“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child, or a book, or a painting, or a house or a wall built, or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.” – Ray Bradbury
When I think about “what we leave behind” I don’t mean things abandoned or discarded. I think of things we intentionally leave after we are gone. Some of those things are far less tangible than a book or a painting.
I wrote a poem about this idea. “The Light We Leave Behind” was featured on The Writer’s Almanac and read by host Garrison Keillor in 2020. It got some attention and has been reposted frequently (see bottom) so I’ll post it myself here.
The Light We Leave Behind
by Kenneth Ronkowitz
A star chart tells me
that the star I am seeing tonight
is 500 light-years away.
It may have died 499 years ago,
and I am still seeing its last light.
Stars are born, they live, and they die.
What is the light that remains when we leave?
If I die after writing this poem, is this my light,
and how long might that light remain and be seen?
I wondered last night and still this morning
about these questions, and still now,
standing again outside
under a mackerel sky dappled, rippled with clouds
and the sun, our family star,
which will also die.
Then, there will be no light remaining.
Perhaps, this is not what you believed.
When it dies, the Earth dies with it.
No last light to come after it.
In its end, the sun will expand
into a red giant
and will vaporize the Earth.
My son rises
and joins me outside
his coffee steaming a small cloud
into the December air.
In this enormous moment,
we look into the sky and universe.
We are a fortnight from the year ending
and hopeful for many more circles
around the sun. We are expanding,
gathering our light, and sharing it
while we can still see it reflected
in those constellating nearby.
Recently, I saw a prompt from Joy Juliet Bullen titled “What We Leave Behind” about legacy. Bullen has written about grief, divorce, and parenting in the New York Times‘ “Modern Love” column. She begins her prompt by saying:
“After my husband and I separated, I sorted through my things to choose what to take and what to leave behind. In the back of my closet, I found a shoebox full of old photos—all the ones that weren’t good enough to frame or terrible enough to throw away.”
Certainly, photos are something we leave behind. They are fixed moments in time, but they change in the ways we see them.
In my poem, I use light to represent all we leave behind. Like the light from distant stars, some of which have died, the light can take quite a bit of time to reach us.