Leaving a Legacy
As a hospice nurse, I have had the privilege of witnessing people walk through the last chapter of their lives. Some are young, many are old, but they are all faced with the same question: What impact did my life have on this world—what legacy do I leave? These questions were first posed to me as a freshman at the University.
It was clear this community I had joined expected more from me than to do well in school and join a few clubs. From day one of Orientation, we heard about the Augustinian values of truth, unity and love. The University challenged me to discover my gifts and use them to be a leader on campus. The deeper I journeyed into the University community, the more I learned about myself, and the more was expected of me to uphold the values upon which it was founded. I had many mentors on campus whom I trusted to help guide my life decisions while in college. Each would frame their advice around this theme. what do you want your story to be? What impact do you want to leave on this community?
So, early in my college experience, I set out to create my legacy, thread by thread. I signed up for everything. I volunteered for Sunshine day, played intramural sports, did weekly service in Philly and was a Eucharistic minister. I studied abroad as a nursing student, and over the years I held leadership positions on ROTC Battalion staff, Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Committee and Retreat Council. I led Search and a break trip. I had an awesome experience and was convinced I had left my mark. Despite all my efforts and achievements today, you don’t know me. My name no longer echoes through the halls, professors and administrators would have trouble placing me by name. The legacy I thought I had created was one I could put down on paper, add to my resume, one I could show by a medal, a pin or a t-shirt. But it turns out, these things fade over time.
One thing I have learned from caring for patients on hospice is that your story, the legacy you leave, is not one that can be presented on a piece of paper or demonstrated with an award. I spend hours with people who are facing the end of their life, facilitating life reviews.
Most times I never know what each man or woman did for work, what career path they took or where they have traveled. I rarely know what level of education they have achieved or where they went to college, if they went at all. I don’t get to see their promotions, awards they have earned or things they have acquired such as property, cars or clothing. These patients have showed me that these are not the building blocks of a legacy that lasts.
Their legacies are created with threads of generosity, presence, community and love. These legacies are revealed not on a piece of paper, but through people. I see it in the group of girlfriends who write letters to be read aloud to their friend who is dying of breast cancer at 48 years old, while she rests quietly in a hospital bed. These letters were filled with humor, memories, gratitude and grief for the loss of such a special friend. I see a legacy revealed through the group of 20 students who gather at the bedside of an 18-year-old sick with osteosarcoma. Even though she was unable to respond, each friend spoke out loud, saying goodbye and recalling what they will miss about her, telling funny stories about the joy she had brought to their lives.
I see a legacy revealed through the adult children of a woman with COPD who sacrifice time, miss holidays and take leave from careers, to care for her like an infant. Feeding, bathing, dressing and entertaining with such patience.
I see it revealed through the 90-year-old husband who cares for his wife suffering from dementia for many years. When he realizes the end of her life is near, he just stops and sits watch by her bedside, holding her hand, kissing her face, saying thank you.
I often affirm these caregivers for the care they provide our patients and the response is universal: “She cared for me when I needed it most” or “He did so much for so many people and he would do the same for me. ” Their legacies live on in the memories they have created and the people they have touched through the very same values of truth, unity and love taught to us at Villanova.
These building blocks of generosity, presence, community and love remain long after we leave the University. I see now that it was the nights I sat up talking about life with my girlfriends in Stanford, or the moments I was truly present to someone on a my trip to Ecuador, that remain a part of Villanova.
It was the times I chose to go to a basketball game instead of studying for a test, or the impromptu coffee dates at Holy Grounds. These moments are like threads, and they are intertwined with the strings representing truth, unity and love, to form the fabric of Villanova that is everlasting. It is not what we do, but how we live and love that makes Villanova the community it is today. What will be your legacy?