Blueprint for a Plan

People can divide into two camps: those who are able to turn to their parents for guidance, and those who cannot. When your last parent dies, or they both die in quick succession, you are thrust into the second camp, often as an adult orphan. And you may find yourself thinking about how your own last chapter is managed. This is new terrain for each of us, and no one ever talks about this stuff, so here is a quick guideline of sorts: my checklist for check-out, just keep it handy til you need it.

  1. What is your dealbreaker? For me, it’s ketchup. And political wing-nuts. You’re probably not going to find me a long-term care facility free of both, but your efforts to do so will go a long way in securing my happiness.
  2. Make lists. Start with the basics, like banks and investments, insurance and whoever was that attorney you met with when you first had kids, who put together a will. Lists of passwords, for your laptop, social media, airline rewards, Hilton Honors club, online bill-paying, your email. I don’t even know all my passwords; there’s an app on my phone that keeps them, so maybe the password to my phone is a starting point.
  3. Document what you own. Even if has no value, document why you have it. I learned this when we moved, and my son asked, as he unpacked some knick-knacks, knowing I’m not a fan of unnecessary stuff I have to dust, “What is all this stuff? Do you even know where it came from?”. I do, I told him. And he held up kind of a gaudy teacup. “That’s from my grandma’s condo in Florida; she collected those.” “So ALL this stuff has a story?”, he asked. It does. Fine, then, he said — take a photo of each little thing, and write a blurb about where it came from, then upload all that to a shared Google doc so we don’t accidentally donate something meaningful once you’re gone. (Oh, p.s., include the password for the Google doc of the stuff-list in step 2.) A dear friend once asked her own mother to list her assets for her, and instead she received a full inventory of every single thing in the house, from sofa to lamps to baking items, where it came from, and when, and whether it was worth keeping. That’s a little extreme, though sort of entertaining. Another friend inherited her mother’s impressive spoon collection. Having an enormous drawer full of souvenir spoons wasn’t really her thing though, so she found a local craftsman who turned the spoons into a chandelier that is something of a conversation piece. AND, she can now say, with some authority, “I’ve got a spoon guy…”. That’s a talking point in itself.
  4. Write it down. Recipes in my mom’s handwriting make me a better cook, or so I like to think. Even if I watched her make something a thousand times, her handwritten notes are a thing of comfort. Except for the spaghetti sauce recipe that starts with “steam and peel eight large tomatoes and press them through a wire sieve.” C’mom Mom. Side note: memorable wedding shower idea — have guests write out a favorite recipe, and bring along an item necessary to make that dish. I have a most eclectic recipe box thanks to a shower that included this idea. Bonus, my dad participated, and therefore I have his recipe for Irish Pretzels, in his writing. That’s gold.
  5. Give assignments. I want my daughter to pick my clothes, and my boys to pick my music, when I’m not able to. Yes, my daughter who said once, when I was wearing a beige sweater and brown pants, “if it’s ‘dress-as-a-bowl-of-oatmeal-day’ at your work, you’re going to win.” Same daughter who sometimes wrinkles her nose and gives fashion insight like, “that’s too ‘grandma-on-the-cruise-ship’”, or “too Amish”. So at least I’ll look good. Plus she’s the one who knows that a random errant chin-hair will make me nuts, and sometimes I just need a hat or a scarf, and that I hate having my nails done, and don’t like wearing socks (except running socks). My boys will outdo each other in creating custom nursing-home playlists and podcasts, and I’ll be the happy beneficiary of both. And someone may have to read books or essays or poetry to me. I barely held it together in the theater watching “Still Alice”, starting to come unglued with the song “If I Had a Boat” halfway through it, and falling completely apart at the last scene, where her daughter quotes lines of dialogue from a play. I sat crying in the theater after the last patron left, as Maria brought me napkins from the popcorn stand, and said to me, finally, ‘we have to go — the next showing will start soon’. And so this list item is really about delegating people to be active with me, to the finish line, without extracting impossible promises. And Maria already has the job of handing me napkins: position filled.
  6. Location location location. My last residence should be situated near a running trail, where I can be outside and see runners and cyclists and people pushing strollers or walking dogs or teaching kids to ride bikes. I once ran a road race in Lacrosse, WI (the Grandad Foods Half Marathon) that went by a senior living complex at the critical Mile 11 mark. The sidewalk was lined with residents of that home, each with a party horn or jingle-bells, cheering for runners as they passed, exactly when the runners needed the support most. I decided right then I wanted to be the lady standing and gripping the handles of her own wheelchair, shouting “You are amazing! You are incredible!” to each runner.
  7. Designate your free time. Tune me in to NPR, or the radio broadcast of the Tribe game. Give the parking spaces in front of the television to someone else. Hearing is one of the last senses to go. In the last days of my dad’s life, we sat in the sunporch of my childhood home and listened to the Tribe on the radio; memories of those bittersweet afternoons have become more sweet with the passing of time. In the last days of my father-in-law’s life, the wonderful hospice nurse did not know he was profoundly deaf without his hearing aids. She told my spouse and his siblings, “keep talking to him, he can hear you”. My spouse, always the joker, leaned over his father and said loudly, “Papa! Papa! If you can hear me, tell me where the treasure is buried!”. His siblings burst into welcome laughter, and even the nurse found it funny. It is difficult to fill the silence; if you have preferences about what you want to hear, say so early on.
  8. Make arrangements. My dad had wanted the Notre Dame Alma Mater played at his wedding, but the church nixed that idea. You can bet we played it at his funeral, tender strong and true. I’ve been to funerals where the family requested donations instead of flowers, with gifts of children’s books, or winter coats for the homeless, or non-perishable food items lining the hall of the visitation. I was surprised my parents’ remains were entombed in a wall crypt. They had had that discussion with each other, but not with us. No matter, their wishes were known. So have that talk: ashes donations organs science burial remains, etc.
  9. Final gestures. Bequeath what you intend to bequeath, in person or in writing. Or in action. My mother slipped her wedding band into my dad’s funerary niche before it was sealed. We sisters all just stood there stunned. Later, she told my sister she had the idea from back when Jackie Kennedy did that after JFK died. When I watched the movie “Jackie”, I waited for that moment. It wasn’t in the film, but I don’t doubt my mother.
  10. Exits are hard, and so is planning for them; don’t let that be a reason not to do it. Hug the ones you love, leave nothing unsaid, enjoy every sandwich.