The 3×5 card, labeled, ‘My Epitah,’ was taped haphazardly among fast food receipts, flyers and reminders on the inside of the small armoire in my dad’s room. It caught my eye due to the big letters underneath spelling out my name. The name Waldo-Emerson was written on the card, followed by four lines of a poem. I was unfamiliar with Emerson’s work, but the beauty of the few words on the card moved me. Evidently, Dad had been touched by them as well; enough, apparently, that he had wanted the poem used as his epitaph.
The card surprised me for two reasons; that Dad had known any poetry, and the fact that he had thought about his death and the service that might take place after it. When I took over his life, he had no financial or medical plans at all, and had not even written out a will, let alone a funeral plan. Since his religious beliefs avoided a belief in illness or death, we never really had a conversation about it until he kind of forgot about Christian Science, which may have been when the idea of an epitaph occurred to him: I think it also led to a conversation we had about the fact that he wanted to be cremated.
When I looked the poem up, I learned that it was called Terminus, and that Emerson wrote it while probably suffering from the beginnings of dementia himself, probably Alzheimer’s. The few words that Dad had remembered enough to write in a tiny message to me were beautiful, the entire poem even more so. With its images of the sea and a wind-tossed God who rested among the elements of the world, it reflected Dad’s love of all things nautical and natural.
In the time I’ve been a caregiver and bereavement counselor, I’ve learned how important it is (and how rarely it actually happens) to have these difficult conversations; healthcare and end-of-life wishes, finances, housing, where important documents are kept, and what final arrangements have been made. However, the best time to have these conversations are when everyone is healthy. These discussions can be uncomfortable or contentious, may seem morbid, or may take a lot of energy and it might be hard to get your loved one talking about these subjects. After all, few people want to even think about their own death, let alone make decisions about it. But, there’s always the chance that you may have to have more than one discussion before any concrete decisions or plans will be made, or that you may have less lucid time with that person than you think, like me.
It can be just as difficult when the loved one is already ill or approaching end of life. Families may feel uncomfortable talking about the impending death of a loved one, as if they were hurrying the process along, or giving up hope, or because they think that their loved one doesn’t want to talk about it. They change the subject or shut down any conversations about it, leaving everyone unprepared for the experience, and the loved one alone and apprehensive about what is coming. But it has been my experience doing hospice care that many people want to talk about things like their own death and their feelings about the process– especially if they are approaching the end of their life. They want to share their lives, their thoughts and fears, what they would like to be known or remembered about them, and even what their epitaphs and eulogies might be.
Finding the strength to begin the dialogue can be helpful for everyone. Having these issues settled as clearly and completely as possible can ease everyone’s path considerably in the future. Help your loved one think about who they want to be with them as the die, and where they want it to happen, whether at home or in a hospital. Do they want serious medical intervention, and what do they want done after their death? Help your loved one understand that now is the chance for them to have their say about what those actions are and how they look, otherwise, they will have to settle with your choices. Five Wishes
There are other important conversations you might help your loved one start – what we think of as the emotional wrap-up; conversations with and about your loved one and your relationship with them. What was their life like; what do they remember most and what did they enjoy; and what are they thinking about or feeling as they approach the end? My family was obviously not the type to have these conversations and I will very much miss not having them. I won’t be able to tell my dad what he meant to me, or find out what I meant to him. We will not be able to discuss past events, or my mother, or what he loved or regrets most about his life. We’ve all heard the cliché about not waiting until it’s too late to express everything you want your loved one to know, but in this case, it’s definitely something to think about.
When I found the card, Dad was still pretty active and lucid, although age and illness had softened what once seemed immutable. Now, of course, he is getting increasingly frail, and he can’t walk, or speak, or even recognize me. I have had to fly by the seat of my pants most of the way through this caregiving journey; making decisions according to what I think he would have wanted, and what I think is best, but it hasn’t always been easy. As we approach his end, and what could be a serious illness, I find the decisions are getting more difficult, involving the end of his life, how to let him die, and how he will be memorialized. In the absence of knowing his plans, I’ll have to be making my own, except, of course, for what he wanted his “epitah” to be.
“It is time to be old, to take in sail: the god of bounds, who sets to seas a shore, came to me in his fatal rounds, and said: “No more!”….
“As the bird trims her to the gale, I trim myself to the storm of time, I man the rudder, reef the sail, obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime: ‘Lowly faithful, banish fear, right onward drive unharmed; the port, well worth the cruise, is near, and every wave is charmed.’” -Ralph Waldo Emerson