By Sandy George
It’s my job to make sure my stepmother ends up in the metal lunchbox above the refrigerator. The lunchbox—one of those old metal ones with the rounded top for a thermos—has been above the refrigerator for at least thirty years. My brother, sister, and I had made a sport out of trying to hide it when my dad had first married her, but she’d always found it and returned it to its space. We gave up the game before their first anniversary.
It’s not that she particularly loves that lunchbox. It just suits her and her lack of reverence for any kind of ceremony. And everyone always knows where it is.
Being put in charge of the lunchbox spurred me to talk to my dad about end-of-life wishes. I thought it’d be a piece of cake. We talk about everything, my dad and I—politics, religion, sex, science, parenting—nothing is off the table.
Until I told him about the lunchbox.
Before I could even ask any of the questions I’d planned (Did he have a will? Who did he want to make end-of-life decisions for him? Who had power of attorney? Was he an organ donor? Where did he want to be buried? Cremation or burial?), he stopped me with, “I don’t want to talk about death.”
“It’s not about death,” I tried. “It’s just, you know, paperwork. Wills, DNRs …”
“Nope. I’m not tempting God.”
My dad has never been particularly religious during my life, having left Catholicism before I was born. And he’d had no trouble talking about wills and DNRs a decade earlier when I went into emergency surgery and he pushed me to complete all the right forms because by then I was a mom.
I parroted back the argument he’d used with me back then: “You know, if we don’t discuss these things now, you’re going to leave me to guess during an incredibly difficult time.”
I guess he is more superstitious than I thought.
I tried getting my stepmother to talk to him, but he told her the same thing.
Maybe the important difference between my father and my stepmother is that my stepmother has been through it. She was the one who had to sort out everything after her mother died. Her brother had been living in another country, and her sister had been dealing with a special needs child. So my stepmother was the one who cleaned out her mother’s home, tracked down all the paperwork, divvied up possessions, and tried to balance everyone’s emotions and sentimentalities (and greed). She says it was the hardest thing she’s ever had to do. She says nothing brings out the worst in people like a death. She says the lunchbox is easy.
My father hasn’t talked to his parents since leaving home in his teens. He didn’t even go their funerals.
With all that in mind, I called my brother and sister. We were going to have to make decisions, but we didn’t need to wait until we were thrown into it.
My brother said right up front he wanted my sister and I to handle it, not because he didn’t care, but because he respects us and won’t have any problem with us making decisions. My brother is great at being a support but not so good at taking the lead.
My sister and I are very very different people. We don’t see eye to eye on much. But she’s a nurse, and when I told her I wanted her to be the one to make medical decisions should my dad become incapacitated, she was relieved. When she told me she wanted me to deal with the paperwork side of things, I was relieved. My sister is good at decisions but not follow-through. She is disorganized but thoughtful. I am good at figuring out who needs to do what and making a lot of moving parts work together, but I’m not good at safeguarding anyone’s feelings.
We talked a long time, my sister and I, sharing memories of what my dad had said over the years, putting together the clues as to what sort of funeral services would make him happy. We talked about things he had said about friends who had been hospitalized, comments he’d made about movies or news reports. We wrote it all down and put it in my safe. When the time comes we won’t have to start from scratch.
It was one of the nicest discussions my sister and I ever had.
We maintain hope that my dad will change his mind and makes some plans. But he’s nearly 80 now. His favorite saying is from Woody Allen: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” Woody got if from a Yiddish proverb that says, “We plan, God laughs.” I guess God and my dad have that in common.