Because, we had a year to spend together and say our goodbyes, Bill and I had the chance to talk about what he wanted, what his life would stand for, and how he wanted to die. At first I was pretty "creeped out" - no one rationally chooses to talk about death, the meaning of life and how you want to be remembered! Do you?? But once he convinced me that he was serious, I swallowed hard and agreed to just listen. Turns out, it took the full year, but it was one of the smartest things I ever did! For the record, it's not easy to have these conversations, but for me, I received the ultimate peace. I didn't have to guess or wonder what he wanted....I already knew.
My husband was a firefighter for 20+ years. He loved his job and was really good at it! He left the department and went to work for Sprint PCS. Again...he was really good at what he did. Up until the day he went on disability, he was actively working with emergency service providers to fine tune the response program for 911 calls from your cell phone in Northern California. Over the years, he touched (and saved) a lot of lives. But he often wondered if it was "enough".
Bill was part of a UCSF memory and aging study, conducted by Dr. Bruce Miller and his extraordinary research team. The sessions were informative and fun - something to look forward to. During one visit, because of the family history of ALS and FTLD, we were asked to consider "gifting" his brain and spinal cord to the research program. It would be autopsied and contribute to the ongoing research. After talking it over, Bill decided that if he never did anything else with his life, at least he could consciously contribute to the process of trying to find the key to ALS and FTLD. Turns out, for him, that would be enough!
On our next visit, we agreed to the donation and signed the necessary paperwork. We were all finished and as we were about to leave, the program manager, after thanking us profusely, asked "what would you like to do with the rest of the body?" eeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrhhhhhhhhh What?! Turns out, they really wanted JUST his brain and spinal cord. In true style, he quickly typed the following response on his laptop..."Well, I'm not gonna need it!". They looked at me and I (equally as quickly!) assured them that I did not want it! Lucky for us, the University has a Willed Body Program. It's awesome! We signed the additional paperwork and never looked back.
As the ALS progressed, we talked about everything and he even helped with the arrangements for his memorial service. His only request was that when he died, he wanted to make sure that his "never give up" silicon bracelet and his golden retriever, beanie baby went with him. It's a long story about the beanie baby, but suffice it to say, it was important! We ultimately had to leash the beanie baby to his wheelchair to make sure they were always together!
On August 10, 2005, Bill passed peacefully in his sleep. Emmy, the angel aide from hospice, arrived in the early morning to give him his last bath. After a quick discussion, it was decided that he didn't need any clothes - that a clean sheet would suffice for his final ride to the University. That was it! He came into the world with nothing and would leave in exactly the same way, with 2 small exceptions. Truly, material things do not matter in the final hour.
The rest of the hospice team arrived to help me through all of the final details. And finally the team from the University arrived, carefully and respectfully loaded him onto the gurney, covered him with a bright blue, stretchy cover and escorted him back to the university lab. For all that it was sad, the process was actually pretty wonderful. I had little to think about and I was comforted to know that he was in good hands, doing exactly what he wanted to do.
Later that evening, as my head finally hit the pillow, I had a chance to think about the day. I felt really good about the decision to donate, but...I had this random thought! And...from time to time, I reminisce and wonder about the student who opened the drawer to begin the autopsy. I can't help but wonder if they thought "hmmmm, naked guy with a bracelet and a beanie baby. I'll bet there's a good story here!"
In the end, it's not the material things that matter. I believe it's how you lived your life, thought of others and made people smile.