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Whatever would lead me to write my own obituary? Let me give some background.
“Breast cancer? Men get breast cancer?”
Apparently they do, and 150 men across Canada each year have probably echoed my exclamations to the family doctor when he revealed my biopsy results.
My odyssey through the health-care system began just a few months after I retired. Up to then I had been enjoying a life of books, movies, walking and matinee subscriptions to the theatre and symphony. I had reconciled with the religion of my childhood and started going to mass again. I enjoyed a few late-afternoon pints, either on the deck with my wife, Lyn, or at the neighbourhood pub with friends.
After we got the news, Lyn leaped into the fray with her problem-solving and advocacy skills. I had a mastectomy, then chemotherapy to reduce the chance of recurrence. Six months later, a little worn and a lot wiser, I could once again enjoy my daily activities, plus some rewarding volunteer work. I was thoroughly content and grateful.
“Metastasized? That doesn’t sound good,” I proclaimed two years later upon receiving the results of another biopsy. And it wasn’t good. If the original onset had been a skirmish, we were now at war.
Both Lyn and I began to face the certainty of my mortality. This led to a resolve to make the path we were about to take as smooth as possible. “We can’t cure it but we can control it,” the oncologist said, and once again we entered the fray, this time with radiation and different chemo cocktails. The options began to narrow.
I wanted to reduce the coming burden for Lyn, so I looked into funeral preplanning (of course the reception had to have egg-salad sandwiches on white, cut in quarters, crusts removed). I arranged for a burial plot, power of attorney, a living will and a “do not resuscitate” form. We met with an excellent palliative care team and learned about home care and hospice options.
What more to do? Well, I had been glancing occasionally at the obituaries in my daily newspaper. It seemed the next-of-kin or friend tasked with writing these passages was often fearful of omitting the most mundane of facts, especially about careers. And the phrases “courageous battle” and “valiant fight” appeared almost mandatory.
While many positive aspects of the subject’s character were recorded, I often wondered about faults, shortcomings, perhaps the occasional lapse in judgment or behaviour. A few of those might make the subject more interesting, definitely more human.
Could I relieve Lyn of the chore of citing my achievements, such as they are? And what if (here I must admit to being a bit of a control freak) she forgot to include something important?
So I started to compose my obituary.
I began with the where and when, followed by “firstborn to Harry and Gwen.” Now, that gave pause for thought. That pair, so unprepared for marriage, would certainly set off alarm bells by contemporary parenting standards. No need to mention that. After all, they did provide me with a mostly idyllic childhood, and a brother and sister as well. Speaking of which, I could certainly have been better to my siblings, offered up a stronger role model. Is it too late now?
With dread I reviewed my teenage years. Did I need to mention the failing grades in high school, the co-responsibility for an unwanted pregnancy, the skirmishes with the law, the disappointment and embarrassment I caused my family? Aha! Not my fault at all. I would just blame it on the Age of Aquarius.
I threw in my coming-of-age hitchhiking to Vancouver, the side trip to San Francisco. I’d arrived a year late for the “Summer of Love,” but the party was still in full swing. Then home again, completing Grade 13 (better late than never!) and on to university. Should I mention my choice of school was greatly influenced by the proximity of major league sports and Motown music? No, I decided to leave that out – a bit superficial. As was my concentration on social activities over academic achievement. I skipped over that, too. No need to leave a bad impression with my beloved nieces.
Then the working years. Would anyone find my career movement from the east end to the west end to North York interesting? I didn’t think so. Suffice it to say my work varied from tolerable to gratifying depending on the assignment. I met a lot of great people, developed friendships that survived the years, and for this I am grateful.
But my greatest accomplishment, without a doubt, was finding and successfully pursuing Lyn. How to explain the dozen years between first date and marriage? Let me just describe it as a lengthy courtship. No need to mention periods of cohabitation, occasional turmoil, brief separation, etc.
More than a quarter century has passed since we said those vows in our living room in front of immediate family, and our commitment and love remain firm.
While (fortunately) we see no immediate need to publish the obituary, a quote from Socrates comes to mind: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
A little extreme, I think, but putting down on paper what one believes worth recording is certainly a worthwhile task. And you literally have the last word!
Ed Shannon lives in Toronto.