Reluctant Advice From An Orphan

Given that Dad quietly passed away two weeks ago today—on the 9th anniversary of my stroke, no less—I’ve had a little time to be pensive and reflect on what I’ve learned. Oh, and what I could have done a little better.

First up, Mom and Dad were fastidious in their estate planning. They had everything neatly buttoned up years ago. To be honest, I never gave any of it a second thought. That is, until Dad actually passed away and our family lawyer needed every single document that was ever printed in the history of the world—in triplicate. Lucky break for me, I found them all neatly filed and labeled in the safe deposit box at the bank. In my state of grief, I can’t imagine trying to go on a scavenger hunt for a litany of random documents. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s time for some real talk with your own parents—especially if they’re older. Do they have a living will? If so, where is said living will? And speaking of wills, where is their actual will? If they don’t have one, offer to pay for one—or at a minimum help get the ball rolling. Ensure you have an idea where to find paperwork, deeds, stocks, bonds, life insurance policies. What are their funeral wishes? The list goes on infinitely it seems. The only thing I couldn’t find? The titles to Mom and Dad’s respective cars. Where those are located remain one of the great mysteries of life.

People of a certain age are notorious for hiding things in their house. After Mom unexpectedly passed away, Dad was gobsmacked when I found a stash of 16-carat gold jewelry in the false bottom of a can of dishwashing detergent. He wasn’t the only one. While Mom was never a big fan of bangles, baubles and beads, she apparently did like high-end gold necklaces, bracelets and pendants. We’re not sure when she bought them or where they came from. Again, one of the great mysteries of life—part two. Believe me, I’ve started going through Dad’s house with a fine-tooth comb. Attics, crawl spaces, cubbyholes, garages—it’s prime real estate for your folks to squirrel things away for “safe keeping” only to forget about them later. Don’t think I haven’t thought about buying a metal detector for the yard. I’m not even kidding. I guess what I’m saying is, yes, you’re going to have to flip through every page of every book in their house. Twice.

This time around not one person said anything stupid, incendiary or remotely inconsiderate during Dad’s visitation or funeral. There was nary a single “he’s in a better place” or “Heaven just gained another angel.” (It was, indeed, a Christmas miracle.) Remember, when people don’t know what to say, they always end up saying the wrong thing. I don’t need trite, formulated sympathies. I need to know you loved my Dad and will continue to support me in my time of need. At Mom’s visitation, one of her haggard acquaintances made a beeline up to me and stated, “I certainly hope your mom accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as her personal savior before she died.” My composed, diplomatic response? “Get out. No, seriously—get out before I make a scene and have you f*cking escorted out.” I guess what I’m saying is people are idiots. Govern yourself accordingly—or don’t. That’s up to you.

If they have all their faculties and wits, then respect your parents and respect their wishes about how they want to live their life. Dad was 92 years young. Should he have been in an assisted living facility? Yes. But he was adamant he wanted to live in his house until he died. So I made every single accommodation to ensure that happened—from caregivers to meal deliveries to ongoing physical and occupational therapy. My friend Mithra said it best, “He’s 92. He deserves to have his way. Honor him by honoring his wishes.” Goal achieved, Dad. I guess what I’m saying is what is selfishly best for you might not be best for your parents or in their prudent best interest. They sacrificed a lot for you. Now it’s time to return the favor.

Your folks are old and they’re getting older by the day. I went home on countless weekends to do nothing other than hang out with Dad. That’s all he wanted. Sure, we’d go out for breakfast, but he was lonely and needed nothing more than company (um, and pie). I guess what I’m saying is—pick up the damn phone and call your folks. Or book a flight to see them—first thing tomorrow morning.

I have felt pretty sh*tty about purging a majority of Dad’s things, but—alas—I have no sentimental attachment to anything in that house other than Mom’s vintage Christmas ornaments and my childhood bed. (Yes, literally—the same bed my folks bought after my crib.) It’s okay to let go of things. It’s okay to keep things. I guess what I’m saying is everyone’s emotional attachment to “stuff” is different, but at the end of the day, it’s stuff. If there’s not a memory attached to it, the sentiment is gone.

At some point, you’re going to forgo being the child and be forced to become the parent to your mom and dad. You will know when that happens and it’s overwhelming. For me, it was literally like a switch flipped and I suddenly was dealing with a wisely irrational, petulant 90-year old child. One day Dad decided he hated French fries. He then refused to eat another fry the rest of his life. Months later, out of nowhere, Dad suddenly regained a fondness for salty fries and ketchup. And then he went right back to loathing them. Fickle bastard. I can’t begin to tell you all the insipid arguments we had over French fries. Sometimes I had to walk away or go get some fresh air instead of losing my patience. I guess what I’m saying is patience is a virtue. And fries still remain a sore subject.

More than anything, I guess what I’m saying is you need to start the unenviable task of anticipating your parents’ mortality. Are t’s crossed? I’s dotted? Are ducks in a row? Are they gold ducks—and are they hidden in a coffee can in the garden? Ask questions. Be mindful. Be open. And brace yourself for things you don’t need/want to hear. But get it done, please. Because in the end you will thank me for this insight when you’re dealing with grief, anger, guilt and angst all rolled in one neat, little bundle. Losing one beloved parent is bad enough. Losing my remaining one nearly brought me to my knees.

8 thoughts on “Reluctant Advice From An Orphan

  1. I said it before and I’ll say it again – Michael, you were (oh, how I hate using the past tense) a wonderful son. You were the best to both of your parents and a great example to the rest of us. Shit damn, it isn’t/wasn’t easy, but your writing I know is an outlet for you and your friends even more so (the ones that truly count, that is). I hope that those that read this have a meaningful talk with their parents. And I hope that those who are parents get their shit in order so their kids aren’t left with not only their grief to sort through but a bunch of crap.

  2. I am so sorry for your loss. This is brilliantly written and so important!! I keep asking my 50 year old friends why we didn’t have a class on the aging parent in college??? The only way I got through the loss of my 80ish year old parents was to be grateful they had a great life. They had each other for so many years. I allowed myself to be sad but man I am so grateful I had them as long as I did. Peace to you Michael Mackie.

  3. The one piece of advice I have for EVERYONE…make sure there is a co-owner on your parent’s bank accounts. Not a co-signer, but a co-owner. If no co-owner and the account’s owner dies, the account freezes. This creates another thing that requires documents (in triplicate) to re-open and obtain access to the account.

  4. This is very good advice. My Dad passed when I was 7 (he was 32), and my Mom was able to take care of things, because Dad had everything laid out how it should be. When my Mother passed, it was difficult. She was remarried to some jerk that after promising us that we could help sort her things, and let us have the things she still had of ours from childhood, decided that as soon as the funeral was done, he was going to lock his doors and move, and shut his phone off. We never got the chance to do anything. Even her funeral was a mess. She had a life insurance policy that would have ensured she had a nice funeral, but all it was, was we met at the cemetery, some guy we didn’t know talked for 5 minutes, someone sang a song, and we were dismissed. We were never allowed to take part in planning her funeral. He had her buried next to my Dad, because that plot was bought before my Dad had passed, and he was too cheap to spend any of the insurance money to put her with his family, next to his plot. He was also too cheap to make sure she even had a headstone, after he told us it would be put in, in a month. From what I heard, he sold or tossed out everything she had, and disappeared.

  5. Being a 51 year old single mum to a 5 year old only child has prompted me to think about this numerous times. I need to make sure my life is in order so it is easier on her.
    Thank you for the kick in the ass.

  6. Michael, I so enjoy reading your articles and especially listening to you on KMBZ. My mother passed 2 yrs ago and was in a nursing home due to Alzheimers diagnosis. Yes it was difficult to watch her fade away but spending time with her was the best. I still miss her terribly. I am so sorry for your loss. Sending a huge hug your way!!

  7. Michael.. One of my 90 year old friends told me her mother moved from out of state to Overland Park Ks. After several years, remembered she had sewn eight one – hundred dollar bills into the drapery hems. … Apparently, that was a thing back in the day.
    Make sure your momma didn’t think of that.

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