"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Visiting the glory years of our parents

By on February 22, 2021 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments
Andy Dappen and his mother, Glady.

Obituaries – They’re really NOT for the dead

By Andy Dappen

If you want to remember loved ones — who they were and what they stood for — write their obituaries.

I learned this lesson 12 years ago when my father died. 

While the tangles of Alzheimer’s disease slowly strangled his brain, my mother took a first stab at his obituary. Upon Dad’s death, however, Mom was grieving. She shoved what she had written into my hands, “You’re the writer, why don’t you finish this?”

My mother was actually a superb writer and her draft was crisp, funny and unique. It was written in first person as though Dad had penned it so that, for once, he would have the last word. 

What a marvelous portrayal of our family’s dynamic — Dad hollered a lot when things didn’t follow his designs, but it was Mom’s design that mattered. She was the true captain of the family ship. Which made Dad’s obituary a perfect construct: It was Dad’s last words … according to Mom.

 I looked through old photo albums depicting the breadth of my Dad’s life and, this had me remembering my father’s quirky personality traits and classic family stories rather than the final years and the slow deterioration of his mind. 

I worked in new sentences and paragraphs that were consistent with my mother’s framework but revealed more about who my father was and what he believed. Then I sent my draft out to the rest of the family.

My mother was happy and my brother was too busy to criticize. 

My sister, however, felt our father was being misrepresented. “This tells an entertaining story about his cheapskate antics and quirky personality but it misses so much.” She elaborated how he was cheap with himself but not with his family and buttressed this statement with many examples. She said he had exceptionally high moral fiber and explained how this contributed to his prickly nature. 

We talked for an hour remembering stories, anecdotes and quotes that captured traits not mentioned in the obit. It was funny. And it was enlightening to hear my sister’s “take” on who my father was. In a few instances she gave me an entirely new perspective on my father’s behavior that I hadn’t considered.

I wasn’t sure how to handle this new content but I called my brother to capture his stories, anecdotes and memories. While we talked, I had the “Aha!” moment of how I would incorporate some of this new content into the obituary. 

After the initial portion professing Dad was writing his obituary so he would finally get the last word, I segued to the kid’s addendum where I stated Dad never got the last word in our family and that tradition would not be changing now. 

Then off I went discussing his many strong qualities that couldn’t be discussed in the initial construct without making Dad sound like a braggart. 

I told how others might have seen him as cheap but how he sent all his children to expensive colleges and some to expensive graduate programs without a peep of complaint. He gave us below-market-rate loans so we could buy homes. He helped pay the college tuition for some of the children of his friends. 

I also told the story of how, as the general manager of the pulp plant where we lived, national headquarters ordered him to lower payroll by laying off a half-dozen employees. The plant was operating profitably and he refused. “If you want to lower payroll then you start by firing me — I’m the highest paid employee at the plant AND the one most able to find another job.” He was not fired but neither did he rise to a higher executive level within the company.

As I wrote about these qualities I found myself alternating between laughing out loud and wiping my eyes. Before inheriting this task I was mainly remembering the final chapters of my father’s story as he grayed, wrinkled, stooped and forgot who he was. The obituary reconnected me to the entire book of his life.

A decade later my mother was in her early 90s and had been telling her children for years, “‘This’ is the year I’m going to head out among the stars to find your father.” 

After five years of false predictions I told my mother, “You obviously don’t know when you’re going to die, so put a lid on it. Try living this year instead of hoping for the end.” She didn’t re-engage with life but the predictions stopped.

Of course, had she made her well-worn prediction in 2020, she would have FINALLY gotten it right. 

In early December my mother suffered a stroke. Over the course of a week, her condition deteriorated and a few days before Christmas she received what was for her a cosmic gift.

Similar to how I felt when Dad died, her passage elicited more relief than grief. Maybe this was because the process of her decline had taken so long. Year after year she was more wrinkled, more stooped, and more disinterested in life. 

Every year she was less able to remember the family stories, less able to hear the conversations around her, less willing to engage in anything but her books. 

And then there was the grimness of Mom’s final week as she became bed bound and comatose from her stroke, gasped for air, and moaned as if in pain. She lay in bed, barely more than skin covering bone, with her eyes hidden in dark skeletal sockets. 

Often your strongest memories are the final ones and these would have been terrible ones to carry my memory of my mother’s story. 

Fortunately I had an obituary to write. 

I pulled out old photo albums and letters and thumbed through them. There she was with her parents — their only child and their princess. 

There she was at her piano recitals and I could actually hear her playing. I remembered the serene mood of our living room as she played. Somehow I jumped to my six-year old self and remembered her playing Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring for the first time and the goosebumps that music produced. I asked her to play it again… and then again.

Other pictures took me down different rabbit holes. 

Her college snapshots had me recalling how, during her sophomore year at Grinnell College, government recruiters arrived on campus and enticed her to work as typist at a secret war effort in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was here at the Manhattan Project that my parents first met, and dated for a year. 

I looked at the photo of these two young people on a bear skin rug during a retreat, and wondered what other mischief these two pursued on that rug. But that also had me remembering something she had told me 30 years earlier, “I suppose a big reason why we got married when I was only 20 was so that we could have sex.” 

Later in life my mother devoted much of her free time to give others governed by such sexual impulses better choices than marriage, luck, or unwanted children. Mom was a staunch supporter of Planned Parenthood and a crusader for family planning, women’s right to control the reproductive fate of their bodies, contraception, improving the emotional and mental health of women and, even abortion if necessary. 

Because of these beliefs and her desire to support the organization financially, she organized every aspect of local rummage sales. This included the finding, collecting, cleaning, sorting, setting up and selling of hand-me-down items. 

Over a 10-year period she rallied her friends to run these sales and raised over $100K for the organization. Many pictures I thumb through show her house set up for these sales. 

And then there are a few pictures of Mom sitting at her manual Hermes typewriter. 

This woman was a gifted and prolific writer and her art form was the humble letter. She stayed connected to dozens of people she loved through the many letters she wrote each week. These letters told funny, satirical stories about the family’s life and no one (especially her brood) was safe. 

Watching complete stories stream from her brain through fingers tapping madly on the typewriter — devoid of grammatical mistakes or typographical errors — was to witness a miracle in the creation of each letter. 

As happened with my father, writing about these salient memories had me flip-flopping between laughter and tears. 

I sent a draft of what I had produced to my siblings and they added memories of their own. Our collective effort resulted in a record that replaced Mom’s depressing denouement with a story capturing her spunk and vivacity until, well, her tank simply ran dry near the finish line.

All of this has had me pondering my own life and its inevitable end. Should I follow Dad’s example I’ll die in about 20 years in a slow fade that has me losing my mind. And if I’m like Mom, I’ll die 30 years hence with an absence of purpose. 

While I hope I exit with a functioning brain and still fully engaged in life, family history indicates my final years could be a depressing swirl into the depths of the cosmic toilet bowl. 

Which is why in the death instructions left for my daughters I’ve included this note: “Write my obituary together — it will remind you of who I was.”

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