Who we are is what we leave behind

The last year and a half has been among the more difficult my family has ever experienced.

In April 2017, my father-in-law passed away, and this past January my dad died as well. In both cases, part of my responsibilities to these men had me cleaning out some of their spaces – my father-in-law’s work bench and by dad’s office – going through what they had left behind.

When we were visiting my mother-in-law last July, she gestured towards the garage and told me I was welcome to anything I thought I could use or need. As I began to go through the various shelves and drawers, I unearthed some treasures from his life. I came across part of the cattle brand he’d used on his farm for more than 30 years. I found some of the tools that had belonged to his father – 60 years ago, he had been the local mechanic in Shuler, Alberta, northeast of Medicine Hat. I found buckets of screws and parts that only he would have been able to correctly identify. And I found a 50-year-old notebook that none of his family had ever seen before, but which documented some of the work he’d done on another farm in the late 196s.

I have to admit, as I sorted through these things – packing some up for myself, some for my brothers-in-law, and some to be given away; I felt a little like I was trespassing.  After all, my father-in-law had been a farmer. A man who had worked much of his life with his hands … and to disassemble his tool collection felt a little like I was disassembling that which he had left behind.

I had the same feeling this spring as my brother and I packed up my dad’s office – particularly his music and all the volumes of research he’d done into the history of our family. Once again, I was parting out all that was left of my father: his desk and chair, the books he’d read and research he’d collected, even the guitar he’d so lovingly played for many years.

I think this feeling of unease was amplified because both of our dads had retired a number of years ago. Retirement had been accompanied with a move and (understandably) a significant amount of downsizing. Now, what had once been a farm full of machines and tools that had occupied decades of my father-in-law’s life was now packed into the corner of a garage, and sorting through it meant that I was packing up the legacy he had left behind. In the case of my dad, we were far removed from the houses I had grown up in and I found myself looking for something to grasp onto that would keep me tied to his life’s work.

It was a sad and unsettling experience. Sad, because I missed these fathers who meant so much to me, and unsettling, because I was focusing on the wrong things.

When Jesus speaks about the Judgment of the Nations (Matthew 25:31-46), He doesn’t talk about the things we’ve acquired, the successes we’ve achieved, or even the failures we’ve experienced. What He does talk about is relationships.

The criteria by which the righteous and unrighteous are separated is predicated in large part by the relationships each one cultivated in his or her life: feeding the hungry and satiating the thirsty, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner. St. John of the Cross goes so far as to say that “at the end of our life, we are judged by our love.”

In that context, I was wrongly looking at the collections of tools as the legacy my wife’s father had left behind. What I needed to recognize instead was the legacy he left in the heart of his beloved wife, his two daughters, and his son. I needed to recall the way he rejoiced over his 11 grandchildren, and the ways in which he selflessly gave to others – including the young men his daughters brought home and eventually married.

The truth is I am learning to do the same as I remember my own father – but this is something I’m still coming to grips with.

Most importantly, I’m coming to realize the need to orient my own life in the same way as I’ve seen it lived by the fathers who came before me. Someday, I too will die, and someone will need to go through my tools, my books, and my music. If those collections represent the most important things I’ve left behind, I will have failed in the mission God has entrusted to me.

The legacy that I am called to leave behind – that all of us are called to leave behind – is a life spent loving whomever God places in front of us in all the ways we are able. The rest – those things I felt so guilty going through after our families’ losses – is ultimately just more stuff.

Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” – Matthew 25:40

We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son Jesus.” – St. John Paul II

– Mike Landry is the chaplain for Evergreen Catholic Schools. He is based in Spruce Grove, Alberta.

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