Recently, Marnie and I offered a reading and book signing at Eight Cousin’s Bookstore in Falmouth, Massachusetts. We had a small gathering of about l0 people, including a minister, who bought several books.
The conversation following the reading was profound — open and tender. One woman’s son was in the first plane to hit the World Trade Towers. Another man sobbed at various points talking about the estrangements/cut offs in his family. Another said she wish this book had been part of her mother’s hospice experience. While the medical care hospice provided was wonderful, she missed support that would have helped her mother close her life more peacefully.
Talking about death and dying is challenging, maybe especially on a lovely evening at the beginning of summer, but bringing difficult topics out of the shadows is comforting, too. It is our hope that these important conversations — about how we live meaningfully and die as we wish — will become commonplace and flourish.
My two adult daughters have babies. One also has a toddler. They both have spouses and active careers. Their hands and lives are full. I have a full life, too, and a folder called “Death” in my desk. Why? Because I, like many others in my baby boomer generation, feel badly that I did not know my parents very well. I, too, was busy in earlier years. My parents were private, and now they are gone. I want my children to have a different experience.
Here’s the handful of facts I know about my mother: Her name was Barbara. She was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1915. She had two sisters. Her father was 30 years older than her mother. In the morning she toasted a piece of whole wheat bread smeared with blueberry jam alongside her coffee, always poured into a heated cup. Each day she would drive to the market for fresh produce. At lunch she and my father would sit down to soup and a half sandwich and then split a cookie for dessert. Sometimes she took an afternoon nap. Before dinner she would have one glass of sherry with cheddar goldfish and sprinkled throughout the day, she smoked exactly 7 cigarettes. You get the idea.
But who was she beyond these details? I yearn to hear things I didn’t make time to hear, and now her stories are gone forever. I wonder how she wanted us to remember her? What did she worry about? What gave her the most joy in her daily life? What lessons did she hope to impart to her children? Did she feel appreciated?
So, back to the folder in my desk drawer. In it I put stories from my life. I write about lessons I have learned. I offer apologies for decisions I made that were costly to my children. I write to say thank you for small thoughtful gestures they did. I write about wishes I carry for them when they are older. Also in that file are my wishes for a time when I am sick or declining — guidelines for making medical decisions if I am unable to make them myself. Delaying intimate conversations with family members often means it’s too late to have them.
When I lead writing groups either for people facing serious illness or healthy people, most of them share my sadness about not knowing their parents either. They, too, want their children to know them as full people. So if your children are too busy now, start writing. Your stories may become for them lifelines to you when you are gone. We need to seize moments that we have right now to let family and friends know who we are. It’s not easy to be vulnerable. We are likely to be clumsy. Our children may be uncomfortable. But now is the only moment that we know we have. I believe my children and I will find ways to have these important conversations. But if life gets in the way I take comfort that an important folder called “Death” sits in my desk drawer.
Claire Willis with Marnie Crawford Samuelson