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Head Strong: A difficult but rational chat about "plans"

My dad recently said he wanted to meet with my brother and me - together. He said he needed to go over some things. "Some plans" was the way he put it.


My dad recently said he wanted to meet with my brother and me - together. He said he needed to go over some things. "Some plans" was the way he put it.

What ensued was one of those difficult but important familial conversations about life - and death. I'd already had a similar conversation with my mom, albeit not with the same level of detail as with Dad.

The good news is that Dad is mentally and physically very well, and he leads a very active life. For him, that means spending several months a year in Florida, watching lots of football, and fly fishing whenever he can get in a freshwater stream.

Next week, Dad will celebrate a birthday. He calls himself a Depression Era baby, so you can do the rough math. I suspect that the looming birthday was one reason he thought it was time to go over his "plans."

So, seated at a conference table, Dad methodically gave copies to my brother and me of everything he wanted to discuss. Dad handed over his will. Plus his living will. And his bank statement. ("Ask for Lucy at the Cross Keys branch.") He had his health insurance cards. Even a certificate of ownership for his cemetery plot. He's an upstate coal cracker by birth but has decided that his remains will end up in Doylestown, which is where he spent most of his adult life.

("Too cold" in the Poconos, he offered, "and no way on cremation." These were two observations said in tandem that raised a number of questions I was not prepared to get into.)

He'd thought everything through, including an allocation for the care of his dog, Brook, and instructions as to who should take charge of her. (Leona Helmsley he is not. The reserve amount is $5,000.)

When he turned the discussion toward the potential of his someday requiring assisted living, I was anticipating Terri Schiavo issues. Dad had other concerns. He said if he ends up living in the care of someone else, he hopes we can arrange for two important things: an individual room thermostat (he has always been the type to reach over and fiddle with the car AC, even if we're driving in my vehicle) and a window that opens for fresh air, instead of the type you find in a climate-controlled building.

He also said he'd love a private room if it can be arranged. And he reminded us that he likes sleeping on his own cotton sheets. (For as long as I can remember, if invited as a houseguest, he shows up with his own sheets.)

When the end comes, he knows how he would like a service conducted. ("My friend Rod Stone should officiate.") His realistic outlook even extends to what will happen that day. ("Just remember that regardless of your importance, the size of the crowd at your funeral depends on whether or not it rains.")

Before the current economic climate, I would not have regarded Dad as a wealthy individual. He lives on retirement funds from decades spent as an educator. He worked as a public school teacher and guidance counselor. He also ran an adult-education program for the Bucks County prison and refereed high school and college football, both of which paid a few extra bucks.

My mother was always the big wage earner in our house. She built quite a successful career in real estate sales. Yet by today's standards, Dad is well off. He has no debts except the $8,806.09 that he owes for his car, a 2007 Lincoln MKX. He handed over his monthly statement of $382.86. That's it. He owes no one.

When we'd covered everything, we put away the paperwork and ate lunch. I hope I don't have to reach for the files for a long time. But I'm glad we were given his input.

Talking about a "plan" now means being able to implement every detail of what he wants. Far too often those wishes get lost in the shuffle of unforeseen grieving.

Better instead to have the discussion when everyone is able to participate in a rational manner.