Because my father was a lawyer who did a lot of probate work, I grew up knowing the importance of putting plans in place that protected those you loved. I grew up knowing the importance of wills, guardianships, and of remembering worthy organizations through your will.
I have had about four wills in my adult life. My father always said that you should revisit your will periodically to make sure that it still reflected your needs and desires for your family. I’ve tried to do that. However, amidst all of the end of life plans that were on my radar, one was not, and unfortunately it took my father’s death to bring it to my attention.
My eleven month old daughter and I flew to my home state to attend the confirmation of my nephew. My husband wasn’t able to come because of work, but my daughter and I were really looking forward to the adventure.
My parents picked us up from the airport and we had a wonderful evening together. My daughter was being a great little traveler, eager to see grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. My dad and I enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood. It was a perfect evening and it felt wonderful to be home again.
The next day we drove a couple of hours to my youngest brother’s house. The trip was uneventful, but after we arrived, everything in our lives changed. My father went into the guest bathroom and started spitting up blood. Lots of it. He was taken to the hospital. I for one was really caught off guard. It had been quite a while since he had had a portion of his lung removed because of cancer, and he seemed to be doing so well. He went to the hospital on Saturday.
The next days were a blur. We called the family: my husband flew in, and my brothers and their families came. My mom didn’t want to leave dad’s side. Finally we convinced her to go home and get some sleep. She went one time but when she came back she would not leave again. On Wednesday, my husband persuaded me to go home and spend some time with our daughter. I did, and he came and stayed with my mom at my dad’s bedside. While I was away, my dear daddy died.
For my poor Mama, everything had turned upside down. This man was the love of her life. They were best friends and hopelessly in-love. They had been married for 52 years. Married in 1941 they had lived through my dad’s army deployment in World War II. They raised four children together. There was nothing they liked better than to be together. They enjoyed traveling. They bought their only house when their family of three sons had outgrown an apartment. They lived in that house for the rest of my dad’s life and for most of the rest of my mom’s. Periodically my mom would provide secretarial help for my dad at his law office, and when she retired from teaching English, she made that a full-time thing, except, of course, for the weekend getaways that they loved. They shared religious conviction, love, laughter, family. They seemed to be on the same page about everything – well, except for those subjects that stirred up their mutual desire for friendly banter.
They were an amazing pair. I was incredibly naive about their unique relationship when I left for college at 18. I thought my parents were just like all parents everywhere. I had no idea that the way that they were connected to each other – heart, mind, and spirit – was a very rare thing indeed.
Because of that, the one thing about end of life plans that I had really never had on my radar was particularly painful to learn. After dad’s death, we had to collect our things, drive a couple hours across the state, and start the work of making funeral arrangements. Mom had been up for days but couldn’t sleep. There was still so much to do. Meeting with the funeral director, my parents’ pastor, and making the call to the retired Bishop who would be preaching.
For me, the worst was this: watching my exhausted mother trying to type his obituary. Exhausted, sitting in front of the typewriter with tears streaming down her face. She was the only one qualified to do it. She would never have relinquished that task to anyone else. I gave her comfort as best I could; chiefly I just kept watch with her while she did the hard work.
It was then that I decided I would never leave this task to anyone else to have to do. Especially not the people who loved me best.
Grief comes in waves and often trips you up when you aren’t expecting it. But after the initial grief of that May had passed, I spoke to my mom about her ordeal of writing dad’s obituary. She listened while I asked her if she would spare us what she had had to go through. To be blunt, I asked her if she would be willing to spare us by drafting her own obituary.
She thought about that, and then she asked me if I would help her. I agreed. She composed; I typed. By this time, I was back at my home, she was at hers. We lived states away from each other. We talked nearly every day but rarely about obituaries. Now and again, however, she would ask me to send her a double-spaced copy of her obituary draft. I did that. Months would go by and I would hear nary a peep out of her. Then, out of the blue, she would say that she had some ideas, and wanted to revise her obituary.
In case you are not catching onto the spirit of things, let me be perfectly clear. This was not a morbid thing. My mother was treating this like a fun new hobby. It was a hobby that went on for years. Every time I thought we had the thing written, she decided it needed some revising. It went through revisions upon revisions. She changed this and that. She even changed where she wanted it to appear. Finally it was done.
But no. Some other year we would fly home to visit mom, and we would go somewhere to meet family for ice cream. What is better than meeting family for ice cream? While I was driving, Mom would ask if she had mentioned the little revision she had been thinking of for the obit. It clearly was something she was having fun with. It bucked her up.
She lived fourteen years after my dad’s death. We finally pulled out that draft and tweaked it with some of the changes that had occurred during those intervening fourteen years, and then we sent it to the papers. Many of the rest of the plans had been made. My oldest brother and I picked out the same style coffin she had chosen for my dad. They had already had the scripture verse carved on their joint headstone. Finally, we prepared the bulletin for her funeral service. The same retired Bishop who had preached at my father’s funeral came back to preach at my mom’s. That was something that she had requested early and won his agreement on ahead of time!
My dad had written to mom thirty-seven years before her death with his thoughts for his own funeral, and a message to each of their four children, with the roles he wanted us to play, not only for the funeral, but in our lives going forward. To my mother he wrote this, and this is how we ended our mom’s funeral service bulletin:
My parents were true believers. They were sinners who stood in the promises of the resurrection of Jesus in faith that upon their deaths, they would be with their King and Lord in Paradise. Their lives and deaths bore witness to that Gospel promise.
My husband and I have followed suit. Our obituaries are written. We have spared each other, our siblings, and our daughters, the sorrow of having to try to think what we would want written. There are better things for them to do! In the spirit of my mother, my husband and I have had fun with our obituaries. It has not been a morbid task at all and yes, we have revised them periodically when new ideas come to us. My parents always said that you don’t make your best decisions when you are grieving. I concur. I think this decision has been a very good decision which was born of grief, and salted with my mother’s tears, as she tried to type. We hope that our obituary drafts may bring a smile to our family in the same way my mother helped her family.
I might add that both of us hope that our obituary drafts will not be needed for a very long time indeed. We continue to ask the Lord to bless us with a long life together. I will end this blog post as my father ended that letter to my mom.