My father on Cape Cod, 1954? Photographer unknown.
My father died this past Saturday, November 18. He was a month away from turning 90. While his death was sudden and unexpected, it was not entirely shocking, given his age and declining health.
People seem to generally understand: you're never ready for something like this, no matter how much you accept that it is inevitable.
The part of this I didn't expect or foresee, is that a sudden death removes the possibility of any kind of final report-out. The sort of summary that you might give when you know it's over but you can still communicate. When you may feel more free to tell the truth and not be looking out for someone else's feelings. When there's nothing more to do but look back and make an assessment.
My dad didn't have a terminal diagnosis or any kind of timeline for "the end." He was a tough old guy and I suppose we all thought he would keep going until a doctor told him he wouldn't. I made sure, years ago, to try to think up all the questions I had about his life and to get them answered. What was your first job? What was high school like for you? What was it like to get drafted? What was your earliest memory? I've got his answers written down. He had a great sense of humor and there is a lot of good stuff.
But now that it's over, I am thinking of so many questions that I didn't ask. Questions that didn't occur to me to ask before, or that I guess I thought were pointless to ask along the way because it wasn't yet the end. Things like:
- So how was life really?
- What would you do differently if you could do it over again?
- What was your all-time favorite book, movie, song, food, etc.?
- What was the best advice you ever received? (And the worst?)
- When were you happiest?
- Did you do everything you wanted to do?
- Who was your best friend?
- What do you wish you had spent more time doing? (and less time doing?)
- How do you see yourself living on in me? What parts of me carry you on?
For all those 90 years, what was the upshot? Did he do this kind of stock-taking on his own? I feel fairly certain that if I'd asked him, "So how was your life, really?" a few weeks or months ago, he probably would have given me some flip, deflecting answer. He was having a lot of trouble communicating due to a stroke last year, so that would have affected how much he conveyed. I should have asked anyway. Maybe there is no way to get the final report, maybe this "what did it all mean" questioning will always be part of the experience of someone's death. All I know is that the overall trip summary is missing and I really wish I had it.
And, because it wouldn't be a proper blog post without a resources section:
A good article on How to Find Meaning in the Face of Death (and the importance of a legacy project)
I recently read about an app that helps people share their end-of-life preferences
If you want to learn more about someone but don't know what to ask, the Proust Questionnaire is a good place to start.
There are lots of other good lists of questions out there. Searching the term "questions to ask a parent" can help you compile your own list.