Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

Like millions of other people, I’ve spent the past few months obsessed with the soundtrack to the Broadway musical Hamilton. If you’re not familiar with the play, it dramatizes the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, telling the story through modern American musical styles. It is brilliant and funny and moving. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to it, and I still cry every time. Before he puts young Hamilton in charge of a battalion of soldiers to fight a crucial Revolutionary War battle, General George Washington sings words of paternal wisdom and caution:

“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory –
You have no control
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

The last line comes up a few times later in the play, and becomes the question asked in the final song. Throughout his life, Hamilton obsessed about his legacy. How would he be remembered? It’s a question we all wrestle with at some point, especially those who know they are nearing the end of their lives. Who will remember us? What will they say about us after we’re gone? What can we create that will outlive us?

As Washington told Hamilton, much of this is out of our control. Children who are supposed to carry on a legacy sometimes die before their parents. A spouse who has been entrusted with years’ worth of stories and the most intimate moments of one’s life may be robbed of them all by dementia. Siblings who have known us since we were born might drift away as a result of physical or emotional distance over time. And those we leave behind when we die may simply not remember us as we would want to be remembered.

We all deal with this in our own ways, trying to leave some evidence of our existence that will remain after we are gone from the world. I did so by writing a book about some crucial moments of my life. The thought that some copy of that book may still be picked up off a shelf after I’m dead is a comfort in my moments of existential angst. Other people start companies, construct buildings, donate money to causes they care about, create art that gives others a glimpse into their experience of life, or pour their lives into shaping the next generation of children. One way or another, we all tell our own stories while we’re alive, and we hope that someone will remember our stories – and us – when we’re gone.

Being a hospital chaplain has allowed me the honor of being entrusted with a lot of people’s stories, especially people nearing death. They want me to hear about the time they flew cross country to see their favorite singer in concert and got pulled up on stage to dance with him, about the blind date that seemed like a disaster until a conversation with the waitress who turned out to be the love of his life, about the college professor whose faith in her gave her the courage to pursue her dream career, about the child whose life was far too brief for all the love his parents had to give. I listen and take it all in, knowing how important it is to carry their stories. Because of confidentiality rules, I may not always be able to repeat them, but I do my best to be like Mary, treasuring up all these things and pondering them in my heart.

In a few days, I’ll be helping with the funeral of a wonderful woman whose life on earth ended way too soon. I know I’ll be telling parts of her story for a long time to come, as will her family, members of the church congregation she belonged to, the many friends she loved so well, and the countless children whose lives she touched as a school librarian. But her daughter’s words on Facebook lately have reminded me that it’s not just up to us. Even when we die, her stories won’t die with us. In the last days of her life, her 3-year-old granddaughter asked to be read stories from her children’s Bible about Christ’s suffering and his resurrection. I’ve cried so many times in sadness as I watched this brave woman being decimated by cancer the past few months, but when I heard about those Bible stories, I cried tears of gratitude. When I listen to Hamilton now and hear that song ask, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” I will think of Mama Deb and her little Brigid. I will remember what she believed and knew, that she and her stories are safe with the One who does not die, that her stories and ours are always being woven into THE story – in which we were created in God’s image, and loved enough for God to become flesh and suffer with us, and in which death is defeated and resurrection is the beginning of a new chapter. That is the story I want to carry in my heart of hearts and bear witness to for as long as I’m alive, as my story becomes part of it, too.

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