My maternal grandfather is probably the wealthiest person I’ve ever known. A ‘self-made man’ in the truest sense of the word, he grew up poor yet built a series of diverse, successful businesses through hard work and ingenuity. He was happily married for over sixty years, raised six daughters, loved God, invested in his local community and saw fourteen grandchildren and two great grandchildren come into the world.
As a kid, I loved visiting my family in Tilbury, Ontario. There were endless afternoons in the pool, homemade apple pie and tons of cousins to play with. For most of my childhood, I liked being in Tilbury more than Toronto. I always felt safe and loved there, like life made sense and good things happened to good people. One of the things I loved most was sitting with my grandfather in his favorite armchair. I rememeber his booming laughter as he would talk and joke with me. I heard a lot of stories and advice from that chair.
He was sitting in it when I went for what would be our final visit. It was the fall of 2014 and he was dying of cancer. That same chair, from which he seemed like an invincible giant in my youth, almost swallowed him now.
“What’s left?” I asked him. His prognosis had been terminal from the beginning, and he was in a lot of pain. He had told me not much earlier that he wanted to live until all of his assets were sold, so the burden wouldn’t be left on his daughters. That was done now. I had to know:
I used to think that legacy was measured in winning and popularity: How much success could I accomplish? How many possessions could I acquire? How many of you could I convince to love me?
My secret hope was that if I accomplished and acquired and convinced enough, then maybe (just maybe) I would be able to love myself.
Financially speaking, my grandfather would have been considered successful by most people’s standards. He started off working as a milkman to support his family, and ended up building a medical centre for the small town he grew up in. He also owned two laundromats, a diner and a car wash in between. In 1963, he sold a million dollars worth of life insurance for Purdential. I bet that bought a lot of milk.
He was also very well known and respected in his community. He was an active member of his local church, donated to charities and treated others with warmth and sincerity.
Back when I was a little kid sitting on his knee in that armchair, I didn’t know any of those things of course. When I got older, I didn’t care.
Let me tell you what I did care about, though:
I cared about the time he dove into the backyard pool fully clothed after my brother’s turtle floatie tipped over.
I cared about the way he explained to me that a devout Muslim was probably in better touch with God than most Christians were. He himself was a Christian, and I admired him so much for saying that.
I cared about how he was such an ingeniuos and determined worker, but stressed that money didn’t matter if I wasn’t happy. He sincerely told me I was better off being a milkman and spending time with my family than being rich if my job made me miserable. At the time I didn’t even know he’d been a milkman himself.
I cared about the loving, committed relationship he and my gramma modelled for us. She passed away just a few short months before him, and I was there in the hospital room when he leaned over, kissed her forehead and whispered: “It’s ok honny, you can go”. That is courageous.
I was thinking about things like this when I sat with him on that fall day in my aunt’s house in Leamington. His own home, where I had run and played and ate my gramma’s home cooked meals and felt safe and loved, had been sold. “So quickly,” he mused.
He didn’t have an answer for “What’s left?”. Maybe he didn’t hear me ask. He was in a lot of pain and on a lot of medication. Or maybe he didn’t know himself.
That question haunted me for a long time, but I think I finally understand why I needed to ask it.
I needed to know, after building such an impressive legacy, what was left in life for an 83 year old man suffering with terminal cancer?
As I sit here crying and typing this article on a cell phone in India, a 35 year old man shaping the course of his own legacy, I would have to say my grandfather’s answer and mine would likely be the same:
The answer is Love.
Not long before he passed, my grandfather’s finances were settled and a cheque came. Each grandchild and great grandchild had recieved an equal and generous share of his estate. Looking at the figure, something hit me:
It was quite an accomplishment to be able to leave so much money to so many people. It proved that he had been successful and acquired a lot.
It paled in comparison to all of the love he had given while he was here.
…I know I won’t be the first or last person to say this, but I would have given every dollar from that cheque to have my grandfather back.
When I look at the world around me today, I see a lot of pain. But I also see a lot of potential.
What is the point of achieving success if we don’t have deep and meaningful relationships with those around us to celebrate? What is the point of hoarding material wealth on a planet which is so obviously sick and in desperate need of care? Who will be left to sing our praises if we continue to act in shortsighted, selfish ways which hasten our own demise?
Instead of building legacies, I invite each and every one of us consider being legacies.
On Pink Floyd’s “Breathe”, Roger Waters sings:
“For long you live and high you fly
And smiles you’ll give and tears you’ll cry
And all you touch and all you see
Is all your life will ever be”
We don’t get to take anything with us. But we can leave something behind far more valuable than money or skyscrapers or stories:
We can leave Love.
Every day, we each have countless opportunities to share Love with the world around us.
Every time we smile at a stranger.
Every time we share what we really think and how we really feel.
Every time we ask ourself, ‘What would the best version of me do right now?’, and then do it even if it’s scary or awkward or we don’t know how it will be recieved.
Every time we make this choice, we are sharing our most precious, most beautifully unique gift with the world:
We are sharing our Love, which really means we are sharing Ourself.
People are watching us.
Edwin Schramek shared himself with many people. His love inspired many lives, including my own, to be bigger, brighter and better than we thought we could be. That’s a legacy worth living up to.
A good question to ask might be “Who is your Edwin Schramek?”
A better question to ask is “Who could you be an Edwin Schramek for?”