How will we be remembered when we die?
Not planning to die anytime soon, I haven't given this much thought beyond a few basics. (I'd like to be remembered as a quiet, boring type famous for living to a great age.) And it's likely that my death will not have a major impact on the world. If I'm hit by a truck tomorrow, the paper will have to find someone willing to crank out a column every week and life will go on.
But some people get a chance to see their own death approaching and to shape it into something meaningful, something with the power of story.
Jack Layton got a chance to do that this week.
Layton has been an interesting politician, ever since he burst onto the national scene by taking the leadership of the NDP.
He was clearly more forceful than some of the previous leaders of the 1990s. He announced he was running for prime minister, not for the job of leader of a third party. That got a lot of laughs. At least, it did until earlier this spring. Layton scrapped and fought through several years of minority governments, gouging what concessions he could out of first Liberal, then Conservative ruling parties.
Layton was a master of shaping his own narrative. We got to see this most clearly in the last election, with the sudden Orange Crush, the cries of Bon Jaques in Quebec, his telling shot against Ignatieff in the debates.
The NDP shot up to unprecedented numbers in the polls. And everyone was surprised. Everyone but Jack. He just smiled, and waved his cane, and smiled some more. It was, I think, the pleased grin of a man who began this story many years before and was watching it unfold exactly as he had planned.
Then came a plot twist that Layton did not write. The cancer came back.
Layton's choices narrowed remarkably. As much as we talk about fighting cancer, there is very little that a patient can do.
Stay healthy, listen to your doctors and hope that everything turns out well.
During these few months, Layton had clearly been doing some deep thinking about what kind of legacy he wanted to leave behind him, for his party and for his political heirs.
His final letter to Canadians seems to be a distillation of those thoughts.
The first part of the letter is his recommendations to his own party, attempts to ensure a smooth transition to a new leader after his passing.
Then partisanship almost disappears from the letter. He calls on all Canadians to work for change. His social democratic values are clear throughout, but he does not say, "The NDP are the only party with the answers."
Instead he wrote this: "In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together."
Hear us out, make up your own mind, Layton says. Finally, he concludes:
"My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world."
Layton knew his death would be a big impact on the political landscape. In his last days, he tried to ensure that the end of his story would be enduringly positive.
I think he hoped his death could leave a legacy as powerful as his life.
It will be a tall order for his successors to craft a sequel so engaging.
Matthew Claxton is a reporter for the Langley Advance.