My wife is adamant, no funeral, no obituary, no nothing. Maybe a few friends over for drinks and stories. The only thing she wants is a bench on the Burke-Gilman Trail where bikers and walkers can stop and catch their breath. Where she ran, rode, and walked for more than 40 years.
So, how about you, she asks? Well, I say, I haven’t given it much thought. Well, she says, you need to, because if you go first, I need to know. She may be a career woman, but at heart she’s a planner, a garden designer and household manager. Always organizing something or someone.
For the most part, we think alike about things like life and death. The exception is obituaries. On Sunday, we get two newspapers, my New York Times and her Seattle Times, but before she gets up I steal the Opinion section of her paper because it includes the obits. It may be morbid, but I need to know who’s making a final appearance.
If my planner, garden designer, household manager goes first, I’m going to disobey and write her obit anyway. It’ll piss her off, but what’s she going to do? Her many friends will need to know. If I go first, she’s told me I have to write my own.
I’m fascinated by the genre. I often read a NY Times obit even when it’s someone I’ve never heard of. It’s an art form. But I’m definitely against the paid version submitted by the family. They’re usually cloying hagiography – either nominations for sainthood or lists of every school, organization, and occupation the deceased came in contact with. I’m old school. I think its purpose is to summarize for identity purposes and notify friends… to prevent them from doing something stupid like calling up and asking how is so and so?
So… here goes.
I’ve lived a long time and loved most of it. I’ve had three children, three wives, and five careers. I’ve loved Marilynn, my children, Abby, Carolyn, writing, flying, my guitar, my books, burgers, bike touring, skiing, tennis, Duncan the Gordon Setter, and cookie dough in that order. My favorite food was pasta—preferably my own. My favorite drinks were Mac and Jack’s African Amber, Rangpur Tanqueray martinis, and long shots of Jose Cuervo’s La Familia Anejo Tequila.
My favorite jobs were father, husband, and grandfather. My favorite occupations were writer, pasta maker/restauranter, Marine fighter pilot, Pan Am pilot, Saigon NGO manager, Seattle Public Schools fundraiser. My least favorite was being a lawyer.
The Sunday Review in this week’s New York Times (August 29, 2021) includes an Op-Ed by Kate Bowler an Associate Professor at the Duke Divinity School entitled “One Thing I Don’t Plan to Do Before I Dies Is Make a Bucket List.” It turns out Ms. Bowler, who hitherto described herself as an “incurable optimist,” was recently diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer with “a slim chance of survival.”
My chances of survival are about the same as hers, but for different reasons. I’m 83 and she’s 38 (curious reversal of numbers). Regardless, I’m sending her all the good juju I can muster. We need more incurable optimists.
We agree on bucket lists. The idea is meant to be aspirational, a list of experiences a person hopes to accomplish in his or her lifetime, but there is something inherently sad behind it. I like to think of my bucket as something I add to and can look-back on with satisfaction, not an unfulfilled need. I have no regrets about things undone. There is always room in my bucket for a novel or book of essays, but whatever goes in is not because it’s missing something and needs pumping up.
When I look into my bucket, I see so many good things. Three healthy, accomplished children. Eleven healthy grandchildren. A worldwide network of friends. A solid education. Charity work. Aircraft carrier landings. Supersonic dogfights. A business that fed people. Work in bookstores that fed them in other ways. Arthur Ashe winning the US Open. Barack Obama becoming President of the United States. Life in five countries on three continents. Marriage to a woman who loved me unconditionally, overlooked my flaws, and rode across a live artillery range on the Salisbury Plain and up to all those hill towns in Italy with only a minimum of complaint. Better than I deserved.