I don’t know whether it’s my Southern culture or the influence of my grandmother’s Eastern European heritage, but I grew up to have a pretty straightforward view of death (coupled with an occasionally morbid sense of humor). Death is something my family has always talked about honestly. So it’s not particularly surprising that I’ve thought about my own death.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t sit around pondering it, but I’m aware that death can be unexpected. Maybe that’s because I have a heart condition (not life-threatening, it just slightly increases my odds of dropping dead. You can read about it here). Or because the news itself is a constant reminder that life can be ripped away at any moment. Or it’s because of those let’s talk about life insurance cards I get from my insurance company around my birthday every year. (Um, thanks?)
Whatever the cause, I realized that if death did come for me unexpectedly, I needed to be able to say goodbye to some people I love. Or, more accurately, they needed to be able to hear goodbye from me.
So I opened my laptop one day to write my potential goodbyes. It’s a weird thing, sitting down to write letters to be read after your death, ones you hope you’ll have to keep updating for a few more decades. How do you even start? “Dear Loved One, these words are coming to you from The Great Beyond and thus you must heed my Jacob Marley-esque warning…”
A strange thing happened as I wrote: I began to appreciate my life more, every angle and nuance, even the frustrating edges. It’s not that I took it for granted before—I try to never take my life for granted—but with every word, I started to value each second that much more. Every goodbye I wrote, every attempt to comfort a loved one, made me more determined to appreciate the good AND the bad in my life, to embrace each moment. (No, I’m not going skydiving or anything. I have no desire to get closer to death. Heart conditions and skydiving are generally not a recipe for living.)
It’s a strange perspective-shifter, preparing for your own eventual death. It’s one thing to acknowledge it by creating a will. It’s another thing altogether to write personal letters, and it’s an exercise I highly recommend.
Life is precious. We say that all the time, but too often we don’t act like it. We complain about unpleasant moments, vent about temporary frustrations, whine about momentary setbacks. But those things, they’re part of the life we declare is precious, so they too are precious.
One day I’ll be gone. So will you. What do you want your loved ones to know?
Confession: I’m a bit of a coin junkie. Not enough to know a lot about coins, but enough to squirrel away change to sort through later.
That’s exactly what I was doing a couple weeks ago—digging through change to see if any of the coins were worth holding onto. As I dug through a pile of pennies, I marveled at the shiny ones, although they were generally newer and not what I was looking for. And I winced when I found ones covered in who knows what, battered and barely recognizable.
And as I sorted and sifted, I noticed something that I found striking: it wasn’t always easy to guess the year of the coin based on its appearance. I mean, you’d think the new ones would be shiny and the older ones dull, but that wasn’t always the case.
Take these four pennies, for example.
They’re all the same age, almost two decades old. And yet, life has treated them differently. The bottom right one is still quite shiny, relatively unmarred by two decades of being tossed around and changing hands, whereas the years definitely show on the top left one. The other two fall somewhere in between in terms of wear.
It’s interesting to imagine the journeys these coins have taken. It’s likely the two on the top row have had longer journeys. The D they bear denotes minting at the Denver mint, while the other two were created in Philadelphia. Since I grew up in NC and now live in VA, the D coins have always been slightly less common and therefore a more interesting discovery.
All four of these pennies began the same way: freshly minted, shiny, shaped out of the same composition of zinc and copper. But life treated them differently. Their journeys over the past nineteen years have resulted in different appearances. But they all have the same value.
People are much like pennies. Our journeys vary, and the wear-and-tear of life shows on us in unique ways. Like these pennies, hardships sometimes happen to us. But unlike these pennies, we get to make choices.
There is much we can’t control, but we do get to decide how we respond to the nicks and dings from the sharp edges of life. And though the shiny penny may seem ideal, it’s the dirty, dinged-up penny that probably has a better story to tell. It’s a fighter, that penny.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get to the end of my life still a shiny penny, one that sat safely on a shelf, valuing a pretty surface over the scars of living. I don’t want to run from a fight or cave to the pressures. When I get knocked down, I don’t want to stay down or slink away to safety. I want to get back up, no matter how many times I get knocked down again. I’ll accept those dents. I’ll wear those scars. I won’t hide from the hard times—I’ll fight my way through them.
Because I don’t want to be a pretty penny; I want to be the one with a story to tell.