One of the most profound homework assignments I remember from high school was the one requiring me to write my own obituary. The class was called “Values and Conflicts” and I think the teacher created it from the book Values Clarification. I was a top student and loved learning: humanities, advanced composition, but also suffered through biology – not imagining then that I would declare biology as my college major. And yet, this non-conventional class was the one I still remember. I imagine it was removed from curriculum not long after I graduated with the quest to focus on real college preparatory courses.
As I wrote in My Music Man, the thought of dying worried me as a child. Although I told Mom as a three year old that I wanted to live in heaven with God, only a few years later I calmed myself at night by reminding myself that mostly the people I knew who died were old, and by the time I was that age, someone would find a cure for death. Now that I am closer to the end of my life than the beginning, I have accepted there will never be a cure for death. Another reason to be in the moment, enjoy those that you can, and do now what you can’t do later.
I’m working on what I suspect will be my next book, and as I do this I find myself missing Mom a lot. As I page through her 300+ page unpublished memoir, though I’m familiar with many of its details, I want one more minute to ask more. I wandered past a favorite Little Library last weekend, and a copy of Anna Quindlen’s 1994 novel, One True Thing, caught my eye. Yes, this selected book, like others I’ve chosen before, teeters serendipitously (or dangerously) on the thoughts closest to my mind at the moment. As the character Ellen struggles with being with her mother as she nears death, she too identifies how uncomfortable her mother’s friends react to the signs of impending loss of life. Many times I’ve thought back to Mom’s friends who did choose to visit her or reach out toward the end of her life. Even when it got harder: even when Patty wasn’t to them the Patty they knew from before. Inevitably, I too think of the friends who chose not to. I too remember hearing after her death from longtime friends who had lost touch and didn’t know of her death until seeing her obituary in the Oregonian. All of these brain circling thoughts also remind me of the especially close friends who died over the last few years and the “good-byes” I didn’t get to say. Often I have thought back to the last visits I had with them and wish I had said more than what I did. I didn’t know their last days were so near.
Two weeks ago I went to services related to the death of my dad’s best friend from high school. This man also was my godfather, and he and his wife generously allowed Russ and I to marry on their beautiful property. So many people shared beautiful messages; some shared how stunned they were by hearing of his death, even though he was 92. Shouldn’t we also all have a big party as our possible end date nears? The party where we can all say what we really want to say to this person we love? To not think later I wish I had? We threw a glorious party for our mom’s 80th birthday: the first time she had seen some friends in a long while. Although she lived nearly eight years longer, I’m grateful we did that. Of course, most of us don’t know when we might be leaving this earth. I have been following the way fellow Oregon author Cai Emmons chose to leave: brave, honest, making time for the people dearest to her and I suspect saying everything she felt at the time she needed to tell them. I met Cai once as we sat next to each other at an author event in Wilsonville. I appreciate having spent that time together. I continue to be in awe of her courage and strength: she is a model for all of us.
Nearly a year after Dad died, I received a packet of letters from the daughter of a close friend of his. This daughter, nearly my age, had been going through her parents’ possessions after their deaths and found these decade old letters. One had been written in ~1982, shortly after my parents’ divorce. In reading it I was reminded how careful he was not to put my parents’ friends in a position of choosing or siding with either parent. I am grateful to know that story, and to also have memories of time together with both these friends and my parents decades later after Mom and Dad remarried, and me with my own kids. This packet of letters today rests with my other Dad letters: the ones he wrote me over the years. (See Love letters and Diaries notes and letters: leave ’em laughing). And they have instructed me about all the things I still need to say to people of my past. If I were to die tomorrow – what has still been left unsaid? And while I don’t profess to know if any glimmer of that may reside connected to my own spirit of the future, I do know what it can mean to those left behind.
All this has me feeling somewhat philosophical. I don’t feel wise enough to advocate this as advice, but maybe if I start a brainstorm here, you too may have something to add. First, as I feel with the character Ellen’s mother in One True Thing: try not to be afraid to say what your heart feels when someone is in pain, ill or dying. So many of us shy away – a friend dies and we may feel we don’t know “the right thing” to tell the loved one left behind. (Say something, share your heart, don’t make it about you or your related experience until you know they are ready to hear about that.) Or, what I noticed with Mom as she moved deeper into dementia: a friend is ill or dying and we hold back from visits or conversations because we either don’t think we know what to say or it “hurts us too much to see them like that.” Many of us were taught to do or say what you would like someone to do for us: I think that helps us get away from our own ego about doing it right. (See: Yes, I will use the D word.)
Nope, I’m not expert in living or being: none of us are. But here’s a few of my takeaways.
- Thinking of someone from your past? Reminded by a song or a photo or the smell of food or the look of a sunset? Call, write, email, or try to locate them. (It was 8 years ago as I published My Music Man I was reminded about my kind 4th grade teacher and even tracked her down on Facebook: since then we have had lunch, share cards and messages that have brought us both joy. Hi Diane!)
- Have a friend or family member feeling down or ill? Reach out to check in, send a letter (not just a card with a sentence or two), send flowers and follow up with a call.
- Is there something that happened in your past that you still feel bad about and a person that you never got to either apologize to or debrief? If you don’t do it now, you may never get the chance. I have found so much joy and completion by circling back to connections from my past: even those that left me with unfinished business.
- Celebrate the friends in your life now – let them share with you what they hold in their heart. Share yours openly with them. Tell them now how they have helped you or what you most appreciate.
It’s never too soon for any and all of this. None of us know what tomorrow may bring.
Do you have ideas to add to this? I’d love to hear. Thanks for sharing the space.
2 thoughts on “About tomorrow”
Way to go. Great writing. Lots of good ideas. Thanks for sharing. Peace and hugs
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Thank you dear Paul. Let me tell you again how much I appreciate you. We are overdue a walk…and a Paul Hug. I’ll reach out.