I am sitting exploring the world from my chair. It’s not the real world I explore, only a flat rendering on a glowing screen. I scroll and zoom and pinch and click. A gentle pressure and slide of my index finger skips hundreds of miles. I am hovering above a town called Uncertain, now floating over a place called Moon, just a couple miles down the road from a place called Tom. I am transported back to long family road trips as a child, when I would study our old, tattered road atlas with the red cover. My fingers unsteady from the bumps in the road, I would scour the minute print of the index for unusual place names, and traverse the grid to find my destination. Giggling, satisfied, I’d lay my head back on the seat, smiling at the thought of a city called Normal.
Now, years later, my fingertip on the laptop touch pad caresses patches of green pixels: National Grasslands, Wildlife Refuges, Bird Sanctuaries. Their unfamiliar, multi-syllabic names are the faded relics of ancient nations. Where now are the Eufala people? The Caddo? The Nacogdoches? Where lie the dead men and women who gave names to these places?
How many abandoned hamlets dot the earth? How many collapsed saloons and empty silos? How many dried-up wells and silent schoolhouses? How many crumbling homes and overgrown streets? Where now are those ones who lived and cried? who laughed and sighed, and triumphed and suffered and smiled, then died? How many births and marriages and victories and harvests and festivals did these sagging roofs once jubilate over? How many trysts and kisses and promises and lockets and sobs did these dead trees once shade? How many frenzies and fevers and passions did these doors obscure? How many lies and tricks and betrayals and swindles and cheats did these shattered windows exposed? How much seething anger, impotent rage, callous brutality, and outright oppression did these decaying floorboards support? Oh, if the earth were made to talk, what secrets would it speak?
Our obituaries all read pretty much the same. So-and-So was born to Mr. Such-and-Such & Mrs. Something-or-Other in This-or-That Place. So-and-So lived for a number of days. So-and-So’s time was spent in some permutation of education, work, marriage, and the production of offspring. So-and-So enjoyed and found satisfaction in a variety of pursuits. Things were good at times. At other times, they were not so good. So-and-so grew old (or died young). So-and-so died. He or she is survived by some family members (or maybe their lineage ends there) and will be buried at Some-Place-or-Other at An-Appointed-Time. You may pay your respects at the home of the bereaved at A-Specified-Time.
The hour has grown late. I don’t know why I am thinking of people I don’t know and the untold passions and agonies of forgotten men and women. Recently when I was visiting home, I was sitting in the living room with my mother. She had just detailed and enumerated the branches of our extensive family tree and the tragedies and triumphs of the lives of relatives I didn’t even know I had. She sat sipping her tea on the white couch and after a long silence she remarked, “I sometimes think our lives are like footprints in the sand. I tell you stories about my grandfather, because I saw him and I remember him. You might remember some stories and tell your children, but to you they are only stories. Your children will forget, and he will be forgotten. And just like that, we will be forgotten some day too.” She said this with no trace of bitterness or resentment. I wanted to cry. I remember once when I was a child I realized someday no one would remember my name, and it made me feel so sad and small.
But what will be important for us when we lie dead in our graves? What use is fame and acclaim for the unseeing, unhearing, unbelieving dead? If there is no Afterlife, what use can posthumous glory and adoration bring to a decaying corpse? If death cuts short the pleasures of the flesh, what point is there in bequeathing a legacy we will never get the satisfaction of witnessing? What use is striving, if the end of our short, brittle lives is the end of our consciousness? Though to be certain, belief in life after death is no prerequisite to hard work and effort and initiative, though I have found it to impart a certain sense of urgency and duty and eagerness to my step.
Ah, I digress… More importantly, what investments can we make now that will pay dividends after we die? What actions can we take now to try to produce some sort of legacy that will benefit people once we are dead and buried and hear and see and move no more? What efforts can we spearhead and engage in and contribute to while we still breathe and think and speak and ambulate and strike?
I leave you with this beautiful du’aa from the Qur’an, made by the prophet Ibrahim AS
رَبِّ هَبْ لِي حُكْمًا وَأَلْحِقْنِي بِالصَّالِحِينَ
وَاجْعَل لِّي لِسَانَ صِدْقٍ فِي الْآخِرِينَ
وَاجْعَلْنِي مِن وَرَثَةِ جَنَّةِ النَّعِيمِ