I suspect you recall O. Henry’s heartbreaking 1907 short story “The Last Leaf.”
The author, William Sydney Porter, best known for his tales of ordinary individuals that end with a surprise twist, tells the story of two young artists, one who is dying of pneumonia and convinced that she will die when the last leaf falls from a vine outside her window. A neighbor, an elderly artist who never created the masterpiece he aspired to produce, secretly paints a leaf on the wall during a stormy night to give her hope.
Tragically, he dies from pneumonia contracted that night. But his final act saves the young woman’s life, embodying the story’s key themes: sacrifice and selflessness, the power of hope and belief, art as a force for good, and the importance of friendship, care and community support during times of hardship.
For my extended family, my mother is (or was, depending on when you read this piece) the last leaf on the vine, the last surviving member of a generation born in the 1920s that personally recalls the hardships of the Great Depression and the disruptions, upheavals, sacrifices and horrors of World War II.
And that leaf is poised to fall.
The lives of my network of siblings and cousins will, as the cliché puts it, go on. In the words of Ecclesiastes 1: 4-7:
“One generation passeth away and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth and the sun goeth down and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full.”
A new generation—their first great-grandchildren—has begun to take my parents’ and aunts’ and uncles’ places.
By juxtaposing the fleeting nature of individual lives with the endless cycles of the natural world, this biblical passage reminds us that the natural order is indifferent to human existence. Ecclesiastes treats human life as ephemeral and claims that in the universe’s great scheme, human efforts and achievements mean nothing.
But that’s not so. As the great existentialist thinkers argued, not only do we have the power to find our own meaning and purpose through our choices, actions, commitments and engagement with the world, but we bear responsibility for those acts and decisions.
As I watch my mom’s decline, I ask myself, what is lost when a generation passes away?
We inhabit a society in which extended family bonds have, to a striking degree, diminished and fewer and fewer adults think of themselves as members of an extended kin group. As a result of increased social and geographical mobility, economic pressures, and a culture of individualism, extended family ties and intergenerational connections have withered and waned—except, largely, among recent immigrants and in poorer communities.
For me, my sisters and cousins, and for many others, the extended kinship group provided a broad network of social support, offering emotional and practical assistance during times of need, childcare and elder care, and financial help during crises. The decline of these ties has led to increased isolation and the need for external forms of support, which, in this society, is not readily available and is certainly not as emotionally fulfilling.
Extended families play a crucial role in the transmission of cultural traditions, values and languages. That I know any Yiddish at all is a consequence of those ties. The extended kin network is vital for the intergenerational transfer of knowledge, including religious practices, culinary traditions and oral histories. The weakening of these ties has led to a dilution of cultural identity and a loss of continuity between generations.
In addition, extended families encompass a wider range of perspectives and life experiences than the emotionally intense, inward-turning nuclear families that prevail today. Interaction with a diverse group of relatives can enrich moral and ethical development, offering a broader understanding of societal norms and values. Members can draw on the resources and wisdom of a larger group, enhancing their ability to adapt to changes and overcome adversity.
I can personally attest that children raised in close-knit extended families benefit from the influence and attention of multiple adults, enhancing a child’s social skills, emotional support and learning opportunities.
Equally important, the extended kin network has often formed the backbone of communities, fostering a sense of belonging and collective identity. Their decline has led to fragmented communities and a reduction in communal activities and support systems.
The decline of the extended family has certainly emancipated us from repressive orthodoxies and the constraints of narrow conventions, traditions, dogmas and creeds. But it has come at a cost. There’s something to be said for identities, roles and relationships that are ascribed rather than freely chosen. These are the most potent antidote to the extreme individualism, narcissism and self-centeredness that dominates the culture today.
The death process is awful to watch. No published account can quite match Dr. Atul Gawande’s classic 2014 description of terminal illness and its treatment, Being. Gawande, a surgeon and public health researcher, critiques the approach that prioritizes the extension of life through medical interventions without sufficient consideration for the quality of life and the personal wishes of the dying.
This society, for far too long, medicalized death, with a goal of combating illness at all costs, while stripping individuals of a dignified, peaceful end. Medical interventions and institutional care deprived the terminally ill of their autonomy, ignoring their desires, values and quality of life. Too often, discussions about death and dying are avoided or delayed, leading to decisions that don’t align with the patient’s comfort or wishes. The medical system took patients from their homes, where they could be surrounded by loved ones, and relegated them to a hospital bed, hemmed in by various tubes and medical equipment.
Fortunately, Gawande’s call for change and his emphasis on palliative and hospice care have begun to be widely heard.
The wholly inadequately paid home health care aides, the social workers, the hospice nurses, the chaplains and the bereavement counselors don’t just address the physical symptoms of terminal illness but also the psychological, social, emotional and spiritual needs of patients and their families.
At the end of King Lear, the most tragic of Shakespearean tragedies, Edgar, the Earl of Gloucester’s older son, utters some of the most poignant words in the bard of Stratford’s canon: “We that are young / shall never see so much nor live so long.”
Those words express my emotions exactly. My parents and aunts and uncles endured suffering, loss and tragedy that my sisters, cousins and I were spared. But, in consequence, we never acquired the depth of understanding, the unique wisdom, the resilience, the strength of character or the capacity for empathy that they attained.
By the standards of our time, my generation has been successful in ways that my parents’ cohort was not. Our professional accomplishments have been extraordinary. We include a partner in a major law firm, a film and television director, a judge, a high-level Pentagon official, and much more. And yet, for all our accomplishments, we aren’t our parents’ equals.
At the end of Middlemarch, George Eliot, the supreme chronicler of the mundane, the commonplace and the everyday, wrote words about the novel’s protagonist that we’d do well to reflect upon:
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”
This passage reflects a philosophy that I fear has been lost in a neoliberal society that defines success in terms of wealth and professional accomplishment. In Middlemarch, Eliot stresses the importance of individual moral action and the often-overlooked contributions of ordinary people to societal progress. Her words serve as a reminder that greatness and influence rest not solely on those who achieve fame or historical recognition but are also found in the quiet, steadfast lives of those who seek to do good in their everyday actions.
Many of those who contribute most to the welfare of others are forgotten after death, their graves untended, their names unknown. Remember: the true value of a human life lies not in external recognition but in its intrinsic goodness and impact on others.
For the influence of one person’s character and actions can spread far beyond their immediate surroundings, affecting others in ways that are subtle and often unrecognized. Their actions are not recorded in history books or celebrated by society, but they nonetheless contribute to the common good and improvement in the human condition in ways that are difficult to measure or trace.
Democracy’s fundamental truth is that society’s betterment is a gradual process nurtured by the cumulative effect of individuals who lead morally responsible lives. Let us acknowledge that in our society, progress has often come from the ground up, through the collective efforts of ordinary people who live in obscurity. Their quiet dedication and moral integrity are crucial to society’s fabric.
May my mom rest in peace.