“I was lucky to have had the most pragmatic of fathers, who would plan for any potential problem before it had a chance to become a problem.”
Advisor to The Conversation Project
I was lucky to have had the most pragmatic of fathers, who would plan for any potential problem before it had a chance to become a problem. He was a detail-oriented man with a boundless imagination. He believed absolutely in Murphy’s Law and the Peter Principle.
"In miniscule handwriting on one piece of yellow legal paper he listed what to do if he and my mother went down in a plane crash, who to call first, second and third, what and where their assets were."
When I was in my early twenties, I was asked to meet my parents at their lawyer’s office “to sign some papers and go over our wills.” Those papers turned out to be a durable power of attorney, living will and health care proxy, and at that meeting my father articulated in no uncertain terms that he did not want any measures taken to prolong his life if he would not be able to care for himself. My mother echoed his wishes. I was also informed where they wanted to be buried (not in the family plot with the Puritan ancestors), what hymns my father wanted sung at his memorial, and who was to give his eulogy (sense of humor and ability to tell a good story were the determining factors).
That was the beginning of an annual ritual. Every single New Year’s day following that meeting, Dad would send me what he laughingly referred to as his annual dirge. In miniscule handwriting on one piece of yellow legal paper he listed what to do if he and my mother went down in a plane crash, who to call first, second and third, what and where their assets were. He reminded me about the hymns and the eulogist, and stated yet again if they couldn’t take care of themselves they didn’t want to stick around.
Then, two decades later, his mind became ensnared by Alzheimer’s, the one harbinger of chaos that all that forethought couldn’t have saved him from. Murphy’s Law indeed. For a handful of years there were no medical decisions to be made, only care-giving ones. Then he got pneumonia. When the doctor asked my mother and me if we wanted him to be given antibiotics or to let pneumonia be cause of death, we both knew that difficult decision had already been made and clearly expressed by my father himself when he still had his mind and his voice. In that moment at the end, he was with us again with the full force of his character and love. What an unanticipated gift…
Sarah Putnam is a visual storyteller whose work as a photojournalist, both nationally and internationally, has been commissioned by magazines, corporations, and non-profits. Putnam has created and produced multimedia stories for publication on the web for The Lenny Zakim Fund, WGBH and Boston University. She has also written feature stories, interviews, essays, book and photography reviews for US publications. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and was a Bunting Fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute. Putnam has been involved with The Conversation Project since its inception.