My brother, Art, wanted to be remembered.
My brother died of ALS—Lou Gehrig’s Disease—in Kelowna, British Columbia, aged 51, nearly ten years ago. As I have told you before, I spent six months caring for him before his death. Early on, he asked me to write a book about his life. I asked “why?” He said, “I want to be remembered.”
Art might have wanted to be remembered, in part, because in spite of having many new friends, he was recently divorced and didn’t have children. Now, dying, those married years seemed like a lost Word document to him. He had no one to recall those years with, no one who he could talk with about shared triumphs or tragedies. His former wife had even packed up the few Suk-family heirlooms Art owned and carted them off to her new lakeside home. One of those heirlooms was a little rocking-chair foot rest that people hiding from the Nazis in my grandparents’ house, during World War II, had made by way of saying “thanks.” There was nothing old, nothing memorable, in his new house.
It is like our scripture says: “There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it . . . Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man.”
Taking stock of his life, Art felt the loss of anyone to reminisce with keenly.
Art though, like the poor wise man of our scripture, that maybe buildings could be his legacy. He was a construction project manager at Maple Reinders. He built waste treatment plants and runways and office buildings. He also oversaw the construction of a huge expansion of the Kelowna Airport terminal. But no one who works at those places knows that. He built the headquarters for a conservative Christian organization, Focus on the Family, in Vancouver. In thanks for his work, they placed a small memorial stone for Art at the garden of that building. Art would mention that stone to me, over and over. But I wondered how long it would be before people who saw it would just scratch their heads, and wonder, “well, who is Art Suke? Really?”
The truth is, even if his marriage had survived, and even if he had a dozen kids, and even if he had become the CEO at Maple Reinders, in the final analysis, Art wouldn’t actually be long remembered, because few people are.
This loss of memory is a major them in the book of Ecclesiastes, where the writer also says, for example, in the first chapter: “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them (1:11).”
I do genealogy as a hobby. A few months ago, I sent my DNA to a company that identifies other donors who might be distant relatives. Since then, I’ve been getting emails from strangers who are third and fourth cousins I didn’t even know existed. We can usually work out which great, great, great grandparent we share in common. But even so, these great-grands are forgotten, just a series of dates on paper and a tiny slice of DNA in my genome. No one remembers them. My brother was swimming against this tide, and he knew it, so he asked me to write a book about him, so that he would, unlike so many others, be remembered.
Why this drive to be remembered over against the impossibility of being remembered for more than fifty or sixty years as a living, breathing person? I have thought long and hard about this since my brother asked me to write the book, which I tried to do, but failed. It seems to me that “remember me” is a misplaced effort to grasp something related to being remembered, but more basic. Art’s “remember me,” was actually a deeply emotional longing to matter—to matter not merely in the sense of the poor wise man of our text who did something objectively great, something that would have made the six-o’clock news, but whose heroics were nevertheless soon forgotten. The cry, “Remember me,” is actually an echo of our primal need to be attached, to be securely joined to other people. We want each strand in our personal webs of love to last, because this love was the most important thing.
I’ve used that word, attachment, before. It is sort of technical—psychobabble—but I can’t think of another word that has more clarity. Attachment. What is it? Psychologists tell us it is that mysterious web of emotions and physical needs, of safety and comfort that we give and get from other people to create safety and give meaning to our lives. It is not exactly the same as love, but it is a key emotional fuel that powers love.Children come out of the womb attached to mom by an umbilical cord, but once it is cut, they instinctually do everything they can to nevertheless stay attached. After all, they are born absolutely helpless. When my youngest son David was born, at home, I saw, first hand, how quickly David grasped for his mother. You could see it in the way he pressed his head on Irene’s chest, taking in the feel and aroma of mother, the way he reached to her with his lips. He longed for her with all his heart, soul and mind.
Of course he did. She was his only safe harbour. Babies don't understand their environment and its dangers. If it is cold, they freeze. Unless they are fed, they'll starve. Although babies don't understand any of this about themselves, their brain comes equipped with a kind of emotional radar—the technical name is “mirror neurons,” emotional radar that searches for their caregivers, and locks onto them.
We've all seen attachment at work. Watch a small child exploring a slide in a playground, for example. Dad is sitting on a park bench a few yards away. The child, even after successfully negotiating the slide with dad's help, will constantly keep an eye on dad to make sure that dad remains close and available. The child wants to make sure dad is there, and feels more comfortable--more adventurous, even--so long as he knows that he's within of a few steps of the protective embrace of dad.
Or, watch a four-year-old following mom in the mall. Studies have shown that no matter how much mom encourages the child to catch up, the child will tend to walk behind at the exact distance that allows her to keep all of mom, head to toe, in her field of vision. The child wants to keep mom in full view because she's attached to mom—even though it seems to mom that the little girl is dawdling. Attachment radar never wanes as we age. We attach first to mom and dad, then brothers and sisters, then to best friends and mentors, and perhaps to partners. And attachment’s importance for our emotional, spiritual, and even physical nurture never subsides.
But facing death is a crisis for attachment, a realization that physically, attachment won’t last forever, that like a burning candle, it will eventually go out. So, as life progresses, as we get to my age, perhaps, and eventually as death approaches, we want to be remembered, especially by those we are most deeply attached to. Attachment, at this point in life, is experienced as a spiritual need, the puff of air left behind a slammed door.
The writer of Ecclesiastes knows this. Besides noting that we won’t long be remembered, that the desire to be remembered is vanity, he adds, about life, that it is lovely and precious when we are attached. The writer says, “But whoever is joined with all the living has hope” (9:4). The key word is joined—when we are attached to other people, when we have mutual needs and hopes and dreams that the other person is the key to fulfilling—then we are happy. Or again, later in this chapter, the writer of Eccl says, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (9:9). Or the husband. Or the friends. Or community.
Attachment. Even as adults, we long for it, need it, and if we are fully human, we offer it to others.
In any case, the vanity of our desire to be remembered hit me especially hard at Art’s burial. It was a warm sunny day in Kelowna. The sermon had been way too long. The crowd was restless. My sisters gave wonderful memorial speeches, but they were clouded by the many years of Art’s absence from our lives.
After the funeral we went to the cemetery. Walking up to the grave, a stranger said to me that it was a perfect spot for Art to be buried because it overlooked a golf course. “Golf was the most important thing in his life. He loved to golf. He lived for golf. He really died the last day he put down his driver. Now he’ll be able to commune with golf forever.”
And I thought, “Is that all there really is? No. Of course not” What Art longed for was attachment, enduring attachment, and the love attachment nourishes, as long as his life would last.
You know, sometimes, when I get up on the pulpit and start talking about how we have to love our neighbours, I feel as if I’m sounding like an old scratched record. Over and over again, I repeat the mantra. Love your neighbour. Reach out to the least and last. Welcome the migrant. It feels, sometimes, to me, like a new sort of legalism, like I am nagging you because, well, Jesus said it so you have to do it. So, do it. Do it. Love. Do it. And you have heard it all before.
But the truth about love is deeper and much more beautiful and practical. You see when you love, you join. When you love, you attach. When we love, you and I are both giving—and receiving—what everyone is most needful of. And then we flourish.
As you live and breathe, as you make contributions to the company or the charity, as you raise children or go out for a brew with friends, or golf, we should try to remember that this is the day, now is the hour, for nurturing, cementing and prioritizing how we are joined to each other—not only for the other’s sake, but for our own. We might not be personally remembered fifty years after we have passed away. However, spiritually and emotionally, we can enjoy the benefits of being part of each other, important to each other—beloved by each other, now. If, says the writer of Ecclesiastes, we choose to be wise.