Wednesday, April 12, 2017

What I Learned From Writing My Father's Obituary

A decade or so ago, on a beautiful summer day, my parents arrived for one of their regular visits with my kids. My father handed me a thick, sealed manila envelope labeled ‘obituary’.  With a puzzled look on my face, I turned to him for explanation. He told me that as the other passionate writer in the family, he wanted me to have this information so that I could draft his obituary when the time came. At that moment, my father stood in front of me in good health and his mortality was not something I was prepared to consider - so I took the envelope, placed it in a safe place and we went on about our visit.

On a cold February night a few years back, it was time for me to woefully retrieve that envelope. I was overwhelmed with the task at hand. I had read hundreds of obituaries in my lifetime and was certainly capable of writing one. Surely I could tackle his. In my state of grief, I would never have imagined that writing my father’s obituary would become a teaching moment for me.

Overcome with the emotion of having just lost my dad, I felt such appreciation for having this information compactly at hand, information that I otherwise would never have remembered in my state of sadness. As I went through the pages, it became increasingly important for me to create a tribute to my father that would communicate what kind of man he was and what was important to him throughout his life. The things he was most proud of; his family, his career, his education, his service to his country. It was too much information to include and had to be condensed as much as possible. In the end, it became I think, a fantastic narrative of his life.

I am the youngest of five children. One of us was always up to antics and so it was not uncommon for my parents to jokingly (and maybe sometimes seriously) pose the question ‘how is our obituary going to read?’ If a situation arose that may embarrass them, we would laugh and make light. But reading through the final copy of my father’s tribute, I finally understood what that question truly meant to them.

When was the last time you read an obituary that describes the deceased’s jewelry collection or what vehicle was parked in their garage?  Obituaries don’t talk about square footage of homes or labels on clothes. They don’t mention balances left in bank accounts or the change left in someone’s pocket. What they do say is what legacy a person left behind in family, in work and in faith. My father lived an amazing life. At 87, he left behind a devoted wife of 59 years, five children and ten grandchildren. He had an extensive education that he had credited to serving his country and the GI bill. He built an amazing career that encompassed a lifetime of helping others. These are the things that a memorable life is built on….the things that obituaries are made of.

I once knew someone who measured self-worth with material items. I often teased him that when he was one day in the nursing home, he'd be lucky if they park his sports car outside the window where he can see or if they'd  place that expensive watch around his wrist.  To be clear I am not against the finer things in life and certainly appreciate that some people work very hard to achieve and deserve them. But in truth, none of that compares to having someone who loves you hold your hand as you take your final breath. My father passed with loving family by his side, holding his hand.

It took writing my father’s obituary to consider what my own obituary will one day say. The question has challenged me to make important changes in my life and every time I am not sure which direction to go, I ask myself “how will my obituary read?”

What will yours say?

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