This past Sunday, I was at the Starbucks on the south end of Hilton Head Island. I was supposed to be writing, but instead I was eavesdropping.
An old man across from me in a checkered suit and sporty water sandals asked his wife whether she thought the red baseball cap he had just popped on his head looked OK.
“If you’re asking me if that matches your outfit,” she said, “then no. It does not match your outfit.”
But those sandals! I wanted to say. Those sandals made it through the approval process?
A short distance away, an older man sat with his wife — or maybe she was his sassy octogenarian girlfriend, because they really seemed to like each other.
He was standard-issue Eisenhower Golf Grandpa and wore teal linen pants and white Buks.
A barista walked up to him.
“Sir,” he said, “my grandfather was a Mason, too. And I’ve really tried to pattern my life after his. I get off in 15 minutes. Could I sit and talk with you?”
It was an unusual exchange. In all my years of sitting in Starbucks’ armchairs and procrastinating, I’ve never heard anyone ask a stranger to sit at his knee and learn from him.
But that’s what happened.
The younger man told him the plans he had for his life (law school, political career, maybe some other stuff) and the older man gave him bits of advice he’d learned over the years.
None of it was particularly exciting or noteworthy to me, but it was to the younger man.
Maybe he simply missed his grandfather.
Maybe he never had the opportunity to know his grandfather.
Maybe he needed to hear what was important to this stranger in the teal pants to know what his own grandfather would’ve thought about this trajectory he had planned.
The conversation, though, reminded me of one I had just had a few days earlier with Kirsten Hotchkiss, who lives in Bluffton.
Hotchkiss, a lawyer, and her father, Stephen Hotchkiss, a business professor who lives in Cleveland, have spent the past few years developing and launching an online program called My Life’s Message, which is a platform that, in part, allows the deceased to speak to their friends and loved ones from the grave, to leave messages of encouragement, to leave an account of their thoughts, their beliefs, their favorite memories, to share stories from their lives.
All by using prompts that help them to lay out their stories.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Hotchkiss came up with the idea for the program in 2013 when her uncle, who is in his 80s, found out that an old friend from his past had died a year earlier.
No one had told him.
Had he known, the uncle said, he would’ve attended his friend’s funeral or called his widow to let her know what his friend had meant to him once upon a time.
To Hotchkiss, this was the problem: People don’t always live where they were born. They go off to school in one place. They work in one, two, three, 13 places across the country and the world. They move. They retire. And everywhere they go, they collect friends that mean something to them.
“Your family doesn’t necessarily know who you were close to,” Hotchkiss said. “And not everyone is on Facebook (to possibly see that a friend has died).”
The site started with the idea that, when you die, a person you have designated as the messenger will visit My Life’s Message, log on and push a button.
That button will send a simple notice of death to all the people you want to alert and any pre-written personal messages, accounts of life, road maps leading to important documents and/or lists of your wishes to the various recipients you have set up.
The messenger can’t see anything you wrote. The messenger can’t change anything.
In fact, no one sees a thing until you die.
So if your personal message to the messenger is, “I can’t believe you actually pressed the button! I only half trusted that you’d remember to do it! It might be rude to tell you this now, but you really do drop the ball a lot, and if Jimmy didn’t get a notice that I had died, he was totally going to call you out on that,” they won’t know until it pops up in their inbox.
Or you could say something nice and send that, too.
Hotchkiss has already filled out her own My Life’s Message profile.
“My nieces and nephews are very young,” Hotchkiss said. “I’m not going to see them get married ... maybe. (By doing this) I could tell them how much I love them, how much they were important to me.”
To her, though, the best part of what she and her father created is that loved ones can leave behind their stories, that family members can each have an interesting piece of their ancestry, no matter how silly.
“There are sayings in your family that no one else will know what it means,” she said. “My dad is not a big basketball fan. One time he called it a ‘slam dump,’ and so we call it that as a joke. He went into Burger King once and ordered a Big Mac, and we laugh about that.”
People want to know more about their family’s history, she said. They want to know more about the people who came before them. Who were they? What did they believe to be true? How did they live their lives? What can we learn from them?
“But (on genealogy sites) you get a name, a birthdate, that’s it.”
And there are things we might not have ever known about the friends and family we had during our lifetimes that they want us to know when they’re gone, or things that were hard for them to say like “I was proud of you when …” or “It meant so much to me when you said ….”
I have no idea what the young man at Starbucks needed to hear from the man in the teal pants, but I pictured him as a grandson with a note, an email sent to him from the beyond with words of encouragement that he could turn to whenever he needed to know that the man he admired most was still with him.