“I am not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Woody Allen


When I saw this Roz Chast cartoon in the New Yorker it reminded me that I never discussed it with my children either. I don’t even know how to think about discussing it – especially when it’s my death and the audience is my own family. Still, it did remind me that there are some practical details and arrangements that need to be made, and discussing them might ease minds on both sides of the equation. It also occurred to me that the conversation might be an opportunity to talk about how good life continues to be. But, that may be wishful thinking.

The cartoon is from the March 10, 2014 New Yorker, part of a longer black humor piece by this prolific and sardonic New Yorker cartoonist. The longer version is called Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, a 12-page cartoon that is part of her memoir of the same name. It looks, in an off-center way, at the reluctance of parents to talk to their children about money and end of life issues.

I’ve been giving these things a little thought lately, and as part of working it out I Googled an online site that has a life expectancy calculator to see what my prospects looked like. According to the calculator, if everything goes without a hitch… If I don’t get hit by a cement truck at the crosswalk on Bothell Way, come down with a deadly infectious disease or get knocked off my bike by a weekend peloton – the calculator predicts that I should live to be 91, the same age my mother died at. That gives me 15 years to play with.

It’s not surprising that at 76 years old some of my lifelong friends are dying “natural” deaths. We’re in the zone. Last week an old fighter pilot friend died and I’ve been to three memorial “celebrations” in the last three months. It has my attention, and it might sound odd or self-absorbed but it’s not so much their passing that pricks the consciousness, as it is the realization that life is finite and prods me to recommit to finding quality in my remaining years. I will miss my friends and grieve for their families, but I’m trying to find grace, acceptance, and a positive outlook as I look forward at the great mandala.

How We Die I really began thinking about all this in 1993 when Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon, won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction for his book How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. Nuland wasn’t trying to shock or upset readers; he wanted to help dispel the fantasy most of us harbor of a dying a dignified death – peaceful, quiet, pain-free, and surrounded by family. He chose to do that by describing in detail the pathologies “that will take the majority of us” and perhaps startle us into a realistic view of how we might plan for the eventuality of our own ends.
I read the book in 1993 with curiosity but with some distance from the subject matter. I was 55 at the time. Dr. Nuland died of prostate cancer this spring. He was 83, and cancer was one of the six categories he described in his book. I have no doubt that he was as prepared for the end as it is possible to be, but I wonder if it’s possible to prepare for the finality of death in an emotional way. I can be aware of the timeline, settle my business affairs, and try not to leave a mess behind, but my mind rejects the finality of my own death. Whether it’s denial or the power of positive thinking I’d rather focus on a strategy for maintaining a quality experience in my remaining years.

So the take away for me is about mindfulness. It’s trite to say that I should always be mindful, but when I was young I was focused on living in the present. Later on, when I had children I began to think about the future and as I approach the end I look back on my choices and think about my legacy. My kids are in good shape and on their own journeys. I’m proud of them and see them embracing the future with hope and good intentions. I don’t worry about them.

What I do think about are the practical steps Marilynn and I can take to keep the end-mess to a minimum.

1. Do we have enough retirement savings and income to go the distance? I hope so.
2. Have we prepared the documents that will make it easy for our family members to move forward?
a. Wills? – yes
b. Medical directives? – yes
c. Medical powers of attorney? – yes
d. Durable powers of attorney? – yes
3. Have we made a list of personal items that designates who will inherit them? – No. Put that one on the to-do list.
4. Have we told our children how we want to be disposed of – burial, cremation, funeral arrangements? – No, also on the to-do list.

For now, we are in good health and barring unforeseen events, I’m cautiously optimistic that we will care for ourselves until we’re in our 90’s. We hope this is true, and it’s reassuring to feel that way. Neither one of us wants or expects help. We both have children entering middle age and on their own trajectory with college expenses and their own retirements to plan for. We think we have done our part, but “unforeseen events” have a way of changing the landscape.

It wasn’t a lot of fun doing the grunt work on the end-of-life documents but we needed to do it. Everyone needs to do it. What has been fun is having that behind us and thinking about how to maintain and even enrich the remaining years.

Paris in line Casablanca? Rick and Elsa? “We’ll always have Paris.” Well, so will we. To start our new phase we flew to Paris this spring, rented an apartment, and hung out for two months. It was sensational and energizing to be in a place where there is so much that is new (and old) and every day gives up something fresh – museums, cafés, restaurants, people watching, new neighborhoods, markets, music, fashion, new friends. I don’t know if we’ll return to Paris next year. We might choose Rome, London or Tokyo. Wherever we go it will be interesting and exciting.

In between our long distance adventures, we have grandchildren to enjoy, a bike trail to ride on, a swimming pool for morning swims, an enclosed garden to rest in, three guitars to play, a wall full of unread books, and two MacBook Pro’s that link us to the Internet and friends all over the world. When we can no longer travel we still have a rich and varied world here at home.

At this point we’re following Satchel Paige’s advice: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you” and guided by GK Chesterton’s dictum that “When it comes to life the critical thing is, whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” We’re working on that.


  1. Thanks Jack…Like this probably because you must be spying on me. My new obsession: planning for THE END. Not easy as you note.

    Best to both of you….Sounds like all’s well!!!


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