It was a cold October morning when we got the call. I know because it was the first day my husband and I saw frost. It was the first morning when it truly was too cold to take my daughter to the playground. So instead of trudging through the thick Pocono leaves, we bundled up and headed to Perkins (warm chocolate chip pancakes for the kiddo and piping hot coffee for mom and dad: a true win-win).
Just as we were wrapping up our meal, my husband’s phone began buzzing across the table. It was his dad. He let it go to voicemail, and moments later, a pop-up appeared alerting him to the new message. That was when we knew something was going on, something had to be going on. You see, his father rarely leaves voicemails. Sure, he calls, but to call and leave a voicemail—something was up.
My husband stepped outside and called him back while I waited inside with our daughter, sneaking grapes and sips of coffee and wondering what was wrong. After several minutes, he returned. He sat down and told me a family member was in the hospital and had been for a week. She was OK. Well, at least she would be OK, but she was going to be there another few days.
But there was more.
A dear friend of my brother-in-law, just 30 years and 2 days old, suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. They performed surgery to repair it, but there was blood on his brain, and he was in a coma.
I swallowed hard. I think I muttered, “oh my God,” or “holy shit,” but I don’t know.
I don’t know.
You see, I didn’t know this young man. I mean, I did. We went to high school together. He attended my mother-in-law’s Christmas Eve parties, and I had observed his wedding—just three months ago—from afar (through the glories of Facebook, Instagram and other social media), but I didn’t know-him know him. Not enough that I should be terribly thrown by this news. Not enough to be so damn upset.
But I was.
I was shocked. I was shattered. I was shaken to my very core.
Because my own father died of a ruptured aneurysm. He died suddenly and without warning. He died and left behind a young widow and two even younger children.
His aneurysm ruptured, and he died when he was just 39.
It is strange the things we do in times of tragedy, the way our minds work when met with a crisis. When I received the news of this young man, my own mind moved to myself and my own mortality—to my own imminent death.
I should be very clear: I am not sick, not that I know of. I have no illnesses to be concerned with or diagnoses which could prove problematic. But I do have a genetic predisposition to aneurysms. Yes, aneurysms can be hereditary, and with my father dying from one and my aunt having six, I know they are an unwelcome part of my family tree.
I, too, have a young spouse and a younger child. I, too, am in that window: I am in my 30s and squarely positioned between the age of this young man and my own father.
There are so many things I would do if I knew I were dying, but I think that is human nature. I think anyone would feel that way. But there was one thing I knew I needed to do, one thing I knew I couldn’t put off any longer: I needed to create a living will.
You see my father didn’t die right away. He had bleeding on his brain and a heart attack as a result of said blood, but he lingered in a vegetative, coma-like state for eight days. For eight days, we prayed. For eight days, we held on to hope. And for eight days, my mother worried and wondered what to do: Should she sign the do-not-resuscitate order or not? Should she donate his organs or not?
I don’t want my husband or daughter to ever be in that position. I don’t want my husband or daughter to ever be forced to make a decision they do not know how to or may not be comfortable with.
With that in mind, as my husband and I sat down to dinner late one night, I initiated the conversation.
“I started writing a living will today.” In my head, I said this firmly and resolutely, but I am sure my voice wavered, and I know the sentence trailed off into nothing more than a mumbled whisper.
“Don’t we have a lawyer for that?” My husband’s snarky response didn’t surprise me. He uses his cynicism and humor to hide his emotions, especially during difficult conversations.
“Well, yes. But a living will is easy. We don’t need to pay our lawyer to do it. There is software available that allows you to draft it up and with,” I paused, “with everything that has happened lately with, well with Chris, it is something that has been on my mind.”
After a second or two of silence, I added, “And you should do one too.”
My husband agreed, and we spent the next few minutes talking about the process of creating a living will and end-of-life intentions. It wasn’t the first time I told my husband what I wanted him to do if I was in a vegetative, non-responsive state—the first time was many years ago, shortly after we were married and well before we had children—but it was the first time I spoke about it seriously. It was the first time we spoke about it legally. While it was a relief to say it out loud, while it was a relief to know we were doing something to take care of each other if those dark, trying times come to light, it was sobering and scary.
But what is scarier? What is harder? Writing a will that leaves behind assets and property and discusses custodial rights, and a living will, a document which states my wishes for end-of-life medical care in case I am unable to communicate them, or not? What is harder? Having an uncomfortable discussion now or avoiding it and forcing our loved ones to make these seemingly insurmountable decisions alone?
You see, while I may have made one meal a bit morbid (what with my talk of organ donations, death and do-not-resuscitate orders), I made the rest of our lives infinitely better. Because while there are no certainties in life and no guarantees, there is one: We are going to die. Everyone is going to die. But thanks to this conversation and these documents, my husband, daughter, mother or brother—or whoever the hell may find me some day—won’t have to wonder what to do next. They will already know. They won’t have to play God, and they won’t have to make a decision they aren’t comfortable with or truly capable of making.
They won’t have to add the burden of worrying to their grieving.