Sharing a story for the last time

My father-in-law passed away earlier this month. He was 91 and suffering from dementia, and when we saw him this past December, he was clearly in the end stages of the disease. He asked my 50-year-old husband (his son) where he went to school, and he gazed at my 16-year-old son (his grandchild) as if he were a stranger.

It was heartbreaking.

After we understood the situation we were facing, my husband and I switched gears.

“What did you do for a living when you were younger?” I asked.

Oh, the smile that appeared! My father-in-law could talk for hours about his “glory days,” working as an engineer on Long Island. Even in his state of advanced dementia (a mysterious illness indeed), he was able to recount names and events from his time as the head honcho at a utilities plant. Some 40-plus years had passed, and he told us a detailed account of firing one of his employees, and the aftermath of that decision.

My husband then asked his father if he had ever traveled abroad. Why, “Yes!” he answered. He had been to Japan! He and his wife had gone decades earlier, and they had met so many interesting people. The gardens were just beautiful and the food was nothing like they had tasted before.

We had heard these stories many times before, of course. He was 91 after all, and my father-in-law was a talker, but we felt such joy listening to him recite them again. Here he was – unaware of who we were or where he was. But he could tell us of the coworker who became a lifelong friend and of a meal he ate at a particular restaurant in Asia.

That talk was the last real conversation we had with him. Less than three months later he was gone.

What could have been a desperately sad visit that December—one filled with the painful realization that his time was coming to an end—instead became a precious opportunity to allow my father-in-law just a few minutes to soak in the life he had when life was good. When pride and joy, not sickness and confusion, were his companions.

While everything is still fairly fresh, I think that in the future, when I think back on my father-in-law, I will remember that December visit. And I will forever be thankful that my husband and I switched gears. That we gave him the chance to feel content.

I am by no means an expert on working with people with memory issues. But my father-in-law taught me a lot that day. Maybe you can take something from our experience too.

Goodbye dear father-in-law. And thank you.

Brain Surgeons, Ballerinas, and Ball Players: Our Earliest Career Goals

Almost all of us were quizzed about our career ambitions before we hit first grade.

“What do you want to be when you grow up,” my grandfather asked 5-year-old me.

“A veterinarian,” I responded with certainty.

But then I found out that I would need to give injections and take blood. Maybe even put down an animal now and then. And then, much later, I learned how difficult it was to get accepted into veterinarian school, how much veterinarian school cost, and how many years it would take me to get through it.

So many reasons to reconsider.

It was an interesting query, though, and now that first grade is many decades behind me, I find the response I gave intriguing too … as we all should when we consider our answer to this oft-asked childhood question.

And so, I now pose: What did you want to be when you were young?

A singing astronaut? A professional baseball player? A teacher? An inventor of flying cars?

Your earliest dreams tell a lot about who you were, and maybe who you grew to be.

I never became a veterinarian but I still adore animals, and I’ve owned many throughout the years. Maybe that singing astronaut gig never came through for you, but today you have season tickets to the opera and you’re currently taking lessons to obtain a pilot’s license. Or maybe you did achieve your dream. Maybe you proudly tell your students today that you knew you’d be leading the class from the time you were small.

As you write your life story, be sure to include a section on your childhood aspirations, including your early career ambitions. How did you envision spending your work days? Was your wish a passing desire or did you hold onto it for some time?

Regardless of whether your first-grade pronouncement came to be, what does it say about who you were and what you wanted? What does it say about who you became?

Your earliest dreams definitely have a place in your story.

As always, please let me know if you’d like my help sharing it.

Talking about Death

Death. It’s one of the issues that we personal biographers are trained to address with clients in interviews. We become accustomed to asking straightforward questions and discussing the topic with ease. We’re personal biographers after all. We don’t shy away from the heavy stuff.

Recently, my elderly client died. Flo was her name and I wrote about her in my last blog. In her final months, as her decline was obvious, I asked her directly, “How do you feel about dying?”

Her answer was both shocking and not.

“I’m ready. I’m looking forward to it. It’s time.”

She didn’t want a big funeral and she shared her thoughts about the afterlife.

Experts advise that those who are actively dying want to talk about their death. Our clients often have no one else to confide in about the subject and it is our job to allow them to share their feelings. We must discuss death because we owe it to our clients.

What I didn’t realize is that I also owed it to myself to ask these questions. Flo’s death—while not unexpected—was still sad. There’s no avoiding that. But there was a solace in knowing how she felt. In the aftermath of her death, there were no questions.

Clearly, if Flo had been younger, afflicted by a terrible disease in her prime, it would have been more difficult. Those who die prematurely, with young families and young careers, have a much greater emotional precipice to climb. But regardless of the situation, conversing about imminent death relieves all. Of this, I am certain.

Address death when you write your life story. How you feel about it, what you expect from it. And if you’re interviewing a loved one, please don’t ignore the issue. Those who are dying want to share their feelings. And the truth is, you’ll benefit from what they say too.

If you’d like help writing your life story—or the life story of someone you love—please contact me directly. It would be my honor to assist you in any way you’d like.

Flo

I just said goodbye to one of my clients. Flo contacted me a few years back, asking for my help compiling a book of essays she had written over the course of her lifetime. I was happy to work with her and even happier to maintain a friendship with her after the book was complete. Flo is now 97, on hospice, and going to live with her daughter in a different state for whatever time she has left.

I will miss Flo. And after you read one of her essays, I think you’ll understand why.

“I once had a doctor who told me that life is like climbing a hill. From birth to about 30 years one goes up the hill, and then it is all downhill from there. I really don't believe that, well maybe physically that is so, but not spiritually or mentally.

“I believe that we continue to go up that hill as long as we live so that when we reach old age we can look down from that lofty mountain at all these young people trying to "find themselves." It took me a long time to understand the meaning of that, but I think I know now what it means. To be at peace with who I am.

“Maybe I am not as good looking as I would like to be, maybe I don't have as many friends as I would like to have, maybe I don't have as much money as I would like, or a million "maybes.” But here I am and this is what I will be and I must be content that I have done the best with the life I was given. From this lofty position on the mountain called "Old Age" I have peace.”

Flo W.

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The Gift of Brag

I recently completed work on a client’s life story. We spoke for some eight hours, over many weeks, discussing nearly every aspect of his 86 years. Jerry was an incredibly interesting fellow with a wonderfully successful career. He rose to the highest rungs of a Fortune 500 company and secured global accolades, financial wealth, and lifelong friends.

After the first draft of our book was complete, my client asked one of those lifelong friends for her review.

Her critique surprised him: “You were too modest.”

Jerry, I should add, is not a modest man. He’s not timid or soft-spoken or reserved. Quite the opposite in fact. But, like most of us, he has a hard time bragging.

Our solution to the modesty problem was for me to interview another dozen-plus people in Jerry’s life – friends, colleagues, family. People who would speak honestly about my client without concern of appearing boastful. And very quickly our book changed. Accomplishments that Jerry had mentioned in passing were highlighted again and again in superlative words. Yes, Jerry had acknowledged his success in business to me. But I had no idea how immense his success was. He had transformed industries, transformed lives. Jerry had kept those details to himself.

None of us wants to appear arrogant and Jerry was no exception. But his ultimate goal in writing the book was to share the truth of his journey. And it was only with the addition of other voices, perspectives, and stories that Jerry’s book became wholly authentic.

When you write your memoirs, be sure to tell the truth. Not a watered-down truth or a polite truth, but the full “hey Ma, look at me!” truth. Ask your life story professional to interview those close to you. Or if you’re writing your own autobiography, ask yourself this: What would my friends/family/colleagues say about me? Attribute the most complimentary comments to them if that feels more comfortable.

Yes, there’s a time to be modest, but this isn’t it. You owe your readers, and yourself, the full story. If just this once, brag. Please let me know if you’d like my help in doing so.