“Not once, when I have been with a dying person, have they talked about the accomplishments on their résumé, no matter how rich or grand they were. Nope. They only want to talk about family…the love of their spouse…the pride in their children…the regrets at connections lost or disagreements unresolved.” This is what the pastor told the grandchildren while we were waiting for the start of my father-in-law’s funeral this past weekend.
As the funeral progressed and each of the five children in this blended family gave their heartfelt eulogies, it was clear that in spite of the great love I shared with my father-in-law, I really didn’t know him very well. Nor did his grandchildren and most of the people in the room because they only knew him in recent years—as the incredibly loving and humble man he was. In fact, my husband has spent the month since his father’s death sorting through thousands of old photos and “re-meeting” his dad—the one who taught him to love the outdoors…and to face challenges head on…and that sometimes you just have to jump (or be thrown) into the deep end of the pool.
It was the same for me when my father died three-and-a-half years ago. I knew many of the facts about his early life and rule-breaking ways…his boldness when he started Bottom Line Inc. (then called Boardroom). And I had heard the touching tales of his generosity toward friends, acquaintances and even strangers. But it wasn’t until his funeral that I heard stories from some of his inner circle…and I realized I had spent most of my life being in his “outer circle.” Not that he didn’t love me and I didn’t love him—it’s just that there was a whole other amazing man with an amazing life that I didn’t know.
Primitive cultures pass their history from generation to generation through the telling of the tales, and in these tales, the elders share their knowledge and wisdom with the youngsters. It’s information transfer, but it also is time spent together, relationships built and hearts connected.
One of my favorite family traditions is decorating for Christmas. Not because of the annual debate about which tree to purchase or the struggle getting the tree into the house and perfectly straight in the stand. I love decorating for Christmas because every year we tell the stories of the ornaments that we have collected through the years, reliving the memories about where they came from and the people who gave them to us. To this day, two of my favorite ornaments are the patchwork mini-stockings that my husband’s sister sent to us on our first Christmas, when we had no history or stories to tell and the tree was decorated in discount store colored bulbs.
In spite of the sadness of saying good-bye to our family patriarch, we truly had a great weekend, full of laughter and fun. It had been way too many years since the nearly 20 of us who are spread across the country had been in the same place at the same time. We went to hot yoga…watched the NCAA Basketball play-offs…and ate all of “grandpa’s” favorite foods (none of them healthy). The night of the funeral, when we returned to the hotel to relax, we had a group screening of the 275-photo slide show that had been running in the background at the reception earlier in the day.
Like decorating the Christmas tree, it was so special to remember the moments in the photos and hear the stories behind the ones that many of us had never seen. The siblings ooo-ed and ahhh-ed their way through the pictures of family trips, family pets and lots of swimming, sharing where each picture was taken and which child had been injured shortly thereafter. We all ahhh-ed at the many photos of Dad and his wife kissing and hugging as they traveled the globe on assorted cruises and tours. And we all were a touch saddened by the “ancient” photos from Dad’s days in his teens and 20s when he climbed nearly every mountain in Colorado but had to cut his adventure career short due to injuries.
I am so grateful for the many moments that I got to spend with my father-in-law. He was one of the most loving, content and humble people I have ever known. I am only sad that I didn’t get to hear his stories firsthand. But as we went photo by photo, we all gained a greater connection to the legacy that is our family.
The pastor is right…in the end it is all about love and being sure that nothing is left unresolved, because gone is gone and there are no do-overs in this part of life. But long before you are facing the final “I love yous,” there are stories that need to be shared. Those happen every day and every year and accumulate over time. I love sharing stories about both the past and the present with our daughters, as does my husband. While they still are young, they may think that Mom is just being chatty. But after this past weekend, I see that what we really are doing is painting an indelible picture for our children of who their parents were and are so that they never have to feel like they didn’t really know us.