When Rob and I became engaged, we traveled from Illinois to our old college town in Ohio for makeshift premarital counseling. Mostly, Rob wanted to hang out with his old English professor, and I wanted to visit my sisters who were in school at the time. Over dinner with the professor and his wife, the four of us talked a lot about books and jazz music, a little about married life, in-laws and kids. How to bury your spouse never came up in conversation.
Six years later, Rob began writing The Art of Dying. He’d reported on the Terri Schiavo case for Christianity Today, and his own experience visiting a dying relative had prompted him to ask questions about what it meant to die well. A topic normally taboo became commonplace conversation in our home from that time on. Though we were barely into our 30s, Rob and I talked often about death and dying.
After we tucked the kids in at night, Rob and I would sit downstairs in our little townhome, and he’d process his afternoon sitting vigil with a hospice patient. On weeknights, I’d stuff the kids into our only car to go pick him up at the funeral home where he worked part-time. He’d talk about his shift the whole way home. I’d willingly listen to Rob discuss these experiences, but when he inevitably turned the conversation to us, my chest would tighten with anxiety.
I’ll readily admit that frequent talks about death and dying never made them less scary or disturbing for me. We had three children under the age of five, and I couldn’t imagine one of us gone from that family picture. I didn’t want to think about my children growing up without a mother or envision a world where Rob was absent. I wanted to think about the fullness of our years ahead. Nevertheless, Rob felt these conversations were important to have, so he pushed for them.
I remember distinctly the night he sat me down and said we needed to talk about our end-of-life wishes. I remember feeling like an adolescent suddenly cornered for a talk about the birds and the bees — clammy-handed and more than a little uncomfortable. We’d purchased some token life insurance after our daughter was born, and I reassured Rob we’d have lots of years ahead to figure these other things out. Still, he pursued. Finally, I relented.
It took a number of evening talks like that for Rob to get through all the topics he wanted to cover, but we did it. With a nursing baby, a toddler and a preschooler upstairs sleeping, Rob and I hashed out everything about our last days. Guided by The Five Wishes, we discussed our desires for end of life treatment, palliative measures, dying and burial. By the time The Art of Dying was published in 2010, we each could articulate clearly what we desired when our ends came. Over the years that followed, we talked multiple times to update and nuance our wishes, all with the purpose of being ready for whatever lay ahead. Nonetheless, I always hoped it would be information I’d never need to use.
Inevitably, our children grew up hearing a lot about dying. We’d listen to Daddy’s radio interviews or watch him on television as he discussed end-of-life issues. In his own beautiful way, Rob talked to our kids about his desires in language they could receive without fear. Even though they were always tough, Rob’s conversations were always born of love and a desire to care for us in the event of his absence. He was preparing for his death, one we both anticipated would be in the far distant future.
The shock of Rob’s death last summer sent me reeling. The first days, I moved about as though I were drugged; my senses were both super-acute and dulled, my emotions all over the map. Many times it was hard to think straight. But in the chaos of those early days, Rob’s preparation for his death stood as a clear and shining guide for me. His death may have caught me by surprise, but I knew exactly what to do when the time came. He had told me what he wanted. Even here Rob was leading the way for me.
In the end, Rob was buried just as he had wished — cremated, placed in the ground in a cemetery, laid to rest in the mountains. And despite the tragic nature of his death, I was able to honor his other precious wish — to be an organ donor. Two men received sight because of Rob’s gift. As I look back on those terrifying early days, it’s easy for my mind to fill with questions. But remembering executing Rob’s desires always brings peace. I see now why he wanted those discussions so long ago. Because he decided in advance, Rob’s end-of-life wishes became his last way of loving me.
It is a solemn, heartbreaking honor to bury your husband. To be the one who is charged with caring for his body when he dies. No one can teach you how to prepare your heart for that duty. No conversation can convey the weight of that sorrow. Nevertheless, I will be grateful always for the preparation Rob insisted upon, for the talks he initiated, for his persistence in working to rid death of its taboo topic status. In the end, Rob’s foresight brought me guidance and reassurance when I needed it most. Rob prepared well for his death. And out of his amazing love for his family, he prepared us well too.