My father looks youthful, sitting in his desk chair, almost a bystander to the conversation we were having — he, my stepmother and I — about what to do when the two of them die.
We’re in my parents’ basement office. I’ve come prepared for a serious discussion. My stepmother, Margaret, starts explaining what to do with their bodies as Ella rolls golf balls around on the floor. I’m certain that this was the first time in their combined 172 years that they’ve both seriously discussed their last wishes.
“We both want to be cremated,” Margaret says. But, she adds, her sister had been cremated, and had requested that her ashes be scattered around the property of her home near the mountains. Margaret and her brother-in-law complied the day after Thanksgiving last year. “That was a very difficult thing to do,” Margaret says, which is as close as she’ll come to saying she was sad, or to crying in front of anyone. So, she says, she wants to be cremated, then buried in her family’s plot, both because she feels no special connection with the land under her feet and because she doesn’t want to put anybody out. “And,” she says, “Daddy said he wants to be buried where I am.”
I look over at my father. I have never before seen the expression on his face, or his posture. Dad usually has four emotions: serious and all business, as when he’s explaining how to drive; critical, which usually involves sarcasm and incredulity; jocular, when he’s joking around with his old-fart friends over a few beers; and silly, like when he makes faces and wiggles his ears at Ella. But at this moment, when we were talking about his death, he’s relaxed, serene, sober. He seems calm. He literally looks young. He smiles lightly. He blinks away mist in his eyes. Maybe his heart feels heavy, maybe his body tingles, but he is definitely in his own skin. He isn’t someone’s husband, or father or grandfather. He isn’t entertaining a crowd. He is himself. He says in response, simply, “yes.”
My father will be 90 this year. His age — rather, his health and mental acuity at his age — inspires awe in people. Men 20, sometimes 30 years younger often look older, appearing as though life served them more hard knocks. They just don’t know how to bob and weave like my old man. Just yesterday, someone stopped us as we were driving out of the parking lot at my dad’s golf course (we had gone to the grill to pick up sandwiches for lunch). “How old are you going to be?” the man said. Dad told him. “Well, bless your heart. That’s really great. I’ll be 72 this year.” The deep wrinkles on the man’s face were covered with gray stubble, his eyes looked tired, he speech was a little faulty. He looked like he was recently discharged from an ICU. Dad is always clean-shaven, sharply dressed, ready to discuss world affairs.
It’s not surprising that Dad is only now taking part in a discussion about his will, his death. He is the last man on earth who wants to die. He has always made playing hard a very serious endeavor. He was a tennis pro when he was young. He married four times, had seven kids. He ran his own company until he was 75, and he continues to chair boards and committees, always looking for the next opportunity to create a legacy, finding ways for people to remember him fondly while running as fast and as far ahead of sedentation and death as possible.
Dad complains of aches and pains, and he recently had surgery to repair damage done to his right knee when he wasn’t agile enough to make it up a hill. Still, it’s hard to believe that this man will die soon. It’s easier to imagine that he’ll be around another 10 years or more, giving me hell about missing putts seemingly in perpetuity. His grandmother lived to 103.
Several months ago I agreed to have durable power of attorney for health care for both Margaret and my dad. She sought and collected the proper forms. She has studied them closely and chastises my dad for not doing so. She’s engaged, firing off questions and taking notes. Dad sits quietly.
We wade through their end-of-life requests and get to their will, and what they want done with their belongings. Again I’m surprised. It was as if was suddenly dropped into another family.
Margaret entered my life when I was just a baby, younger than Ella is now. I spent more time with her and my father — summers, school holidays — than my other siblings. I wanted to be around them. Their lives were so much more orderly than the life I shared with my mother. But Margaret is a hard person to get to know. She’s very private. She can seem very cold. One time one of my dad’s golfing buddies came to the house, and he met Margaret. This man was a retired Army general. Big John. He was trying his best to be charming, and he asked Margaret if she ever went by “Maggie.” “Yes,” she said, “some of my very good friends call me that. But you can call me Margaret.”
Maybe it’s been her toughness that I’ve liked, her willingness to draw a line, even for my old man, and dare someone to cross it. She is, no doubt, the most intelligent person I’ve ever known.
I’ve always interpreted her privacy as distance, her close emotional boundaries (my father always says, “I love you,” but she never has) as disapproval.
I’ve learned many things from my dad and stepmother, mostly manners and protocol. I also learned that I don’t want to raise my daughter the way I was raised. Many things I experienced as a child I strive to make sure Ella does not. I’ve recognized the gaps in their parenting that I’ve already started filling in for Ella. That also means trying to be a better husband. Many things they didn’t teach me, but I learned just the same.
Now, Margaret has entrusted me with her life. And she has decided to leave many of her possessions to me. Financially, and emotionally, that’s a shock to my system. I never expected anything. But it’s not what she’s leaving that’s important, or how much. At one point, she says, “you’ve been closer to us [than my six siblings], and I don’t just mean you’ve spent more time with us.” That’s as close as she’ll get to saying how much she cares. And it’s close enough.
Two hours after we sat down Dad and Margaret start annoying each other, bickering like (very!) old married people, and I know the discussion is over. Life has returned to normal.