Thirty years ago, I turned 40 and handled it without a scintilla of trepidation. There was a big surprise party for me, organized by my wife at the time, one filled with food and libation and no shortage of gag gifts that foretold of the stereotypical range of elderly concerns like arthritis and increased visits to the bathroom.
A decade later at 50, I also didn’t give much thought to the shortening of the road before me. I remember a baseball trip to Chicago to see the Cubbies at Wrigley with great pals.
And, even 10 years ago at 60, I was still far too busy with work and maintaining strong relationships with those who mean the most to me to give much thought to my curtain coming down.
However, last June when I turned 70 with another big party, this one organized by my terrific daughters, Shannon and Katie, I must admit that, while I still feel pretty darn good, I realize my life’s road is far shorter before than behind me. I suppose by that time I’d read enough obituaries of people my age and, in many instances, far younger that the stark realities of my mortality prompted me to give my daughters what will amount to my final gift, one not appreciated until after my last inhale and exhale.
I busied myself with formulating my final wishes and making sure there was a record of them as well as my final tutorials regarding how my daughters can put a wrap on their old man’s life.
Those final wishes included details on the music and readings of the funeral mass in the same church where I genuflected as a child when I heard Sister Joseph Andre press her clicker. I also wrote details on the way I want visitation handled and, of course, what to do with the shell left behind that once housed my more essential elements.
I made sure my last will was in order and wrote down for my girls the location of my end-of-life documents. I made lists of life insurance information and brokerage accounts and such, as well as a list of which bills are auto-pay, which are not, and other such practical information.
I also thought, since I’m the writer in the family, it was incumbent upon me to write my own obituary. What readers of the newspaper for which I’ve written for more than 20 years will see will be rather short and to the point. I left out almost all of what my dear friends and family really know me to be. Pretty much any obituary I’ve ever read, I think, fell short of capturing the true essence of someone’s life, so I really didn’t even attempt that.
The push I needed to complete this distasteful business for my daughters was one provided by a dear friend, Harry Johnson, who’s really never been too shy about giving people the benefit of his wisdom. The more Harry told me of his own preparation of his final exit, the more it made sense. After all, I always have to laugh whenever I hear someone say, “If something, God forbid, should happen to Mom and Dad …” because it’s really a “When,” not an “If.”
Of course, I had to force myself to do this since it’s so very difficult to think of a world that doesn’t, well, include me. And, for those industrious folks out there who have some strange notion that there’s simply too much to do to give much thought to dying, I’d advise reading the great recluse poet Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could Not Stop for Death.”
Of course, our time here is determined by forces far greater than ourselves and the jobs we feel compelled to complete. If you know your Dickinson, you’ll recall the first eight lines of her much-anthologized poem: “Because I could not stop for Death-/He kindly stopped for me-/The Carriage held but just ourselves and Immortality./We slowly drove-He knew no haste/And I had put away/My labor and my leisure too,/For his Civility.”
For those of you who, like me, are filled with enough apprehension about thoughts of death (my long-standing joke is telling people whenever the conversation swings around to death that no one will ever die with less dignity than I), I will tell you that confronting, planning and articulating the details of your final exit to help those about whom you loved so dearly put a bow on your life makes this whole nasty dying business a bit easier to digest.
As one of the group of writers who came of age during and shortly after World War I, Katherine Mansfiled, once said, “Whenever I prepare for a journey, I prepare as though for death. Should I never return, all is in order.”
Well, for me, one who’s always enjoyed preparing for my travels, all is indeed in order.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a division of AIM Media Midwest, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected] Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.