In the end, all that matters in life is being truly loved
Last week, just after the family had gazed with appropriate awe at Wordsworth's gravestone on a trip to his one-time home town of Grasmere in the Lake District, conversation turned to what we all wanted on our own stone (or 'cenotaph', as my ambitious nine-year-old daughter foresaw) when the dark night finally swallows us up.
My six-year-old son opted for 'Geronimo!' – maybe he agrees with Peter Pan who said 'to die will be an awfully big adventure'. My daughter wanted a list of her envisioned accomplishments, starting with daughter and going on to include mother, actress, writer, artist and scientist. My husband is still locked in thought, torn between the religious instincts which took root in his childhood and his inclination towards short, simple 'Here Lies a Man'-type pithiness.
I deliberated, bearing in mind that if I went suddenly, this little coffee and cake chat would be the only guidance my family would have regarding my memorial. In the end I opted for 'She had a point'. I thought it was a nice (and vaguely feminist) balance for a woman who likes to win an argument, and whose life, ideally, meant something, if only a little thing.
I didn't think about it again until I read Robert Peston's article about his wife Sian Busby, who died of lung cancer last year, in this week's Radio Times.
If Peston wanted to convince people that his wife was a caring, clever, brave woman, he did her proud. His evocations of her energy and creativity (five novels, curating a museum, directing a 19-hour opera), her ability to continue radiating her old 'solicitious, supportive, witty, insightful, unselfish' self while enduring gruelling cycles of surgery and, eventually, a terminal diagnosis, are shatteringly moving.
Not just because Busby was clearly a gifted and impressive person who was battered by horrifically bad luck, but because Peston was, and clearly remains, in such awe of her.
But even more affecting is Peston's description of the impact Busby's diagnosis had on their marriage. I was initially shocked when he said her years of illness, facing uncertainty and then death, 'were wonderful years for Sian, Max, Simon and me'. But his explanation stays with me: 'The cancer did not haunt us. It helped us to understand what matters most in life: family, first and foremost; work that fulfils; friends, beauty and fun.'
In other words, knowing time was running out crystallised the significance, and the order of priority, of everything that makes up the stuff of life. It intensified the pleasure and meaning of good experiences, and blew away bad ones like they were filigree shadows. How many families ever get the privilege of having time together, united in such knowledge?
Peston's love letter to his wife poses a helpful hypothesis for those of us who routinely ask ourselves what is genuinely important and what just feels important because vanity makes us vulnerable to the appeal of impressing others. It convinced me that, unless we've achieved a truly towering status – we're Obama, or Einstein or Dostoevsky – ultimately, our 'meaning' is best measured by the effect of our absence on those we leave behind. Literally – who cares?
I think of the multitude of photo albums and diaries I thought I was maintaining so that I would never forget. And I wonder if, instead, they're to ensure that after I die, I'm understood as someone who cared about remembering.
As for the gravestone; maybe there's nothing better than 'She was loved'.