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This week, First Person explores the process of dealing with love and loss.
At a recent annual gathering, I mentioned to guests at my end of the dinner table that I’d written an obituary that day. My own. The woman across from me quickly quipped: “Too much time on your hands?”
The man next to me was good enough to ask me why. “For several reasons,” I said. First, writing the final few lines to describe a life is a chore that often falls to some poor soul at the last moment. Said soul needs to check dates and other facts as the newspaper deadline looms. It usually means, too, a formulaic approach listing all the living and deceased relatives, hobbies and sometimes societal recognition. I offered that I want some editorial control over what is written about me and any so-called accomplishments. A linear check list is not what I have in mind.
The initial draft was fewer than 200 words and my first 43 years were covered in just five sentences; birth, hometown, education – everything. I only included what I thought was important. On the second go around, I expanded the bit about my first job in Ottawa to more than a phrase because I’d worked on Parliament Hill during the first Trudeau government, and those five years had a huge impact on me. It was a heady privilege to be involved in politics at that time. These kinds of jobs are all-consuming and I ended up with great lifelong friends who make up an almost family-like tribe. They were formative years.
I was fortunate my subsequent working life was varied as I worked at different jobs over several years but again, neither draft mentioned any company or listed titles, because as I look back at the age of 67, these details don’t mean much. There are people from these experiences who are still, thankfully, in my life, but their importance is not captured by a listing of dates and company names.
If there is a trend, it’s the story of a young adult playing a very minor role on the national stage in my 20s, then life in corporate sterility with suits and ties for a brief period, and then setting out on my own as a consultant plying my accumulated skills. The next chapter, the best part, is on a small stage in a small town – a village really – and my world is plenty big. I am semi-retired, the strictures of conformity are off and creativity abounds.
If there is a theme to my obituary, it is one of celebration. The latter part of my life has been a total Champagne-popper. Part of this trend started 15 years ago, when I bought a house from a widower in a small town outside of Toronto. We started to see each other eight months after the closing and ended up getting married in the award-winning garden two years later. (Initially, friends made a beeline to town to meet him, fearful that I might have fallen for the local con man who only wanted to get the house back.) Our lives together have included a three-month honeymoon in the south of France and two major trips each year after that. There is also a reference in the obituary to the rich journey one takes when two adult lives are put together. Everything changed for me – suddenly being responsible for meals several times a day, looking after a household and the addition of grandchildren. I skipped the first volley on the family journey and now have the benefit of watching up close as these young people become the most amazing creatures imaginable.
I’ve also taken up photography and recently had my work chosen for juried exhibits. The walls of a local restaurant are covered with images I have taken on our trips plus some from around town. It is also a pleasure to see a shot or two published in the must-read weekly newspaper. I’m flattered to be asked to be on boards and participate on a few. One is in retail and earns billions, but my favourite has sent athletes to the Olympics and it is local – the Speed River Track and Field Club. We intend Guelph, Ont., to be the running capital of Canada – no, the world!
I am encouraging others to take the time to reflect on what they are most proud of. And then try a hand at writing this final résumé and to highlight the noteworthy bits.
It is not morbid exercise but, like having a will and a power of attorney, it just makes good planning sense. If you get stuck, it is helpful to think of each passage as a work of art. Then envision a visit to a gallery where these gems are put on display, the whole exhibit your life story. The effort will produce interesting results and may also provide insight as to how you want to curate the balance of your life.
I found this to be the hidden benefit to all of this reflection and I am mindful of how I spend my days. Along with travelling, I focus on volunteer activity, my family and I am still politically active. So no, I do not have too much time on my hands.
Penny Lipsett lives in Elora, Ont.