of the time it’s because we’re convinced we are unique compared to everybody else and we should have been better. This intrusive thought says a lot about our beliefs about ourselves, about life in general, and about those that we lose along the way. It’s important we care about our legacy, even if it’s only so that we can learn to recognize the legacies of our loved ones.
This week, it was announced that a posthumous album, Circles, by Mac Miller would be released. Upon that news, a single from Circles titled Good News was released. Considering the legacy of a beloved artist can actually give us a lot of insight into legacies in general, and we can extrapolate some important lessons about how we grieve people we knew personally. Mac Miller recorded Good News and Circles without knowing he was going to die. He hadn’t shied away from talking about overdose, but he didn’t know his death was imminent. It’s strange to say this, but this sentiment is partially why I write. I don’t know exactly when I’m going to die—most of us don’t—but I have a pretty good idea of how I will. That part doesn’t matter too much. What does matter to me is that my writing will last a long time after me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my legacy. When you’re confronted with mortality and a shortened life expectancy from a very young age, you tend to think about these existential problems. One could absolutely argue the more time we spend thinking about our legacy, the less we’re actually living the life that we should live, thus robbing ourselves of time while preoccupied with our legacy, which is mostly out of our control anyway. I do think there’s value in considering our legacy; there is good in considering how we will be remembered so that we can decide how we want to live.
Hearing a new Mac Miller song for the first time was surreal; his words carried a heavier tone when recognizing that they were some of the last he ever recorded. His words feel more prescient, more ephemeral than any others; his gravelly, calm voice carrying a sepia tone like never before. It’s fascinating to consider, that Mac Miller still has a presence in the world some sixteen months after his death. If you’ve seen the film Coco, you’ve already thought about this concept. It’s said that we die two deaths: when we physically die, and when we’re thought about for the very last time by somebody that knew us. Mac’s art was always going to outlive him. This is true for all of us.
It may seem like my sister is gone. Physically, she is. It hurts to look at photos. I feel frustrated that I didn’t take more photos or Snapchats with her. That’s one reason why I record so many Snapchats and Instagrams and take so many photos with my friends, family, and Duncan now. That’s why I try to capture me joking around with them, so that good memories, laughs, and smiles are cemented in time. Social media has some negative aspects, but if there’s a positive about it, it’s that it allows us to create portraits of who we are that outlive us. Alyssa’s social media presence has given me a relationship with her that continues after her death. Funny posts she wrote on my wall continue to pop up that make me smile. Her Instagram posts documenting her hospital stays are a welcome reminder of both how hard her life often was and how she persevered through the worst of it.
My sister—and this is true for all of us—made an imprint on many, many lives. She made an impact on every person who she came in contact with. We can convince ourselves that we aren’t making a difference in others’ lives because sometimes we don’t hear that we are. We all need to be reminded that we mean something.
The only new memories I can make of my sister are by hearing the way she influenced others’ lives and how she’s continuing to affect their lives, nearly two years after her death. When a friend with CF (the skilled photographer and Patriots fan Ken) messaged me the other day to tell me that my sister convinced him to buy some olive green t-shirts even though he had previously hated the color, my heart melted. It was such a small thing. Alyssa had casually suggested he get out of his comfort zone a few years ago, and now he purchased a midnight green iPhone because of that conversation. So simple yet so elegant that a small gesture years ago is continuing to affect somebody.
My sister may have been special in a few ways. She really was. But what’s so remarkable about this is that this is true for all of us. Every time we create a new memory with somebody—whether that’s by making them laugh, giving them advice, irritating them, or whatever else—we are impacting their lives in a way that will long outlast that immediate moment. What a beautiful concept to consider.
We are all bigger than ourselves. When we’re gone, maybe all that’s concrete that remains are photos, videos, and text messages, but it’s more than that. We live on in others’ memories of us. We live on in the words we wrote. We live on in the stories we told and in the stories others tell of us. We live on in the compliments (and criticisms, so be wary of the bad-faith criticisms you give) that we give others. We live on, always, in the ways we changed others’ lives, which we, in fact, do every day.
Consider how good it feels to be told you’re making a difference in somebody’s life, even if it’s as small as somebody telling you your caption made them laugh or think. It’s easy to feel like you’re not making a difference in others’ lives. One of the best ways we can remind others that they’re loved is by sending a nice, heartfelt message. I’d encourage you to do that today. You never know how much they could use it.
So no, not only pictures remain. We live on in the relationships and memories we created. That will always be bigger than our material possessions.
Thanks for reading, as always. I’ve had to self-promote more than I ever have over the last few months and that’s been a very difficult thing for me. It feels self-absorbed and self-important. I sincerely don’t intend for it to be, but with any type of art or endeavor, we have to do it a little bit. For anybody that’s made the growing pains a little easier by sharing any of my writing, that support does not go unnoticed, I promise.