You want to leave a legacy?
By Alan Russell
My Dad was nearly 93 when he died recently.
It was not unexpected given the combination that he was very old and was suffering from a brain tumour as well.
Following his diagnosis with a brain tumour I had some real quality time with Dad as I was able to see him often. In his final months I could ask him what he did on his twenty first birthday during World War II. He could recount in forensic detail how he drove a Crossley truck across the Rhine on a pontoon bridge at the head of a ten truck convoy. Ask him what he had for lunch that day and he would answer ‘I knew you were going to ask that and I can’t remember.’
This happened a couple of times so I stopped asking him what he had for lunch.
In one of our quality times together we broached the subject of his end of life wishes. His local surgery had given him a pack that included a form to detail these wishes. It felt easy while we were doing it as Dad was very lucid and given suggestions was perfectly capable of making his own rational choices. Rational choices over issues such as ‘Do Not Resuscitate’, organ donation and his funeral service. For his funeral service he wanted to have one exactly the same as Mum’s. The same hymns, same location, cremation and burial of ashes next to hers.
After we finished working through the entire package I got in my car to drive home thinking ‘that went well’. Two minutes later I felt the energy drain from me and although I was not visibly shaking from exhaustion I knew that inside I was. Instead of driving straight home I went to a beech overlooking Poole Harbour that I knew Mum and Dad spent a lot of their time together. I sat on the sea wall looking across The Purbecks trying to find some energy. Just looking at the softly lapping water on the shore. The oystercatchers flitting from one spot to another dipping their bills into the sand for a morsel only worrying about their next meal and not about their parents. And the timeless view across The Purbecks restored me. The ocean is where we came from and so often it is where we return for comfort and rejuvenation.
I could never stay long enough on the shore; the tang of the untainted, fresh, and free sea air was like a cool, quieting thought.” – Helen Keller
At least two years passed between Dad and I going through his end of life wishes and when I received the phone call from the hospital that he had passed away.
That plan was a saviour. Dad had made all the necessary decisions. None of us in the family had to ponder over what he would have liked or not liked and then gone into the dark land of self doubt over the correctness for Dad of what we had decided. Everything was in writing. Everything was crystal clear. That clarity was one of the greatest gifts Dad could have left.
Death is one of the two certainties of life. Taxation being the other. We know when our taxes are due but none of us, even those of us with terminal conditions know exactly when that other ultimate certainty will happen. Taxation is a subject we brush to one side; always putting off until tomorrow the preparation of a tax return until tomorrow morphs into the final deadline day As with taxation, death is a subject we brush aside thinking that we know it will happen but are deterred from preparing for it as if any preparation is a recognition of our own very personal mortality. Unfortunately when we reach the deadline of death it is too late to prepare for its arrival. If we miss a tax deadline all that happens is a fine and a chance to correct our behaviour.
My middle brother knew he was under the constant shadow of death due to a heart condition. That did not stop him living and if anyone was a walking talking example of carp diem then he was as perfect as a Michel Angelo sculpture. His life was full of travel, meeting people, keeping in touch with family, making fun for himself and those around him and giving so much of himself to others. On one of his travels with his wife to Spain they stayed at a friend’s farm in the hills above Barcelona. My brother and his ‘best’ friend sat on the terrace smoking cigars and drinking local red wine watching the evening light fade into the darkness of night. On quiet evenings like this with close friends hearts open up to talk about hopes and fears, mistakes and the future. My brother knew his future was limited and his friend knew this as well. That night over some rioja and cigars they both talked about and then wrote down how each of them would look after each other when either of them died. This final wish list went down to the finite details of which music to play during the service and where reception after the service would take place.
When my brother’s wife phoned me about his sudden death she told me about his best friend and gave me his contact details. I spoke to him. He told me about the arrangement made that night in Spain and all I had to do was look after my parents to make sure they got the funeral. The ‘arrangement’ mentioned the best friend looking after everything for my sister in law from providing her with good comfort to sorting out the legalities surrounding his death.
The ‘best’ friend was in fact a ‘best man’ but for a funeral instead of a wedding.
This ‘best man’ arrangement made my sister in law’s life much easier at a very stressful than it would have been if my brother had not made any arrangements. It was hard work for the ‘best man’ but he told me that it was the least he could do for his own, very own best friend.
When my mother died neither of my parents had not made any plans so Dad and I more or less had to wing it. I was with him when he collected her ‘Cause of Death Certificate’ from the hospital along with the impersonal green bag of her last few possessions. Some three years after her death it lies unopened in a wardrobe in Dad’s flat. We had to find our own way through registering the death and then making funeral arrangements. Dad was in dep shock even though Mum had been ill for years. So, if he had been by himself how on earth would he have coped. I had to be his ‘best man’ for Mum’s funeral. It was the first one I had organised so I did my best but it may not have been my best.
It was being in that situation with Mum and Dad that helped me to help Dad with his end of life wishes when the opportunity arose. As a result it has been possible to lay the foundations a funeral in less than a day in time spread over two days including speaking to dad’s vicar about her role at the funeral.
So, based on this highly personal experience I cannot suggest strongly enough, implore and even plead with anyone who reads this article to take some time out of denying their own mortality, find someone who could be your ‘best man’ or ‘best woman’ for your own funeral and sort out some plans including writing up a will.
Being that organised will be the best legacy anyone can leave behind for their friends and family.