Every way I turn lately, I'm con fronted by reminders of the cycle of life.
My daughter-in-law, Cassie, is pregnant with my second grandchild, who we have lately discovered is another girl.
My first granddaughter, Harper, is 9 months old. I'm baby-sitting a lot this summer and am privileged to see her develop day by day. She's learned to clap her hands and fake a cough and play peek-a-boo. She's trying to crawl.
My great-niece, Morgan, is a red-haired toddler. She and her parents live in an apartment complex I own, and it tickles me that almost every time I pull into the parking lot, she's at her front door before I can get out of my car, shouting "Paul! Paul!" in that little, high-pitched voice.
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Earlier this year, my uncle passed away in Ohio and one of my cousins died in California. It doesn't seem long since I lost my mother and my wife.
I'm well into middle age — I call my 50s "middle age" even though hardly anyone lives into their 100s. My hair's gray, my joints are stiff and I have to shave my nostrils.
I think frequently about the generations of my family who came before me.
I don't know much about my mom's side of the family, but my dad's side is documented in a thick book, Thomas Prather 1604-1666: Descendents and Allied Kin. It consists of hundreds of pages of genealogical information about 8,000 people descended from or otherwise related to my first American ancestor, who arrived in Virginia in 1622.
For four centuries, Prathers have been getting born here and learning to walk and surviving childhood plagues and struggling through puberty and working at vocations they liked or hated and marrying people they adored or loathed. They've dreamed and procreated and worshiped and died and been buried by their survivors.The vast majority left behind few records other than birth or marriage entries in family Bibles, or wills and death certificates in county courthouses in Maryland or Kentucky or Texas. Like most of us, they didn't cut a very wide swath.
I speculate about what they hoped to achieve, what they feared, whom they protected, what they suffered.
Whatever all those things were, they're gone now. No one will ever know.
Watching my granddaughters and great-niece develop, remembering my mother, wife, uncle and cousin, thumbing through my family's genealogy, all tend to put my own life in a certain perspective. There will come a time when I will consist of little more than a name and a few dates on a family tree.
In my youth, I was comparatively ambitious. I spent years in graduate school. I wrote and wrote. I was going somewhere, even if I wasn't sure where.
But somewhere along the way I came to realize none of it really meant anything. None of it made me a better person. None of it made me happier, or at least not for more than a few days. None of it seemed to impress others much.
I started to understand, genuinely understand, that many of the clichés about human existence are true. That's why they're clichés.
Life is short. The past is gone, the future is unpredictable and all we have is today. No one on his deathbed ever said, "I wish I'd spent more time at work." And so on.
The author of Ecclesiastes saw this ages ago:
"It is good for people to eat well, drink a good glass of wine and enjoy their work — whatever they do under the sun — for however long God lets them live. ... To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life — that is indeed a gift from God. People who do this rarely look with sorrow on the past, for God has given them reasons for joy."
He wasn't telling us to become lazy or depressed or irresponsible.
He was telling us that what we do isn't likely to shake the world. So why should we fret and strive and worry about it?
He was telling us it's more important to have a job we enjoy than one we perform only because it might make us wealthy or famous. It's more satisfying to help our granddaughter learn to crawl than to go walking with the governor.
Relax, he was saying. Have a cookout with your kids. Spend the evening watching an old movie. It's all going to end soon enough anyhow. The world won't remember even 10 years after you're gone whether you got that big promotion.
But your grandchild might remember throughout her life you rolling around on the floor with her, laughing. She'll remember you taking her for ice cream. Those achievements will last, at least briefly.
Those are the things that matter, to the extent any of it matters.