In a small grove of frozen trees, a Roman general speaks to knights mounted on horses that wheel
slowly in the cold. The condensation from the breaths of men and horses mists the air.

“Brothers,” he says slowly. “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” He prepares them to ride into
their last major battle together, to kill, for at least some of them, to die. On his signal, they ride
through the trees, holding the line, sweeping the enemy toward the waiting infantry columns.

The movie is Gladiator, and I saw it again recently on DVD. The general, Maximus, wins that battle
in Germania, only to find his personal war has just begun. He makes all the wrong political moves
as surely as he spent a lifetime in the field making the right military decisions, and he is taken away
in the night to be killed.

Of course, this is only the opening of the movie. Maximus kills his assassins, but ends up enslaved
and used as a gladiator. Then fate brings him to Rome, to the emperor who ended the life he had
had, and worse, the ideals he had had. He finds an echo of the man he was within the man he has
become. In his example, he helps fellow gladiators and the Romans who are involved with them to
find something strong and honorable within themselves. The film ends with the possibility that
history has been changed for the better from what it would have been.

What we do in life echoes in eternity. Or at least it might if we’re senior military officers or major
film actors. But what if what we do in life matters? What might echo, at least for awhile?

Some life decisions seems obvious: to get an extended education, and if so, which university to
attend, whether to make a commitment in a relationship, whether to have children, how to make
a switch in career, the determination to live without dependence on alcohol or another drug.

For me, one moment that still echoes isn’t anything I did, but rather what life did to me. Shortly after
I came to Boston as a newly minted doctor, my husband’s best friend came for his first visit to the
city. We walked the Freedom Trail through the historic parts of Boston on an autumn Saturday, and
evidently we had a lovely time. I say evidently, because I don’t remember much about that afternoon
after a stop at Faneuil Hall for ice cream. My lone clear memory after my chocolate sundae is of
sitting on the ground near the bridge to the Charlestown Navy Yard with a headache so crippling
I almost vomited. A car had sped by and kicked up a big chunk of paving that had been jack-
hammered apart at a corner. A ball of asphalt with rock embedded underneath the surface crashed
into the back of my head.

When things gradually got better several years later, I returned to the work world as a part-time
medical secretary, than a clinic administrator, and eventually a medical editor for a textbook
publisher. After getting laid off along with many friends, I began to work as a writer, crafting words
the way I once crafted lists of possible diagnoses and options for treatment plans.

The thud of the paving hitting my skull will always echo. But one of the strongest memories I’ve
carried since childhood comes from a very small moment.

During a summer vacation on the shore, my family went on a sightseeing trip on an open-air boat
that seated perhaps 50 or 60 people. The swells were fairly high and I was trying to tell myself
I wasn’t nauseated. I forget if I was successful, but I did have to go to the bathroom. I walked
forward past the concession stand and down the steps to the bathrooms. After I came up and began
making my way backward to the seats, in the sight of the concession lady, my brothers, and every-
body else, I fell down onto my hands and knees.

When I reached our row, a girl who was a bit older than I was stood up to let me by and said quietly
“I fell when I went downstairs, too.” The kindness in that voice still makes me feel better. I have no
idea who she was, who she became, if she’s even alive. But a one-minute kindness extended decades
ago still echoes.

Perhaps some of the biggest things that happen aren’t the dreams we follow or the actions we plan,
but how we react to what life’s randomness brings. How should we respond to the notion that all of
these things, what we decide to do and what we never see coming, may echo in our lives and others’?
I respond with this: I will give more thought each day to all I do.