Can you help me understand why death requires so much pre-planning?
“Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence.”
-Paul Simon, Simon & Garfunkel, 1964
Now try getting that song out of your head!
A couple of days before the dawn of 2017, Alice (my older sister and shopping enthusiast if you’ll recall) and I received a group text from my dad, Henry, to check our schedules for the first week of January. He wanted to meet us for lunch. Sounds simple enough, perfectly innocent, and super sweet – a dad taking his girls out for a meal to kick-off the New Year. Sigh…
I’m going to digress here a second because I cannot believe I am even typing the words, “[We] received a group text from my dad.” It makes me laugh so hard! If you know my dad at all, you will understand and appreciate that comment with the utmost sincerity. After your sincere understanding and appreciation, you likely did something close to the following: experienced a giggle for a beat, sighed a soft sigh as you thought, “oh that Mr. Henry”, took pause as the statement truly sunk in, and exclaimed (out loud), “hold up – did she say group text?!”
Yes, folks. I said group text.
The emotion I felt when I noticed it was a group text was that feeling that some of you may experience as a three-course blend of pride, enthusiasm, and bewilderment!
Believe it or not, my dad has come a long way over the past few years with the art of texting…gone are the days of the flip-phone texting struggles, where punctuation was a rare and typically replaced by large blocks of spaces that often caused much confusion during conversation since you weren’t super sure if the text was a statement or a question. It often felt like a strange texting version of Mad Libs, the “Pick Your Punctuation” edition. I mean if you’ve never pondered how significantly different the meaning a set of words can become based on something as simple as a dot, a dot under a squiggly mark, a dot with a line, or even that silly little dot leap-frogging the dot with a tail – please do so now – seriously, think about it. It’s like Punctuation Mad Libs.
My dad – yes, Henry – now has an iPhone (certainly not by choice, more of a forced transition into the smart phone era). Commence formal, paragraph-style text messages with punctuation that often include a proper salutation and signature. And enter group texting. Cue the sweet serenade of angels singing. To say that we are immensely proud of his accomplishments with texting would be an understatement. Go pops! Next stop…apps!
Anyways. Back to lunch.
My dad is a planner. Like to the Nth degree. It’s one of many reasons that he’s an incredibly successful businessman. It’s one of many things that we have in common. He plans all aspects of life – seriously. So when my sister and I received his group text – still makes me chuckle – the subject matter, while dark, was not a huge surprise.
About 4 years ago, my dad invited my sister and I to lunch to review his estate planning. Super fun lunchtime topic. It was a very matter of fact discussion and review of his will. Yes, I’ll have a sweet tea. His assets. Could you pass the salt? His arrangements. No, no dessert today but thank you. And all the logistics and things that will need to be taken care of when he dies. Well all right then. Check please.
My dad is a planner.
So 4 years later, fresh off the Christmas holiday high, the three of us sat down in his office to kick-off the uplifting and not at all depressing discussion of what happens when papa smurf exits planet earth. As my sister and I joined my dad in his office, I observed a hand-written agenda on his desk; an agenda that we would no doubt go all the way through. No surprise there…so precious. The man is both organized and thorough. As we were to discover at the top of the meeting, there were a few items on his agenda that he wanted to address in the office before going to lunch.
This portion of the discussion was mostly logistics and walking through his ‘packet’ of important documents. Logistically speaking, my dad wanted to really emphasize the importance and haste in which we would need to retrieve said packet of important documents upon his passing (or as he also stated – if it was clear he was going to go soon, we could get it in advance…hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…great – I have that Simon & Garfunkel classic stuck in my head again).
We were instructed that the packet of important documents is stored in the enormous safe at the office that dates back to the late 19th century as a best guess (or early 20th century). The safe is a fire-resistant hunk of steel, it weighs several hundred pounds, and the dial is barely legible at this point – but it is a secure spot for such important instructions, and it’s not going anywhere. All we had to do was go to the office, open the safe, grab the packet. Sounds simple enough. One very, very minor detail that was missing in this plan – Alice and I don’t have access to the safe. Just a minor flaw in the plan; but fortunately, simple to resolve. Fingers crossed that the instructions for the safe don’t end up in the packet that resides in the safe! We’d find ourselves in quite a pickle.
Next up on the agenda for the in-office segment was to go through the packet to make sure we knew what everything was and to see if anything needed to be updated. After all, we only do this every four years. Super. A small nugget of interest from this agenda item: there are two single shares of stock in the Country Club of Charleston. Sounds fancy, but alas they have no real value or at least nowhere near the value of a CCC membership, or even a tiny down-payment for one. But these 2 little documents date back to my grandparents (if I recall correctly), so historically they are kind of fascinating (that was for you, dad – assuming you still read my blog…although I can understand why you may not after the shopping post!). I am still not positive why those are in the packet or what purpose they will serve, other than the fact that they look cool. But they are in there for safekeeping.
We continued sifting through the packet, noting a few items that need some minor updating, jovially chit-chatting our way through our father’s last will and testament, power of attorney, advanced health care directive (more on this later…I know, I know…very exciting), the business, the single sealed envelope, etc. Lastly, my dad reviewed with us a brief overview of the files that were not retained in the safe, but rather in his office – basically just the types of information we could expect to find there and that he planned to go through them to label and re-organize them in a way that would make sense to the two of us.
Did I mention that my dad was a planner?
The logistical and document review portion of the agenda had been completed, so we headed out to lunch with pep in our step to continue this bright and sunny discussion. Because why not continue this in a public place!
We were at the restaurant for about an hour. And while I’m not going to give yall a play-by-play (sorry to disappoint!), I will share a few of the highlights of the conversation.
The Advanced Health Care Directive
On our 18th birthdays, one of the major milestones was trekking to dad’s office to sign our living will and advanced health care directive (AHCD) and to have it witnessed and notarized. Happy Birthday, girls!
My dad also has an AHCD…if you can believe it. He does not want extraordinary measures taken to prolong his life or as he will emphatically say, “I don’t want to be a vegetable.” Suddenly a salad seems morbidly unappetizing as a lunch option. His preference is certainly a decision that we respect, but it’s a subject matter that we would rather not dwell over during lunch given it’s a real appetite suppressant.
We ordered a round of sweet tea. Well – slight correction – my dad likes a classic Arnold Palmer…1/2 lemonade, ½ sweet tea…we go to this place frequently, so the server looks at my dad while she was taking the drink orders and says, “Can I get you your usual?” My dad, always appreciative of good customer service, says, “Yes, that would be great!” and the server promptly laughs and says, “What do you usually get?” Hilarious…bless her heart. We also ordered a round of Fish & Chips (my sister and I order this exclusively because the entire meal is simply a vehicle for malt vinegar which is arguably the greatest condiment in all the land). As we waited for our lunch, we dove into the AHCD discussion like a bunch of seasoned pros, staying on topic thanks to the hand-written agenda.
I’d prefer to live out my life at the house. Ok that’s understandable – you got it pops.
I’d prefer not to be at a nursing home; it’s not really my cup of tea. Got it – possibly may have to come back to that down the road, especially if you become unruly and/or difficult (only kidding).
I’d be open to in-home care if it becomes necessary. Well all right then – we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Which is hopefully never!
As my sister and dad continued chatting away on this topic, only one thought continued to occupy my brain:
My AHCD is the same as my dad’s ‘no vegetable lifestyle’ directive. But, wouldn’t it be such an excellent idea to amend the directive to state that I’d like to be dressed up as a vegetable – in full costume – before the cords get unplugged just as a final hoorah? I think the clear answer here is ‘yes.’ Wouldn’t it be great to go out as an asparagus or a carrot or corn (kernel or cob – whichever strikes your fancy)? I mean it’s a sad time – I’m assuming – for the others in the room; I say give them a little something to chuckle about. Catch ‘em off guard. Lighten the mood. Just imagine this scenario, if you will – you stop by to pay your respects to your dear friend at the hospital, you’re a touch sad – hopefully – about the upcoming unplugging, you walk into the room as you hold back your emotions and all you see in the hospital bed is a giant broccoli floret. You’d laugh so hard, and you’d be thinking…didn’t expect that, but you know what, it makes total sense! Because let’s be honest, I’m not known for being an overly serious person – so I beg you, laugh a little. Please. It’d be my final gift to you.
Anyways…It was just a thought – and I couldn’t get it out of my head while we were sitting at lunch. My brain often goes to strange places in uncomfortable, unusual, or serious situations. And discussing my dad’s final departure plans happens to fall in all three of those categories!
So dad, Alice, if you felt I wasn’t taking this portion of the discussion seriously, I was (promise), but at the same time I was visualizing myself going out as a carrot. Or a broccoli floret. My apologies.
Don’t Forget to Update Your Will
“Girls, when I die, you absolutely have to remember to update your own living will. Things will change once I’m gone and you will need to update yours accordingly.” How uplifting. But thanks for the reminder…it is an important point! In response to his statement, I asked where our wills and other documents were located (I certainly don’t keep a copy on me nor do I have one handy at home). He said, the paper versions of our living wills were in the same safe I had mentioned earlier. Fantastic. No wait. Not fantastic.
So I followed up with another question to my dad, “do you have an electronic copy that you could keep in the safe? Because while I appreciate the need to update the document, it would be far easier to update the electronic document as opposed to hand-typing a 40 page document [I have no idea how long they are] while I am in extreme emotional distress as a result of your untimely passing?” My poor dad raised a weirdo for sure! But seriously, let’s think about it. Could you imagine having to type something like that out knowing that the only reason you are having to do it is because you’ve lost a loved one? That would not be a fun task. And imagine the spelling and grammatical errors that would be riddled throughout the document, likely rendering it useless and something that would have only a remote chance of standing up in a court of law. Not a great position to be in. The spelling and grammar issues alone are not something my OCD-tendencies would be able to handle.
So my dad agreed that the electronic version would be very helpful, and that he would be happy to put them on a ‘stick drive’ and keep them in the safe with the rest of the documents. Phew. What a relief!
Available Space at the Lowndes Family Plot
By far the most entertaining discussion of the day, was the discussion at lunch about the Lowndes Family Plot at Magnolia Cemetery in downtown Charleston. My dad alerted my sister and I that there was only one spot left in the existing Lowndes Family Plot. One? Well who is that for? Is it reserved or first-come-first-served? What happens to the rest of us?
There’s absolutely no need to panic, folks. Remember, my dad is a planner.
My dad informed us that we need-not worry about the limited amount of space at the family plot. He had already resolved the issue by purchasing a new/additional Lowndes Family Plot (there are now 4 total that I am aware of) at Magnolia Cemetery. The conversation went a little something like this:
Dad: “We only have one space left at the Lowndes Family Plot where your grandparents and uncle are buried.”
Alice: “One? Who does it belong to?”
Sarah: “Is it reserved or first-come-first-served? How does that work?”
Dad: “Well, those are great questions that I really cannot answer.”
Alice: “So what happens when that spot is filled? Where do the rest of us land?”
Dad: “Oh that’s nothing you will need to worry about. A few years ago, I went ahead a purchased a few more spots.”
Alice & Sarah: “One for each of us?”
Dad: “Oh heavens no. The new plot has 8 spots I believe, I can’t recall the exact number.”
Dad: “The only downside to the new plot is that it isn’t next to the current plot or either of the other ones where the rest of the Lowndes’ are.”
Alice: “Well where is it? Does it at least have a nice view?!”
Dad: “Well let’s take a look. I brought the papers from the purchase, it should have a map so I can show you where the new spots are.”
He promptly pulls out the papers, sets down his hand-written agenda, and flips to what appears to be a map of the entire cemetery. A few portions of it are highlighted in yellow.
Dad: Pointing to one spot, “This is the current plot where your grandparents and uncle are buried.” His finger followed the highlighted route on the map until he found the next highlighted section, “And this is the new plot. It’s on the other side of the marsh from the current plot, so you can overlook your ancestors.”
He flips over to the next page. The next page is a 12-block grid.
Dad: Tapping the paper, “12 spaces. There are 12 spaces not 8.”
Sarah: “12?! Well who all goes there? Can we reserve a front row space for the best view?”
Alice: “I definitely would want the best view. It looks like you’d get that if you were on the front row for sure.”
Sarah: “Totally agree. I mean I definitely wouldn’t want to be all the way in the back, who knows who the neighbors will be in the next plot over – I don’t think you’d want to take chances with that. Too risky.”
Alice: “Excellent point.”
At this point my dad is looking at us probably thinking one of two things: (1) I think they have completely lost their minds, or (2) they are taking this conversation extremely well!
Alice: “12 seems like a lot!”
Sarah: “Were they having a sale?!”
My dad rolls his eyes in jest, not at all shocked by the question. After all he is a frugal man who is always looking for a great deal on long-term investments. And I suppose you could call this a long-term investment. Really long-term. He may never admit to it, but Alice and I are convinced he negotiated a pretty sweet deal on those twelve spots at the cemetery, next to the marsh, under the old live oak, overlooking the rest of the Lowndes family.
Dad: “Well anyone with Lowndes in his or her name can be buried there.”
Sarah: “What about pets? Are pets allowed to be buried there?”
Alice: “Great question.”
Alice and her husband have 5 dogs, no kids; I have 2 – dogs that is, not husbands or kids.
Dad: “I’m honestly not sure. I’d have to do some research.”
Sarah: “We should really find that out – if pets are allowed, 12 may not be enough.”
My dad’s goal is to live to be 100. It used to be 90, but he is approaching 70 years young this year, and he told us that 90 seemed like it wasn’t that far away so he bumped it to 100. So really this whole conversation is just an exercise in long-term planning. And it’s one that, in my calculations, we will have an estimated 7.5 more times, over lunch of course, before he reaches his 100-year milestone.
I can be a serious person when I want to be. I know that I will appreciate my dad’s need to plan and prepare for this aspect of life when the time comes. He is removing any burden that my sister and I would take on when he’s no longer around to take it on for us. So of course we are grateful of that. How could we not be? But at the same time there’s simply no way he’s getting through our post-Henry planning lunch dates without a little sarcasm and humor from the two of us! We actively choose to make light of these discussions because the alternative is entirely too depressing! After all, if you can’t have a sense of humor about death and all of its planning while sitting alongside your dad as he’s going through his meticulous post-life plan over lunch, when can you?