They said it was cancer.

One of those cancers with the long swooping names, packed tightly with all the syllables you learned to say in grammar school. But boiled down, the word was simple and, yet, somehow harder to say than most: cancer.

People began watching the clock. They began trying their hardest to treasure the moments or hoard them in corners where no one would try to suck them away. They filled conversations over coffee with things like, “No, not him. He’s a fighter. He’ll get better.”

And then the doctors said it, and they all sucked in, bit down, and gulped. Six to twelve months. Six to twelve months and he’d be gone. And his keys would be in the ignition no more. And they’d light candles they never wanted to light. And cry because they never wanted to weep. And say goodbye to someone who they only wished would get a rewrite of his story. More hellos, please. We just need one last hello.

And then he was gone.

And the world got quiet. And they lit candles. And they wept. And they somehow learned to say goodbye. They learned the word, but it never got any easier. And the Happily Ever After never showed that day or the next.

When they lost a love to cancer, no one rode off into the sunset. No one waved from their palace. No one danced in the moonlight a little longer. They all just got quiet. And they forgot the words to their songs. And they stopped trying for a little while because no one really felt like singing.

Not a soul, not a shred, sighed a deep breath and found the Happily or the Ever or the After.

We’ve learned to hold tightly to something that was never given to us—A Happily Ever After. We hold it tightly to our chest as if it is a guarantee as we devour stories that end well. Stories that tie up neat and pretty with a big white bow. But stories don’t usually resolve. And characters we love cannot always stay. And there is an underlying hymn of heartbreak that follows each of us throughout this world—not because life is bad or cruel or something to always cry and moan about, but because this lifetime hurts. Over and over again, it hurts to watch the fleshy, broken messes of We love and lose and love and fight and love and break and love and let go.

It’s the After. That is where we all drag out fingers along the dotted lines of life and point to when we find ourselves missing someone so deeply.

After they were gone. After they left. After. After. After.

That’s the part of the story we forget to focus on. The After is never the thing we think about when our jeans don’t fit and there is gossip sitting ripe on the screen of the iPhone and we’re late for an appointment and we are trying, trying so damn hard, to just be someone who is “known” in this world. We never think, in all the clutter of waiting for life to grow sane and livable, that we should have already begun to crane our eyes toward the After.

A legacy. A legacy.

It’s time to find out if you have one. If it is already in the building stages. If other people have the bricks. If you’ve passed them out in just the right capacity.

If you have one, my dear, it will mean you thought to live your life with someone else in mind. You’ll be the warm spot in the memory of another. People will carry you in a way that means so much more than the carrying you ever thought to do of your own stories and your own accomplishments. Yes, a legacy will mean you thought to make this place better as you came on down to this dirt and water and thought to make it home for a little while.

A legacy gets passed. To children. To friends. To lovers. To people you will never even know in this lifetime. And it does not begin when your eyes shut or your fingers stop playing on the piano at night. And maybe it’s time we asked: will mine be full and bursting with goodness? Will it be just the thing she needs to crawl out of the bigger black holes when I am no longer here to stretch out my hand and say, “hold tight?”

When I write this way, I already begin missing things. Like I am going somewhere. Like it is ending sooner than I hope. Is that crazy to even admit?

I begin missing the trees. I begin missing the kettle on the stove, hissing as I enter the house with the light always on in the foyer. But I try to remember, as hard as it can be, to always think like this. To think about the After.

Like tomorrow, someone might not have you, and you will want to know that you built them up with every little thing you always wanted for them. Dignity. Respect. Joy. Amazement. The ability to stop and realize how good we’ve got it right now.

And this thing? This thing we keep waiting for to start? When we are skinnier. When we are happier. When this test is over. When this week ends. It’s all we get. And it is rushing through our fingertips right now. And sooner, sooner, there could be an After. I cannot tell you when, dear. I cannot tell you when.

And so, while the rest of the world goes on writing symphonies about themselves and trying so desperately to just leave something behind when they go—a company, an empire, a name of sorts—you have a chance to let someone know you came here for them. And you have all sorts of determination to make this story better for them. And this life better for them. And any bit you could, you tried to make it better so that they would get to dance in the Aftermath of your legacy.

After your laughter. After your words that could fill a room like the aroma of evergreens at Christmastime. After you dug your heels deep in the planet and tried to make it the least bit better off then when you first came.

After, After, After. Enough of a focus on that and you’ll never need utter these words again: will you still hold me when I am gone? Have I given you enough to hold just yet?

Hannah Brencher is a writer, speaker, and creator pinning her passion to projects that bring the human touch back into the digital age. After spending a year writing and mailing over 400 love letters to strangers across the world, Hannah launched The World Needs More Love Letters in August 2011—a global organization fueled by volunteer “letter writers,” now in fifty states and forty-seven countries. She’s been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Oprah, Glamour, the White House Blog, and is currently a global finalist for the TED2013 Global Talent Search (watch the TED Talk). You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

*Photo Credit: Angelo González via Compfight cc