“Now you two don’t need to worry, as your father and I have taken care of all of that stuff”, my mother said matter-of-factly to my brother and I.
For the first time in many years, my parents, in their late seventies, my only brother and I were alone together in the same room. I say alone, as neither of our spouses or children were present.
The same room – in this moment – was the cabin, whose logs had been stripped by my Great-Grandmother Hannah, when built in the late thirties, and whose footprint and walls still remain in tact. The cottage, as we call it, is situated in a small bay on the Big Rideau Lake near Perth, Ontario. Beyond all other places on the earth I have lived or traveled, it is the land I call my soul place.
With two small bedrooms separated by a partitioned wall, curtains for bedroom doors, a small kitchen and living space that opens out to an enclosed front porch, the cottage holds more of my paternal ancestral connections than anywhere else, including the family home my parents have owned for more than fifty years.
Originally we had to go by boat, as there were no roads in to the property. We would arrive before dark, unlock the padlock on a chain that tied a small fishing boat to a tree, and slide the boat down into the water. Either by rowing with oars or using a small outboard motor, we navigated through the lily pads and weeds in the back bay to the dock, and everything we brought to the cottage had to be able to fit in that boat.
Grandma Gert and Grandpa Carman stewarded the property until my Grandfather’s sudden death of a heart attack at sixty-nine, when my parents began a slow purchase to ensure my Grandmother’s financial care was maintained throughout her elder years and to her death in her early nineties.
On this particular evening the four of us sat, spread out between various comfy couches and chairs, facing the wood stove. It was a cool evening in mid-June and my father was going into hospital the following week. He had experienced another heart incident, and had been recommended for open-heart surgery or the less invasive option of a few more stents to open the blockages in the arteries leading to his heart. He had chosen the latter and was happy with his decision.
At fifty-eight, my father had experienced a heart attack at which time stents were recommended. This happened again on several other occasions in the decades to follow. On this particular evening, with the four of us alone, he took an opportunity to share how he was feeling.
“I’ve lived more years than I ever imagined”, he told us, “and if these give me a few more, that’s great.”
I wanted to follow up on my mother’s declaration of not needing to worry about all of that stuff, so inquired a little further.
“What do you mean all of that stuff mom?”
“Well, we both have living wills and an up to date will”, she professed.
“Great”, I replied, “that’s good to know.”
I knew the term living will was somewhat out of date, but wanted to affirm their actions in taking care of something many at their age have still not attended to. Living three thousand miles from my parents and brother, I assumed my brother knew where this information was kept.
I asked my brother, “You know where mom and dad’s papers are, right?”
“Nope”, he replied.
My mother jumped in, “Well, they’re locked in our safe.”
“Great,” I affirmed. And again asked my brother – “you know where the safe is, don’t you?”
“Nope”, he replied a second time.
“So, obviously you don’t know what the combination is either”, I continued, with a grin, using the soft sarcasm our family is known for.
My brother shook his head.
I had been facilitating the Living Well – Dying Well program for a year at this point, and had begun to hear similar stories from folks in the class.
Either their parents or they themselves hadn’t attended to any of that stuff, including sharing wishes for personal medical care should they require it, nor creating a will to speak to the distribution of their estate.
“What if something happens to both of you and Doug and I don’t know what your wishes are for medical attention?” I asked.
Both of my parents stared blankly back at me.
Realizing, after almost sixty years of marriage both of them knew the other’s wishes, and felt confident they would be taken care of if and when something occurred, I was transported in memory to ten years prior.
My cell phone rang as John and I were out on a Sunday drive in the country.
“Penny?” the voice questioned on the other end of the line.
“Yes”, I answered.
A family friend began to inform me that my parents, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew had all been involved in a serious car accident. I could hardly breathe as I listened to him recount what had happened.
In one short moment as my father, who was driving the van with all of them as passengers, crossed an intersection, a woman drove her car through a red light, and my entire family was almost taken. My mother sustained serious injuries, which thankfully she recovered from, however the experience lives forever imprinted in my heart and mind.
Now, having offered natural burials, funerals and memorial ceremonies for many families over the years, I experience weekly the profound truth that in any given moment, one or more of our loved ones could be seriously injured or die.
I’m also acutely aware that I am included in this real possibility as well. Thus, a growing sense of care for deepening the conversation around conscious dying and death informs me in everyday life, and which I have the privilege to explore with others as a co-facilitator of Living Well – Dying Well with The Centre for Earth & Spirit.
That evening at our family cottage as the sun set, the lake became smooth as glass and the four of us enjoyed a meal together around the kitchen table rubbed smooth over years of family card games, we opened up a real conversation about all of our wishes.
My brother told me I wouldn’t need to rush to jump on a plane if something happened to one of my parents – meaning if they died – as he didn’t see any reason for us to rush to have a service.
I spoke of the real need to see my parent’s body after death if at all possible, as this is important for me. All of us listened and spoke personal truths and wishes unknown to any of us before this moment, possibly even to ourselves! With the space open for curiosity and interest in each other’s wishes we learned a lot about ourselves and one another!
And as the logs of the cottage listened, I wondered what Great Grandma Hannah, Grandma Gert and Grandpa Carman were thinking of all this chatter and fuss, as we pulled out a deck of cards and started a game of Cut Throat.
That was a beautiful piece! I too was raised in a sensory environment at a lake cottage. I am also interested in death and dying (I was also totally interested in midwifery at a time when it was not yet legal. I worked to help to legalize it.) Around 30 years ago I researched and wrote a documentary film project call ‘Parting Ways’ which was all about looking at death and dying through a cross cultural view of rituals/ceremonies/attitudes towards death and dying. I learned so much! At the time, there wasn’t even a term coined for a ‘death doula’. They were called ‘midwifes of the dying’ and the concept was fringe to say the least! After this, I continued to work in a form of palliative care (won’t elaborate but relevant and required qualifications) and, while living in San Fransisco, attended an amazing two day conference calked ‘Live Well Die Well’. Is this you? I must look up the brochure. I paid about $500 for the event that was packed. The most leading edge speakers of many discipline coming together in order to forage a new vision and start a conversation similar to the one that you and your sibling and parents had for the very first time while sitting around a table that I know oh so well. We had one of those too.
This kind of table could be situated anywhere. It is for anyone who wishes to be a part of the conversation…
Blessings. This is really good stuff you are up to…