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A Back Porch Legacy 

Craig Dierksheide is a man people will remember.

I had met Craig many years ago at a movie theater. Life was different now for each of us, but especially for Craig. He had been diagnosed two and a half years previously with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The average life span is two to five years from diagnosis.

Yes, life was different, and Craig was living with the end in mind.

He and his wife, Katie, had made a significant impact on my friend Jodie’s marriage. The wisdom Craig and Katie shared, both by word and example, had deeply moved both her and her husband.

It was a crisp afternoon on a February day in the South, and Jodie and I were going to visit Craig. She had only recently reconnected with him.

When we discussed the meeting, Craig mentioned having a back porch talk. I liked that idea.

One year after his diagnosis, his doctor’s prognosis was six months due to a rapid respiratory decline. His daughter’s wedding scheduled for the next fall was quickly moved to March to beat the “death deadline.”

When he passed that six-month period, he told us he took great pleasure in telling the doctor that he was wrong. The doctor then stated, “It must be because you were in great shape before you were diagnosed.” He paused with the timing of a great comic or perhaps to build the effort for a deeper breath and then continued the story.

“I told him, ‘Well, that makes you wrong twice, Doc.’” We broke out in laughter.

We laughed a lot that day. We also shed some tears. Craig could have shed tears over his losses, the “little deaths” that occur when disease chips away at the life we expect to keep living. However, Craig’s tears came when telling the stories of kindness that came his way.

As the afternoon progressed, I began to understand the breadth and depth of who Craig is and who Craig and Katie are together. I began to understand their legacy building, that is, how they had lived their lives and what they would leave in this world. He shared stories of many of these back porch visits, sometimes with a laugh and sometimes with tears when the stories of kindness overwhelmed him.

He asked about my work in Rwanda. I shared how God spoke so very clearly that Rwanda was my place and my purpose, and yet it has evolved as God brought like-minded dreamers into my path and legacy builders to build a hospital in Rwanda with Africa New Life Ministries.

He grew quiet and then declared, “I don’t believe I have a legacy, certainly nothing that I could place my finger on.”

Friends, lean in closer and hear this: We all leave legacies of some kind. They can be unintentionally good or unintentionally bad. My entire purpose of writing on legacy is to let anyone know that having a legacy that is chosen, tended to, and shared leads to a purpose-filled life that leads to a meaningful life, and ultimately a very important ingredient of a good death.

Craig then asked, “Pamela, why did you come today?” Warmth exploded through my heart as the answer bubbled up. “Craig, I came to tell you about your legacy.” Actually, it was God who came to tell Craig his legacy, and Jodie and I just happened to be the vessels he used. Craig, however, was like many of us, he couldn’t see his legacy because he only thought legacy came in big packages. Well, it doesn’t.

I paused for a moment with the weightiness of that statement. “Craig, I came to tell you about your legacy.” That is a pretty bold statement to make about someone I had only briefly met before. However, it was all the back porch visits that came before mine that told Craig’s story. I felt them in that moment of revelation. I was changed. Wisdom moments, kindness moments, authentic moments, settling in like a blanket over my shoulders taking the chill from the air.

I paused for a moment. “The truth is, Craig, most folks don’t inspire others to return kindness. They don’t inspire a back porch visit many years after crossing seasons of life together. It is all the years of your caring for others that has built a legacy of relationships saturated with kindness.”

He lived on a porch of influence and was using what time he had left to continue to build into others. This was his wisdom and his legacy. And friends, if we could have those ingredients in our legacy, well, that would just be like “running the race as if to win the prize.”

Living with ALS had changed their lives radically. They were radically adaptive, radically optimistic, and radically thankful. As we left, I felt lighter, stronger, changed.

The next day, I thoughtfully considered his universal words of wisdom as I read a letter he had written to a class of nursing students that he and Katie had visited.

Craig advised they consider some of the larger factors in their lives, how lucky they were to be born in America and how important it is to invest in your family.

He also challenged them to take full advantage of what this life could offer:

  • Don’t be average.
  • Don’t just get a job and do the same thing your entire life.
  • Don’t settle.
  • Dream big.
  • Make a bucket list and start working on it—today.

For myself, I looked at my children as babies and marveled at the miracle of creation. From my back porch, I now watch the big, black, starry sky and wonder what’s out there and how big our universe may be. I realize with full confidence that there is something infinitely grander than us who created us, and I am thankful for our Creator’s imagination. Get right with God and realize all of us are here for a very short time. What’s next is where it really gets good.

I realized from my time with Craig and in this letter that I witnessed a man doing big things in small ways. He has continued to build his legacy despite being in what he jokingly referred to as “a race to the finish line.”

Craig was using the power of his influence to teach people fundamental truths about life.

Not long after this visit, people who knew Craig gave him a birthday parade that Jodie said “could be seen for miles.”

It raised $7,500 for ALS. Craig texted me to share the news, calling it the “BEST BIRTHDAY EVER!”

I am encouraged by the truth that a lasting legacy is most often found by the imprint we leave in the lives of others. Mother Teresa so beautifully expressed this principle: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Craig and Katie have built a legacy around this principle and long after we are all gone, generations will be affected.

For more information about ALS, go to als.org.

To join Craig’s legacy, give in his name to the South Carolina ALS Association at the following link: www.als.org/donate

Dr. Pamela Prince Pyle is a board-certified internal medicine physician, who was one of three physicians selected in 1992 by Carolina Health Specialists to begin the first hospital-based internal medicine practice outside of a university setting in the United States. In 2009, Dr. Pyle began traveling to Rwanda for medical work with Africa New Life Ministries and was instrumental in the founding and growth of the Dream Medical Center in Kigali. She is the author of “A Good Death: Learning to Live Like You Were Dying,” coming in 2022. To learn more visit PamelaPrincePyle.com

Pamela Prince Pyle

Dr. Pamela Prince Pyle is a board-certified internal medicine physician, who was one of three physicians selected in 1992 by Carolina Health Specialists to begin the first hospital-based internal medicine practice outside of a university setting in the United States. In 2009, Dr. Pyle began traveling to Rwanda for medical work with Africa New Life Ministries and was instrumental in the founding and growth of the Dream Medical Center in Kigali. She is the author of A Good Death: Learning to Live Like You Were Dying, coming in 2022. To learn more visit her website.

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