It’s mid morning, I’m lounging on my sister’s couch, we’re sipping coffee, shooting the shit, and verbally redecorating her guest room from our prone positions.
Out of the blue she says to me, “I wish I had asked Mom about death.”
I say, “do you mean how she felt about dying?”
“No, how she managed after Dad died.”
“That would have been good to know.”
“I was afraid to ask, I thought it might be too difficult for her to talk about, so I avoided the subject.”
“I believe it was the most challenging thing she ever had to deal with.”
“I know you know.” (For those new to my blog, my sister’s beloved husband passed away unexpectedly, at the beginning of this year)
This of course got me thinking about the things I wish I had asked my parents before they passed. Things Nancy and I are left to piece together from separate conversations, but it’s never the same as an intentional discussion while your parents are alive, and able to articulate their own thoughts.
So I started thinking about some of the things my parents went to their graves without telling us. Things I wish I knew more about because it could have informed my life today or at least given me a more detailed picture of the people who brought me into the world. If you still have the opportunity to talk with your parents then do so before it’s too late. Here is a mixture of questions I’ve asked my parents over the years, and a few things I remain curious about, but no longer have the opportunity to fully understand.
This list is far from complete, but it’s a start, questions to leisurely discuss with your loved ones, a way of reminiscing together, and sharing our stories.
Get the nitty, gritty details about their childhood?
- What is one of your best childhood memories, the long version, no detail is unimportant?
- Tell me about growing up in your hometown? What neighbors did you love, who was the most scandalous, or annoying, who kept your secrets?
- Tell me a favorite story about your Mom and Dad (my grandparents) or maybe something they wouldn’t want me to know. Yes, I’m malicious, don’t let that stop you.
- What was it like to live during [fill in the blank] World War II, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, Watergate, Woodstock, Neil Armstrong, cocktail parties where the martinis were shaken not stirred?
- How did you meet each other? Who initiated the first kiss? Who said I love you first? When did you decide to marry? And don’t leave out a single detail about the proposal, I want all of it, what was said, where you were, how it felt, who you told!
- What was your greatest fear about becoming a parent? I realize Dr. Spock was a heavy influence but give me some of your hard earned parenting advice?
- What is your best memory of me? Okay, and the worst? Try to be gentle.
- What “tested your mettle” in this life and what did you learn about yourself?
- If you could change one thing about your life what would it be? Be daring with this one, wishing you were taller doesn’t count, but occupations, mistakes, and challenges do.
- What do you love most about your spouse? I remember my Mom telling me that Dad made her a better person and I believe that is about the best compliment you could give someone else.
- Are there any dreams you still might want to fulfill in this life, living in Paris for a year, joining the Peace Corps, taking up ballroom dancing?
- Or are you content with this life? No points for hiding behind the truth!
- What advice would you give your fifty year old self? And do you mind if I record this part?
- What are the three best decisions you’ve ever made? The worst? If need be, you can take the fifth, but what fun is that?
- Aside from me, what are you most proud of in this life?
- What are the event/s that most profoundly shaped your life in good ways and bad?
- Any important messages for your grandchildren?
- Let’s not talk about hell and damnation but what about salvation, eternal life, heaven? Your thoughts? Try to be honest instead of profound.
- Tell me a secret you’ve never told anyone? I won’t judge, I won’t comment, I won’t tell…I’ll just hold it for you so you can let it go.
- In three words how do you want to be remembered? Hot, sassy, and intelligent are already taken.
- In practical terms how do you survive the death of a spouse? Tom Hanks said, “I’m gonna get out of bed every morning… breathe in and out all day long. Then, after a while I won’t have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out… and, then after a while, I won’t have to think about how I had it great and perfect for a while.”
- Are you scared of death? I read somewhere that death is like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, it’s so much more than you could have imagined, and the view does not disappoint.
- What will you miss? (This is a Nora Ephron question) Because aside from my husband, five kids, and three grandchildren, I’ll miss bacon, twinkle lights, the lake house, and let’s not forget Amazon.com.
- Do you have your affairs in order? What do I need to know?
- How do you want your life to be celebrated?
- What do you want done with your remains? I need specifics, because otherwise you’ll end up in an urn at the lake house, mixed in with a menagerie of distant relatives.
I wish I had recorded my Mom reading to her great granddaughter, I wish I knew how much I would miss them before they parted, I wish I had spent more time in meaningful conversation, because I truly believe understanding the endless variety of the human experience from my parents perspective is key to unlocking the mysteries in my own life.
As Tolkien claims the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path. One that we all must take. Plato says let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence, I say bequeath your story, because even though a little part of us died with the passing of our parents, we are guardians of their meaningful narratives, and therefore we’ll never be alone. “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead,” says Graham Greene. I liken death to a form of liberty, a freedom from the bonds of this physical world, a bondage necessary for love to reign.
- That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet. Emily Dickinson
- To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure. J.K. Rowling
- “Death opens a door out of a little, dark room (that’s all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.” C.S. Lewis