Ann stood alone on the other side of the dance floor, swaying offbeat. I approached my friend in her white gown. She looked as chic as my tailored tux and bow tie, which someone else knotted for me because I suck at “adulting”. The closer I got to her, the more I thought Ann looked inebriated and like she wasn’t there at all. I also thought we looked better than the rest of our C-squad royalty status at the Grand Finale Gala for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Man & Woman of the Year campaign. We were celebrating a fundraising campaign that raised $2.4 million to research new cancer treatments.
“Hey!” I said. Ann’s eyes remained cold and unresponsive, so I put my hand on her bare shoulder. “I haven’t seen you for hours,” I said, fishing for a response.
Ann noticed me then. “Behhhhhn!” I’d spent enough time around adults who forgot college ended fifteen years before to know. If a correlation existed between the number of seconds to pronounce a single vowel and the level of intoxication, then Ann was Sweet Dee. They were both Philly’s finest.
Ann’s mouth turned a 180. “L. is dead.” My hand fell to my side. “She died three weeks ago. I just found out today. You know L.?” It came out as Ehhhhhl. Ann was validating my intoxication theory.
The name rang a bell, but my memory wasn’t so great any longer. I sensed Ann needed me to remember so I remained deadpan, hoping she would reveal more. She did.
Ann reminded me that L., like Ann and me, was a candidate for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Man & Woman of the Year in a previous year’s campaign. Ann campaigned in 2015. When L. campaigned in 2017, Ann was her mentor. In 2018, L. joined me and Ann as a member of the C-squad—which we called the Circle of Hope—composed of former candidates who became mentors to current candidates. L., also like Ann and me, had been a victim of cancer. L. got it three times.
Now, I remembered L.
Ann said L. died without warning. She didn’t know the cause of death. Ann said there was nothing on L.’s Facebook timeline about it; nobody talked about it for three weeks until Ann was informed that morning. She said that she hadn’t seen any signs of distress. She said days before, she laughed at something funny L. posted on Facebook. Ann expected to party with L. at the Gala.
“Nobody said anything.” Ann said this over and over in between sobs. She said the Gala played on, people danced and drank on, and those in our Circle of Hope either didn’t know or didn’t say anything.
“Nobody cares,” Ann started saying next, I guessed when she tired of saying the other thing.
I thought back to the spring of 2015 when I mentored Ann during her fundraising campaign. We became fast friends. Over the next few years, I most enjoyed spending time with Ann at what we called “The Breakfast Party” at her and her boyfriend’s condo, which was really just her making scrambled eggs and pour-over coffee and me consuming them in surplus. The three of us could talk for hours about whiskey and Tim Ferriss, while just Ann and I could continue forever about the different ways cancer has forced—or allowed—us to think about the future. Though that conversation isn’t exclusive to people who have endured severe illness, I imagine healthy people could find it challenging to enter.
Finally, Ann stopped crying and slowed her breath. “Behhhhhhhhn,” she began, the vowel extending longer than any she’d said before. “If you die, I’ll care.” I found myself backing away like it was a sixth-grade Sadie Hawkins dance. “Please don’t die. You can’t die. Everyone is dying. Promise me you won’t die.”
That was the first time I could recall anyone requesting that of me. Once again, I felt that Ann needed me to say something specific. I just didn’t want to lie. I’d seen lots of friends die resulting from cancer, and I’d accepted that my two cancers and their treatments lacerated my life expectancy.
“I’ll try not to die,” I said.
Ann started crying again and pushing me away further. I had to do better. “I live a healthy lifestyle, and I don’t plan on going anywhere.” Another wail and slap to my arm. “Okay. I promise I won’t die anytime soon.”
That must have been enough, because Ann relaxed. It was then time to leave. I led Ann through the bowels of the Marriott Marquis. I wanted to get her outside and onto the street packed with ready Uber drivers. As we walked through chandeliered halls and stood on escalators, she continued on about her fear that those close to her would die soon. I continued acknowledging this and trying to calm her fear. But inside, I had a different interpretation of Ann’s fear.
I thought Ann’s real fear was that she would die and nobody would say anything. Nobody would care. I thought Ann feared she’d be forgotten.
As I dug deeper into my suspicion of Ann’s real fear, I considered whether others held similar fears. It turned out, it seemed even people I knew would do all kinds of things to be remembered and cared about after death. I had one friend, an elderly man, who wanted to write a memoir just so his grandkids could learn about his life. Another friend, a woman around my age, wanted to publish more books to build her bibliography, her emblem of importance. One buddy wanted to do something related to his family crest dating back hundreds of years, some older parents I knew wanted their kids to procreate so their genetic legacy—and half the time, surname—continued, and some of my friends wanted children for those same reasons.
Did I hold a similar fear, I wondered? A fear that I would die and nobody would say anything, nobody would care, and I’d be forgotten? I realized, at certain times throughout my life, I did. Before my first book published, I chose to have printed on the hardcover Benjamin instead of Ben. Full name, full legacy. And many years earlier, I banked my sperm before treatment erased my ability to produce children naturally, maybe with the intention to preserve my genetic legacy. (Full disclosure: I still pay to keep my sperm frozen, just in case…wait never mind, scratch that: future Bubbe and Zayde pay.)
I succeeded in getting Ann outside. She requested an UberX. Three minutes later we said goodbye, and then I watched the Nissan Altima speed away. I was about to request my own Uber Express Pool, but instead decided to walk three blocks to the Mt Vernon Sq 7th St-Convention Center station. The quiet, aside from the click-clack of my patent leather tuxedo shoes, allowed me to wish for Ann to have an easy hangover and a quick relief from her fear and sadness. On that walk, I also posed a question for myself: did I still harbor that same fear?
Cognitively, I understood two truths that led me to think wanting to leave a legacy was senseless:
First, within a hundred years (or a few hundred if I created something extraordinary), nobody would know I ever existed aside from my name displaying on someone’s ancestry.com family tree. Sure, the collection of letters spelling my name could stay online forever, but it wouldn’t trigger an emotional connection in the tree’s creator. The letters wouldn’t elicit a single thought of me. This distant future family member would probably even say my name wrong, like by pronouncing my surname as Roo-ben-steen instead of Roo-ben-stine, or shortening my given name to Ben.
Second, my genes kind of already live inside, well, everyone. We’re all related; we’re all cousins. This awareness makes me feel special because now I know I share similar genes as Barack Obama and The Rock.
Once back in my bedroom, I looked around at the framed degrees, professional certificates, and copies of each print run of my two books all displaying “Benjamin Rubenstein.” I hung my tux and returned the shoes to the back of the closet. I untied the beautiful knot my friend had fastened and hung the bow tie on its peg on my tie rack. I crawled under my sheet and blanket. I was ready to drift away. It had been a long night.
But first, I said the Shema and thought about L. I said L.’s name aloud. It’s not that I’d already forgotten those two truth rendering the desire to leave a legacy senseless. Dead was dead, I still believed. Rather, I held L. in my mind and I held her name on my tongue for Ann, for my living friend who did say something about L., who did care about her.
That was June 2nd. Over the past couple of months, I’ve investigated the question I posed on my walk to the metro that night: Do I fear I’ll be forgotten? But, finding the answer has been challenging because the question is abstract. Let me pose more specific questions, then, to see if I embrace my two truths.
Specific questions: Would I ghost write this story for GatherDC? No. Would I write it under the name Ben Rubenstein? Sure I would…but then I’d email Allison and ask her to change the byline to Benjamin.
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.
More specific questions: If I die and “funny” isn’t on my gravestone, will I accept that? No, I’ll return in mystical form and burn everything down. If I choose to have kids, will I adopt instead of using my frozen sperm? No, unless the sperm degrades or my hypothetical partner is barren.
None of this makes sense given my understanding of those two truths. But it turns out I’m simply human, and deviating from beliefs is part of the human—and, I think, Jewish—experience.
I think it is okay for all of us to fear that “at the rising sun and at its going down…at the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter…at the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring…at the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer…at the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn…at the beginning of the year and when it ends”: nobody will remember us.
In memory of Laura Leigh Provenzano, December 12, 1988 – May 5, 2018
 “We Remember Them.” Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer, New Prayers for the High Holy Days (Media Judaica, Ins., 1970) edited by Rabbi Jack Riemer, p. 36
About the Author. Benjamin Rubenstein is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you! Benjamin is the author of the Cancer-Slaying Super Man books. He earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. You can subscribe to his quarterly newsletter, Words by ruBENstein.