top of page

Personal columns

Previously published by The News-Press

"Today he stuns me into giddy laughter."

"It's not easy to sum up someone's life and worth in a short obituary."

"I've got a spreadsheet (of course) and email distribution list ready of family and friends to contact."

Preparing for the end

Published in The News-Press on 6/29/14


Dad’s urn arrived last week.


It’s white with irises, smooth porcelain, curvy and compact.Yet big enough to hold the cremains of a 210-pound person, though Dad in his illness has shrunk down to less than 130.


I’ve written about my Dad being a victim of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It’s been more than a decade since the first symptoms. It’s been just a few months since we have been poised for the end.


With my small nuclear family, I’ve been pretty removed from the deaths of loved ones. So this is my first intimate connection to the last days, the closure of a life. 


Dad turned 81 on April 2 and resumed in-home hospice care as he began weakening. It’s comforting to know the conscientious Hope Hospice workers are the only call we have to make when we don’t know what to do.


In late April, he had a fever, which impacted his ability to breathe, leading to him hacking and gasping, thrashing in pain. There was one night when we thought it was over.


Surrounded by love and bolstered by prayers, he’s stabilized, but hasn’t rebounded. He can’t feed himself, can’t walk or stand alone, can’t recognize us most of the time. He’ll fidget, staring wide-eyed and reaching toward the ceiling. Mom is sure he sees God.


And yet, as I write this, he’s humming and mumbling. I’ll ask him, “How are you doing?” repeatedly throughout the day. Today he stuns me into giddy laughter with a clear, “I don’t know.”


And so Randy and I tackled the long checklist, dusting off work now three years old. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • There are four cemeteries around us, each about 20 miles away.

  • If you do a cremation, you have to decide what kind of “vessel” to place the deceased in. A cardboard box is acceptable by state standards. But that’s probably not the last image you’ll want of your loved one.

  • If you buy an urn niche you’ll own it forever, unless you’re able to sell it. (There were five listings on Craigslist last week for cremation niches in Southwest Florida.

  • The Palm Royale Cemetery off of Vanderbilt Beach Road in Naples has a really sweet, relatively new columbarium, peacefully lighted. But it’s hard to think of Dad belonging there, a stranger in a strange place.

  • Urns come in all shapes and sizes and prices.

  • It’s not easy to sum up someone’s life and worth in a short obituary. The writing of it wrenches up memories pleasant and painful.


After so many years, my mother has accepted the inevitable. She had wanted Dad to make it to 80, and that was a year ago. But we know a part of her will perish, too. So we have to navigate letting her make choices, and helping her decision making. We’ve long had living wills and funeral plans. But now it’s real.


She says it’s whatever we want to do, but we’re not so naïve to believe that. Thankfully, we know her friends from the local Chinese Alliance Church will be there to help.


Mom had started by saying she could not have Dad’s cremains at home; it would be unbearable. Now, we’ve agreed that would be best—for him to be surrounded by love, rather than be in an unknown environment. We’re looking around our house for the right spot.


I’ve got a spreadsheet (of course) and email distribution list ready of family and friends to contact, including the two women I’ll call first so they can come help comfort Mom. I haven’t figured out yet how I’ll be able to communicate to those with poor English with my poor Chinese.


We’re planning a memorial at home rather than a formal service. How many will make the trip, we wonder.


I’ve created my first video with soundtrack for the occasion. How many minutes of images is a life worth, I pondered. Yuen Ding Chan, a gentle self-made man who worked as a mechanical draftsman in Chicago, who loved gardening, swimming, tinkering, America’s opportunities and, above all, his family. I summed it up in seven minutes 20 seconds.


We’ve captured the key traditional requirements from Mom: wear black and white, no jewelry, no lipstick; put out a candy dish to disburse sweet thoughts; prepare white envelopes of cash for visitors who’ve traveled.


Randy and lawyers are plowing through the legal work that will be needed, despite our exhaustive planning years ago.


What’s still on the “to-do” list: finalize a funeral home contract; find a florist (can you get white roses and dahlias in Florida?); gather what Mom wants cremated with Dad (favorite poems, songs, writings); make sure I know where Dad’s suit and Mom’s outfits are; get a guest book; translate the obituary into Chinese.


And then we’ll be ready.


No. We’ll never be ready.

bottom of page