If you knew that you may not be here next week, next month, or next year, would you do things differently?
Would you slow down and hug your kids more? Or would you speed up and try to cram more joy into the day? Would you stop work, or would you work harder to leave something to be remembered by?
Would you do anything different today if you knew that you might not be back on Monday?
As I slug through this week of recovery, pain, and exhaustion from the chemo, these questions echo in my mind. They are a good sign, on the one hand, in that I’m able to think broadly and have the energy and interest in doing so. But on the other hand, they weigh on my mind and linger around the corners even as I try to take joy in the moments that I have this week.
What am I leaving to be remembered by?
All my life, I’ve believed that I could do anything. And, to an extent, if I worked hard enough at something, that’s been true. I left my friends in Mississippi and went “up north” to college. I was accepted to Harvard. I went to graduate school. I earned a Ph.D. in physics. I went to work for NASA straight out of school. I married the man of my dreams, right on schedule, and, after a few years, had a beautiful baby boy. I pioneered telecommuting at my agency as I juggled new space missions and nursing a newborn. I ran big projects, and I ran them well. I started a fellowship for young scientists.
I did good things.
But what I’d like to be remembered for there is something different. I hope that I’ll be remembered for the way that I worked with people, not against them. That I built consensus. That I did my homework and talked with those who had come before, learning what they had learned, seeing what they had seen, and, when it was time to make a decision, that I brought both a sense of past and future to the table.
Because I was the young one. The intern. One who stood to, someday, potentially, inherit the agency, with all its potential and all its problems. And I was determined to increase the former and limit the latter. Because decisions that were made today would affect me twenty years down the line. Thirty. Forty, when my generation would be the elders of the agency. And I would still be there.
Things have changed now.
My priority is my family. My time is spent on my little boys. They will inherit what their father and I have built for them. They will grow and learn and live on this planet that we, and all of those around us, have created for them. And it matters to me what kind of place we leave.
If I were at work today, I think I would do things a little differently. I would still take the time to coax stories out of the longtime civil servants. To mentor the interns, and to introduce new hires around the office. To greet the security guards by name, and chat up the historians working in the library downstairs. But I would take more lunches, and I would make it a point to encourage my colleagues more than I did when I was there. I would fight harder against becoming jaded and seasoned, and I would give more people the benefit of the doubt. I would call the young scientists more, just to chat, and follow up with the ones in my field more than I did.
I would write the history down so that it is not forgotten. And I would focus on the people that made the agency great.
Because what we leave behind us is not our resume. It is the way that we accomplish what is on our resume. It is in every email, every interaction, and every weary smile.
When my fight with breast cancer has eased, I intend to start work again. Not because I need another line on my resume, or because I feel that I need to accomplish this or that. But, for a time, I was a part of something quite amazing, and it would be good to be part of that again. It would be good to see people every day again, and to learn from each other and work together to increase the nation’s knowledge and potential.
I wonder if I will do things differently.