A discussion about the future
By Brian Doyle
Sat for a while the other day at a lovely oak table with my mom and dad and talked about their deaths. That was an interesting hour, you bet. My mom says she wants to be donated to a medical school and then cremated and buried with my dad, to whom she has been married for 70 years—plus four months and one day, so far, says mom. Dad says he is not real sure that a medical school will actually find anything of use to explore in people who are into their 90s, as most of the parts seem to be nearing the end of their warranty periods, and mom bristles, but then dad says he is not much for cremation anyway and would prefer to be buried in a military cemetery about an hour away. He was in one war as a sergeant and another as a lieutenant, and he is proud of his service, although he thinks violence is stupid and he stood proudly behind his oldest son when that son resigned from the Navy and testified before a draft board that he was a conscientious objector to war, which is one of the thousand reasons I admire my dad.
Dad says he would like mom to be buried with him, if at all possible, although he will be in a big box and she will be in a little box, perhaps she can rest on his chest? I think for a moment I should be taking notes to share with my sister and brothers, but this is not the kind of conversation you can stop and start. They don’t talk about this kind of thing because who talks about this kind of thing until you have to? But now they are rolling, and I pay attention. Dad says maybe my brother who is a genius carpenter can make their boxes. Mom is still annoyed at the thought that a medical school will not find her of instructional use. Outside I hear hawks whistling high over the house. Dad says that even though he lived in New York for 70 years, he has not the faintest interest in being buried in New York. Mom says that even though she was born in New York and lived there for 80 years, she is not interested in being buried there either, although she hopes we will visit the graves of her mother and father in New York occasionally in the years to come. Right about here the mail truck pulls up outside, and the conversation changes trains and we have lunch and read the mail and the papers.
Later I tell my brothers and sister about this conversation, and my brother the genius carpenter says he will make their two boxes from the same tree. He says maybe he will use olive for its religious implications whereas our mom and dad have been absorbed by the thin Jewish mystic from Nazareth for more than 90 years each, or maybe white oak, which is a strong majestic straight-grained wood, or maybe bald cypress, which would be apt considering what state the military cemetery is in, or maybe black walnut, to honor the days when our dad was a child in Ohio, or elm because it’s a great American tree. He says he thinks I had better do the speechifying when the time comes and our sister who lives in a monastery can take care of spiritual matters and our youngest strongest brother can take care of lifting and paperwork and forms and things like that, and our four other brothers who have gone ahead, as our dad says of his lost sons, will be waiting at a table somehow somewhere to say hey to the mother and father they have not seen for a very long time.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the novel Mink River. He writes the weekly Epiphanies column at theamericanscholar.org.