So, we never know, even if we are famous. Or are not.
Yet if I were to ask 10 of either Jack or Sally or Tom's friends to describe one of them (which I have done), usually people attribute the same characteristics to that person. "Well, Jack is a good guy, honest, family loving, a bit of a braggard, and always is convinced he is right But does Jack know how he is described by others? No. Few of us, for cultural or societal reasons or whatever, seldomly find out.
This idea of not knowing surfaced shortly after my father died, when at his memorial service I heard his many friends, neighbors and a large number of his patients praise him as an individual and a physician. I wish he had heard all this love and acclaim of him.
Not knowing what others think of us has been a recurring thought over the years. Recently, just after Gen. Colin Powell died at age 84, I listened to all the honor, respect, and tributes he received. I wish he had heard this before he died. After his Feb. 5, 2003, now infamous address to the United Nations, Powell said the Iraqis did, indeed, have weapons of mass destruction, testimony that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more," he told the UN General Assembly.
He later apologized, saying he was wrong, and suffered for a long time from his self-proclaimed guilt for delivering this speech, knowing what he was saying was wrong.
I was in NYC the day of his speech. I had a press pass for the meeting, but that morning, Feb. 5, it was cold and snowy and my hotel was way across town. No empty taxis were around. I decided to stay in the room and watch his speech on TV.
Alas, I am sorry I did not attend. But I carefully listened to every word he said, watched Powell's facial expressions intently, heard his voice getting quieter, and then saw him stand and leave without a smile.
He was conned, I thought, by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, then in George W. Bush's staff, who both were intent on starting the Iraq war.
That's why now, I so much wanted for him to know people accepted his apology for making such a mistake.
I'll say it out loud. I would love to have a memorial service before I die, not after. It would be a wonderful way to wrap up a life. (Enemies allowed, but not invited.)
Would this pre-death memorial concept ever work? Alas, there are a lot of questions surrounding my idea. When is the right time, if ever? The day before we die, like we even know that? A year before (probably too long a time). When they've been sick for ages? Well, if a person really hurts, will he hear what we're all saying?
Maybe because we don't know when the right time is, we're afraid to even discuss it.
But what if each of us were to send a nice "remembrance" letter to the person who is dying, or to all those over age 80 or 90 who acknowledge they would appreciate such notes? Then those letters could be reread and appreciated by the soon-to-die person.
Or is this all too ghoulish? Or is it simply a narcissistic thought?
Yet I wish my son had really known before he died how good a man he was, how much his family loved him. He died unexpectedly at 54, so few of us would ever realize it was letter-writing time.
So, my thought just stops here, unless one of you want to carry on this idea, or some church picks it up as a new "pre-death service" ceremony.
For some strange reason in thinking about an ending for this column, I remember years ago wandering through an old New England church cemetery, reading the tombstones. I saw one woman's headstone, from the early 1700s but still decipherable: "I told you I was sick!" I laughed as I walked away.