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The Whole Family Gathered to Write Dad’s Obituary—Including Dad

As our father slowly succumbed to ALS, we squabbled over which details to include in his farewell. And that’s when we realized we were talking like he was already gone.


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illustration of a person in a wheelchair with a hat over his eyes while two people handle a laptop above him

Illustrations by Ryan Johnson

We wrote Dad’s obituary under the gazebo as a family: bickering, chewing ice, eating cold Domino’s pizza and passing my MacBook back and forth over Dad in his electric wheelchair.

Outside the dim caverns of our house, here in the backyard, it was still summer, eighty degrees and pleasant in the shade. The pool was sloshing with golden dog hair and fallen raspberries, the patio furniture covered in bird poop and little cottonwood pods that stuck to my socks when I limped inside to flush a gallon of Dad’s warm urine down the toilet. We were way past modesty.

My little sister Chelsea, the baby of the family at seventeen, danced around the table in a bikini and a fuzzy pink cover-up, crushing the can of Coke in her hand as she took swigs. Dad was tan-limbed from all our walks and sweaty, his blue eyes clear and alert, his lips chapped. Lou Gehrig’s disease had wasted away the muscles in his chest and shoulders, made quick work of his diaphragm, hands, arms and legs. Only his mind was still intact. Not even his fingers worked anymore. They were curled on his lap on a Tommy Hilfiger American flag pillow from my older sister Tiffany’s room, as if ready to peck out an alternate ending if only given the chance.

illustration of an orange ballcap

Dad’s favorite headgear, a 2007 Boston Marathon baseball cap, was pulled low on his brow so he didn’t have to watch the dogs dig up the lawn. It was a great hat: blaze orange with a unicorn on it. I read online that the Boston Athletic Association chose a unicorn for its mascot back in 1887 to represent the mythic and ideal, something that can be chased but never captured.

Dad was going to wear that hat, along with a running outfit, in the casket at Larkin Mortuary for the viewing. That’s how he wanted to be remembered: as a runner. I imagined his corpse covered in toxic makeup and mortician’s wax, his nose hairs plucked, cotton balls and spirit gum sealing shut the hole in his throat.

Then he was going to be cremated, his ashes scattered over his favorite ski run in Sun Valley, the road up Millcreek Canyon and the slippery shore of Camano Island, where he used to spend summers as a kid.

My pudgy older brother Danny, 26, scrolled through what Mom and I had come up with so far. A pretzel hanging from his mouth and a dirty fingernail circling the lip of a half-empty Corona, Danny hassled me over how dusty my computer screen was, how I needed to clean the gunk off my keyboard, never mind the pretzel crumbs spraying from his mouth. Did we have to say Dad was paralyzed and on a respirator, he wanted to know, why not just really go for it and say he shit in diapers too?

Dad clicked his tongue and emphatically mouthed a few words, nodding down at the little balloon attached to his trach. He wanted his cuff deflated so he could say something.

“See,” I said to Danny, “he likes it how it is. Euphemisms in obits are dumb. They make everything sound like a drug overdose.”

“Drug overdose?” Danny said. “This is Dad’s obituary, not Mom’s.”

“Fart off,” Mom said. “He’s my husband and I’ll put what I want.”

My job at the newspaper in Park City didn’t have me writing obituaries, but I knew enough, on this most important advance job, to spare Dad common blunders: The God talk, the misuse of semicolons, the first person. Still, disputes arose. Jokes turned nasty. “Though he loved journalism, his true love was family, especially his son Greg, who was far and away his favorite…in spite of being gay.”

Thanks, Danny.

Striking a more inspirational tone, Mom wrote “Marathon Man” in parentheses under Dad’s full name. It had a nice ring to it, but (not to be nitpicky) had anyone ever called him that? If we were going with a nickname how about just “Bob?” And did Mom’s fifteen-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma really deserve prime real estate?

Mom’s hair had grown in from chemo, though she weighed ninety pounds and looked half dead herself, her scalp a patchwork of scars and slick red bald spots where Dr. Zone had cut out basal-cell carcinomas. She was bundled into a gray hoodie despite the warm weather. Fentanyl patches for bone pain left Mom loopy and the loopier she got, the more precisely she embellished. My parents had celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary in July. Mom kept rounding that number up by one. “I want that extra year, damn it!” she said.

Dad rolled his eyes. Come on Deb, he mouthed.

And then there were the balloons. Mom claimed, in the obituary’s second paragraph, that friends and neighbors had released 2,000 of them upon Dad’s passing. We were already writing about Dad in the past tense. He would be long gone by the time the obit ran in the Trib and Deseret News, the balloons let loose or not.

“But two thousand? That’s a fuckin’ shitload of balloons,” Tiffany pointed out diplomatically, poking her head over Dad’s emaciated shoulder. She’d just come through the side gate, off from another overtime shift at Fidelity, and was giving Dad a back rub. She looked exhausted. “Are you sure it’s not going to be like two hundred?”

My laptop battery was about to die. I collected my computer from my mom and went to save the five hundred words it had taken to render Dad’s 55 years on earth. I read aloud what Mom had written in conclusion. “Our love goes with you, Bob, as you run marathons in the sky. You will be missed, but never forgotten. Remember to never, never, never give up.”

After a second I said, “Dad’s an atheist though. He’s not going to be running anywhere.”

Mom and Dad locked eyes and Dad mouthed something only Mom understood for sure. Mom’s chair made a terrible scratching sound as she pushed it back from the table. She stood, stretched and planted a kiss on Dad’s dry mouth, hugging just his head as she cried. She must have jostled Dad’s tubes because the alarm on his respirator went crazy, as usual.

Lately Dad had started saying, “Energy can’t be created or destroyed.” He’d also started saying, “When in doubt, err on the side of death,” so take your pick: believer or nihilist. Either way, Dad would be unplugging in two days, ending the heroic measures that were keeping him alive. In the email blast that had gone out to his friends, Dad, in his best impression of Herman Munster, described the unplugging as “an unusual event for your social calendar.”

Of all the visitors who turned up at the house the next morning, Dad’s ski buddies were the worst, jangling car keys, picking dog hair off their fleeces, never knowing how to say goodbye. “The Day Before the Day Of,” we called it, like one of those incoherent end-of-the-world movies. The guys stroked their beards and elongated their pinched faces. “Some midlife crisis you’re having there, Bob.” If they weren’t whisked out of the stuffy room they would become as choked up as Dad. I love how men cry, even hippie skiers, like they have something in their eyes. Better to help them along. “O.K., well, he has to take a dump so see you at the viewing.”

I’m not sure how much Dad slept that night, but in the morning when he opened his eyes we were all standing over him like creeps, rubbing his arms and feet and softly saying, “Hey.” Mom kept trying to feed me Klonopin to get me to calm down. I told her to fuck off. I didn’t want to be as messed up as she’d been for the past year. We’d always assumed, because of her endless battle with cancer, Mom would be the first to go. She was the sick one. Now her survival had turned into a sad irony. Plus, I wanted to get her back for attempting to drug me. “The wrong parent is dying,” I told Dad loudly.

A wet-haired hospice nurse named Sunny came over around one and started an IV in Dad’s stomach, or maybe the morphine drip was through his G-tube. It was hard to tell. “You probably feel like killing yourselves right about now,” Sunny said sympathetically.

It wasn’t like unplugging a lamp. It took a couple hours for the bag of morphine to trickle into Dad’s system, so we loaded the drugs into a black backpack and piled him into the elevator for one last stroll around the neighborhood. We didn’t bother putting sunscreen on him. Danny said it was good to die a little burned. We kept joking that Sunny had given Dad a placebo. He’d wake up and still have Lou Gehrig’s, still be stuck with us. Dad tried to smile but his expression came out as a sneer. He kept saying he couldn’t feel anything.

“Quit bragging,” Danny told him, flicking Dad’s hat. It was one of his running hats, a 26.2 patch sewn above the bill to represent the length of a marathon.

We were in the homestretch of our own grueling marathon, the final point-two. It wasn’t long before we were back upstairs, lugging chairs from the kitchen, like we were putting on a play. My mom and two little sisters climbed into bed with Dad. His eyelids were getting heavy. Dr. Bromberg waited in the back of the room, ready to ease Dad off the respirator after he lost consciousness. “If there is an afterlife, you better fucking contact me,” I told Dad, pushing up the brim of his damp cap so I could put a hand on his forehead. Atheism didn’t seem so important now.

illustration of a person's ear getting pinched

Dad’s last request was that we switch his hats, from 26.2 to Boston Marathon: he wanted to go out wearing that orange unicorn. After some commotion, the hat was found on the knob of the closet and passed from hand to hand until it made its way onto his head. He looked boyish and sweet in that baseball cap, like he was just drifting off for an afternoon nap, preparing to run marathons in the sky.

There was time for a last round of family photos. I handed my camera to my godfather and huddled around Dad’s hospital bed with my brother and sisters and mom, tugging sadly on the rim of Dad’s ear to make it stick out for posterity. His eyes only half open, Dad drowsily mouthed what I took to be bye, Greggo, but he could have been saying anything. He could have been saying Quit pulling my ear. After a few somber pictures, Danny tossed a Kleenex over Dad’s eyes and we all laughed, relieved, as Dad’s fake smile became a real one, the first I’d seen all day. The Kleenex sat on his big nose, not fluttering, until Tiffany plucked it away. And just like that, there was Dad blinking up at us again, wearing an expression that looked a lot like wonder. Not yet.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published July 25, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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