Now Or Never·First Person

I asked my grandparents how they would like to be remembered

I've carried out legacy interviews with my hospice patients at the end of life to provide loved ones with a tangible relic of their memory. In that same vein, I decided to record my last surviving grandparents, writes Dr. Arjun V.K. Sharma.

These “legacy interviews” showed me the small decisions that ripple across generations

Arjun V.K. Sharma interviews his grandparents in this illustration. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

This First Person column is written by Dr. Arjun V.K. Sharma, a writer and resident physician in Toronto. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

Last winter, after the death of my grandfather, I was in disarray. Looking to offset the incalculable sense of loss, I held his photograph to the light. Slid his dented, silver wedding ring over my finger. Visited the house where he used to live. He even came to me, once, in a dream. But in each act of remembrance, I struggled to conjure him fully. 

Something, I missed. I couldn't recall his voice. 

One afternoon, at the hospice where I work, I'm asked to assist with a "legacy interview."

The premise is simple, I'm told. 

To help unfurl meaning and purpose at the end of life into a tangible relic, I'm handed a microphone and a list of questions. I'll tunnel to the crux of my patient's existence. Asking about their childhood and adulthood, the places and people that have come and gone, their wisdoms and beliefs — their life before entering our hospice.

Arjun V.K. Sharma recorded and took these notes of the ‘legacy interviews’ with his grandparents. A set of headphones and an audio recorder are also pictured. (Arjun V.K. Sharma)

When I play the recording for their loved ones, I witness how these little parts of my patient remain alive with them. How in speaking to those they've left, they wrap themselves around them. Stabilize them. Grieve with them. This precious bit of preservation comes to a head with a question I must ask. And one that nearly breaks me. 

What would you like others to remember about you?

The notion of being forgotten terrifies me. Mourning my late grandfather's blunted presence, which I felt and saw no clearer than a silhouette that stood in a steam-clung mirror, my mind moves quickly to the quiet voices in my life that grow quieter: to my last grandfather and grandmother, in their late 80s. 

Arjun V.K. Sharma’s grandparents are in their 80s. (Arjun V.K. Sharma)

I'm pulled into stories I'd once heard. Of my grandmother standing in a bathtub, in her sari, awed by such a thing that did not exist for her back home. Of the nucleus of Indian families in Ottawa who co-ordinate procuring rice from the only place where they can find it: a Chinese grocer in the belly of Montreal. 

LISTEN | Arjun V.K. Sharma's grandmother recalls the moment, when she was new to Canada, that a kind stranger invited her over for a meal

But as these memories funnel into my headphones, my imagination catches the sounds I'd once missed: the excited feet that splash and echo off slick corners of cast iron; the relief from the thud of a burlap sack as it buckles the kitchen tile.

I see small decisions, made long ago, rippling across generations. When a postgraduate position in Iowa is offered to my grandfather, he turns it down because the salary leaves him short for my grandmother's plane ticket from Chennai. 

LISTEN | Arjun V.K. Sharma's grandfather reflects on what message he'd give to his younger self

Dr. Arjun V.K. Sharma's did "legacy interviews" with his grandparents, in order to record their life stories. Here's his grandfather reflecting on what message he'd give to his younger self.

There's an alternate reality, one where a ticket is pressed into her hand. Where they board a plane to Des Moines. Where English never rolls off my grandmother's tongue, others seeing her earthen-brown skin and ink-black hair as marks of an outsider. Where my mother, desperate for a face like hers, elopes to the nearest city, perhaps Chicago. Where I'm born an American. 

I think long and hard about all that wasn't. I think of the many possibilities we'd live if a tiny virus hadn't made that fateful leap from animal to human. 

Admittedly, I was naïve. Naïve to imagine life as a chase of personal freedoms: that a series of choices, not a matter of circumstances, would shape the life I came to listen to. I could tell how grief never lets go: how the shadow of her mother, who died when she was an infant, guided my grandmother's every manner of doting and how assuming the role of his family's patriarch at the tender age of 15, after his father's operation went awry, quashed my grandfather's wanderlust. What is outside of our control in life, I learn, is so often what is cruel and unforgiving.

So, I am grateful. For the mundane aspects of my every day, and the relationships in my life that seem healthy and plentiful. Also, for the history that I have inherited — upheavals, triumphs and hopes, that have seeped unconsciously into my bones, helping me now navigate a world in the grip of a collective trauma.

After we finish our interviews, I float back from the great height where their lives are stretched out in front of me. I swallow the knot in my throat when I notice a thin shaft of fading light sifting through the window. Outside, the first flakes of snow gather on the grass, and the last leaves shiver off their sinewy branches. The world beyond is turning over. The virus gathers steam. 

But my grandfather and grandmother appear unbothered. Like my patients at the hospice, to have a life that bears remembering, they seem at peace.

Dr. Arjun V.K. Sharma is a writer and resident physician based in Toronto.

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