When my dad told me he had cancer last winter, I wasn’t nearly as afraid as I probably should have been.
My lack of fright wasn’t just good ole fashion denial. There's a total of five cancer survivors in my family, two of whom have blazed their way clear into their 90s. Fortunately for us, cancer has not been the death sentence that it has been for so many others It’s more like an old enemy we’ve been feuding with for generations. One that has given us hell for many battles, but has yet to win the war.
And that’s what this prostate cancer would be to my 64-year-old father. He’s a former soldier after all, a veteran of Vietnam. If I trusted anyone to beat cancer, it was him. And that’s exactly what he did. He went through three months of radiation and is currently cancer free.
I was stoked that my family had once again kicked cancer’s ass, but my father was a bit more humbled by his experience. The cancer had scared him, I could tell. And I don’t think there’s anything more unsettling to a little girl than to see her own father be afraid.
It was great that he had beaten cancer, for now at least, but if that didn’t take him, something else eventually would. He'd been made aware of the certainty of his own death. So he started to prepare.
Initially, I thought this would be limited to the things that he was leaving behind for me. I’d be his sole inheritor and he wanted to make sure that whatever was going to me went directly to me without interference. That meant putting me on the deed to his properties so that lawyers or an inheritance tax would not get any chunk of what he and his father had worked so hard for. Wonderful. I don’t know much about deeds or lawyers so the less that I have to deal with them, the better.
But then came the trip to the cemetery.
Every year in August for the past 19 years, my dad and I have visited his parent’s grave. He brings two lawn chairs, a pair of pruning shears to tidy up the grass around the marker, and a few bottles of water -- if I’m lucky. He sits for about 40 minutes or so, talking about his latest bout with gout, the Phillies, or whatever else is on his mind that day. I sit there, smile, and listen. Not necessarily because I’m having a great time, but because I know this is important to him.
Next to his parents’ grave is an empty double plot my grandfather bought nearly 60 years ago. He was the “always be prepared” man that my father is slowly turning into. I fight tears every time we visit the spot because I know there will eventually be a time when all four of us are there again, but I will be the only one above ground.
But on this year’s annual trip, something changed. Not only did we see grandma and grandpa, but we had a visit with a representative from the cemetery as well. Daddy wanted to make sure that everything was in order in the event that he “drop dead that night” or some time soon after.
And so it was. The rep assured us that the plot my grandfather bought for the low, low price of $220 in 1956 could be readied for his arrival. All they would need is his name.
But even though the plot was taken care of there were fees associated with burial that would still need to be paid. There was an opening and closing fee, a plot vault, a marker with a granite base, and a price to install everything. All that came to a whopping total of $3,500.
Not to worry, though. The cemetery allows people the convenience of paying for these items before they die and even offer payment plans with super low interest rates. Daddy loved the idea, but I couldn’t bear it. I didn’t like the thought of him sitting at home, making checks out to the cemetery. Listening to my father pick out his own plot vault was morbid and creepy, and just plain sad.
But then I remember my friends who have been forced to make important decisions about their love ones’ deaths while they were still delirious from fresh grief. There were a few that had to sell dinners and raffle tickets just to raise money to put their own parents in the ground. Daddy also knows some people, younger than myself, who have had to carry this same awful burden. I know he’s not paying off his own burial because he wants to; he’s doing it so I won’t have to.
Next came the part when my dad managed a straight face to ask if a homemade pine box could be used in the place of a casket. The rep laughed the loudest laugh ever laughed inside the bounds of a cemetery. I smiled and shook my head. I knew my father was serious. We'd had this conversation on the car ride up.
“When we leave here I’m going to teach you how to build a pine box,” he said.
Before I can roll my eyes and offer a rebuttal he replies, “What’s the difference? I’ll be dead!” (“I’ll be dead” being his rationale for wanting to half ass nearly every aspect of his funeral in an effort to cut cost.)
“I’m not building a pine box, Daddy.”
“Fine. I’ll build it and before I go I’ll tell you where I hid it.”
Thinking about that exchange, I start to laugh in the office, despitehow terrifying it is.
I’m kind of glad we can have responsible conversations about death and dying. Because it’s not like we’re just erring on the side of caution. Death is the only certainty he or any of us will ever face. I’m even happier that we can make preparations together, while he’s still around to make me laugh at all his absurd suggestions.