According to lore, Ernest Hemingway was in a bar with fellow writers when they challenged him to write a six-word story. He picked up a napkin and wrote the now-famous, “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” History is unclear whether the legend is legitimate or urban, but so it remains. …and so it remains.
Maybe I need to bring a pen and a napkin with me to an appointment my wife and I have this week. We are shopping for land. About 80 square feet of it—two grave plots. Our recent COVID experience, particularly her leaving the hospital after a four-day stay the same day that I was admitted for a week-long term, has placed the need for preparations front and center in our minds. All of which calls the question, “What do I want written on my gravestone?” Those will be the words that remain.
I was in my 20s when I sketched a simple version of a gravestone and what words I hoped I would earn for it. Four decades ago my stone had, “People knew he loved them” inscribed on it. I have come to realize that that is/was my aspiration but may not necessarily be my story. Perhaps the epitaph story should be written by those who remain, by those who will find comfort in the words after the grass has covered the bare dirt, and for those who might see the verbiage that remains years and decades later. Maybe their perspectives as observers of my life are more accurate reflections.
My mom and dad would never have chosen the words that now appear on their gravestones. My mom, sister and I chose the words for dad’s epitaph – “He has left for us a most noble pattern” – and my sister and I chose mom’s 13 years later, “A tender mother and a faithful friend.” I don’t think mom and dad would have chosen those descriptions because they were too close to the story, and they were essentially humble people. I cannot help but think they are pleased with what is etched in their granite, even if it was ghost written.
Hopefully many years from now, someone is going to have to decide on what to put on the stone above my head. Those words will bring comfort, insights or memories to those who remain. But, I ponder whether the six-word story in stone is what I want to say or what others want to say about me? I will, after all, not be around to read it.
I am going to need a lot of napkins. More than likely, none of the napkin drafts will be “published.”