Author’s Note: I was inspired to write this memoir after taking John Grant’s OLLI class titled, “Life and Death Documents Everyone Should Have.”
I had insomnia on Memorial Day weekend of 2016 and disregarded the advice not to check my phone.
I instantly regretted it when I saw a text message from my second cousin, “Joe.” Our dads were first cousins who were as close as brothers. We both grew up in Des Plaines, Illinois and went to the same church. We had bonded lately over fond memories of our dads.
He reported that Vince, his uncle and my first cousin once removed, had had a stroke and lung cancer. Since he was losing his vision rapidly, he hired a neighborhood woman to be his assistant to communicate with his friends.
I was shocked and very sad. Over 17 months, we had lost five cherished family members. I finally was regaining my balance and counted on Vince to be the family historian and support. I believed that he would be around for a long time because he was a youthful 80. After all, his mother had lived to be 91.
We all loved cool Vince, a retiree of a major Chicago bank, who moved to Boulder, Colorado so that he would be unavailable to help the bank as a consultant! Vince lived the exciting life of a bachelor. He traveled to every corner of the globe and was an award-winning bridge player. He breezed in for family holidays with his latest trip tales.
Surely there was a misdiagnosis. How could this happen to Vince? He had been a smoker, and his lungs remembered. I knew that the life expectancy after a lung cancer diagnosis could be short.
I debated on how to communicate with him. I quickly wrote him a heartfelt note in large print that he could read before his vision left him completely. Unfortunately, the card arrived after his vision was gone, but his assistant read all of his correspondence to him.
Vince had a new cell phone with large buttons. I learned his new number, and family and friends encouraged me to contact him quickly. When I called him in mid-June, he actually answered the phone! We chatted for a few minutes about the new phone, not his diagnosis. He sounded weak, but he was upbeat as usual. He ended the call with “Love you.” I was surprised and responded, “Love you, too.” Our family does not easily express emotions, so this was a nice surprise.
Shortly after our conversation, “Joe” sent a message that Vince also had brain cancer! Time was running out.
Fast forward to late June: As my husband and I waited for our Carrabba’s dinner, I noticed an email message on my phone titled, “Hello from Vince.” He dictated a long farewell group email to his assistant. He profusely thanked all of his friends for their friendship and recounted some favorite life memories. He said he was groggy due to pain medication and that he would love to hear what was going on in our lives. Someone would read our replies to him.
I panicked and quickly replied to his note during the meal since I did not know when he would lose consciousness for the final time. Everyone who replied sent their message to the entire group, so it was interesting to read how each person was connected to Vince.
On July 3, we were ready to head to my niece’s house in the Chicago suburbs for an early brunch when I checked my phone for messages. The message I dreaded was there: Vince’s next-door neighbor emailed the group that Vince passed away the previous day. There were no details about the arrangements to follow.
I shared the sad news with my family, but I was unable to reach Vince’s sister-in-law and nephew, who were both out of town for the Independence Day weekend.
Within an hour or so, Vince’s group of friends received an email message from Lisa, a funeral home staff member. She expressed her condolences and said that Vince had arranged for his ashes to be buried at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver. He had hoped that some folks would attend the interment.
A few hours later, another email came from Lisa which was sent only to me, not to his group of friends. The contents shook me to the core:
“Dear Diane, This is Lisa from the funeral home that Vince chose. May I have your contact information? We need the next of kin to sign the Cremation Authorization. Would that be you?” She sent her email and phone number and said I could sign by fax or email.
Time stood still. I had just learned that my cousin had passed away a few hours earlier. Now I was being asked to authorize his cremation!!!
I was not his advocate for health or property during his lifetime, and I was not an executor of his will, to my knowledge. Why would I be the one to authorize this crucial action?
I thought that his sister-in-law or her adopted children would have this authority. I frantically left voice-mail messages for them, and I was very upset that I could not reach them immediately.
I emailed my contact information to Lisa and said that I could help once I returned home after the holiday weekend. I also said that his sister-in-law and nephew could not be reached yet.
I talked over this ticklish situation with my sisters, and they agreed that a wait-and-see approach would be best.
On July 6, I received a matter-of-fact email from Lisa’s husband, Mike. “We are assisting with your uncle’s cremation. Will you sign the attached cremation authorization and send it back to me? If you have any questions, please give me a call.”
By this time, the shock of this request had worn off. I had spoken with his sister-in-law to confirm that Vince really did request to be cremated.
I shockingly realized that, as his first cousin once removed, I was the closest blood relative to Vince. Vince had named his two older brothers to act on his behalf in his legal documents. Unfortunately, they both passed away 2 ½ years earlier, and Vince never got around to changing his legal documents. I knew that it would be up to me to sign the cremation authorization form.
I had never been to Boulder, Colorado or Fort Logan National Cemetery. I also did not know any of Vince’s friends. Vince faithfully attended Chicagoland family funerals, even after he moved to Boulder. Would any of our family members take the same loving action for him?
My Tucson-based sister, Jan, was my partner with regard to family funeral arrangements. Soon we discussed what we could do to ensure that Vince had a good send-off. We could identify with Vince’s situation: 1) we did not have any children, and 2) we lived far away from our Chicagoland relatives. We were determined that he receive the respect and loving care that he deserved.
We decided to hold the Fort Logan service on August 25 at 2 pm so that it would not interfere with the regular bridge game of Vince’s bridge buddies. A bridge buddy planned to hold a potluck lunch reception before the service at the Boulder Elks Lodge, where bridge games were held.
Next, we needed to write an obituary for the Boulder Camera and the Chicago Tribune, where Vince lived for most of his life. Vince’s obituary was published on the funeral home website and in the Boulder Camera. However, Vince’s prepaid funeral home “package” did not pay for the second obituary in the Chicago Tribune. Things came to a screeching halt until I asked “Joe” as a beneficiary to authorize this expenditure for the executor. Finally, Vince’s obituary appeared in the Chicago Tribune for five days.
Jan and I met at the Denver airport on August 24. Lisa had not reached Vince’s preferred officiant, but she said that the funeral home would provide someone to do the service. She did email a service program proof after we landed, and I readied the photo collages for the reception and service.
On August 25, the reception with Vince’s bridge friends and neighbors was well-attended. It was a lively, casual potluck lunch at the Elks Lodge in Boulder. One by one, his friends told humorous and endearing stories about Vince. He certainly was beloved! His friends seemed to be in their 60s and 70s. They seemed surprised that he was 80. Jan and I especially enjoyed hearing about Vince’s life in Boulder through the eyes of his friends. His friends also seemed curious about us and enjoyed hearing our family stories about Vince. We gave them a photo collage of Vince, and they said that they would name a bridge-playing room after him.
We were astonished to learn that Vince’s friends would not attend the Fort Logan interment. We solemnly made the hour-long drive to the cemetery. Lisa announced that she never reached Vince’s requested officiant. We sadly realized that only Lisa, Jan and I would attend the service. Fortunately, Vince received full military funeral honors, including flag folding, flag presentation, and the playing of “Taps.” Lisa, Jan and I then took turns recalling our heartfelt memories. It was sad that no friends or relatives besides my sister and me were able to honor Vince’s life by attending the service.
The next morning, we chatted with Vince’s next-door neighbor. She reported that the condo neighbors pitched in when Vince became ill, but they wondered why no family members helped Vince out. Vince did not have a health surrogate to make decisions, so a kindly neighbor who was a lawyer and a nurse agreed to do so. When he went into Hospice, his bridge friends took over in visiting him at the facility.
After a stroll in historic Downtown Boulder, we drove to the entrance of the Flatirons, stunning rock formations on the outskirts of Boulder. The spiritual atmosphere made us aware of the profound loving kindness that Vince’s friends displayed to ease Vince’s life during his last days. It was easy to complete the cemetery’s form to write the “term of endearment” on Vince’s headstone below his name, dates and military credentials: “LOVED BY ALL.”
Diane Henrikson Russell joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on leadership, radio, life story writing, Tai Chi, healthy aging, literature, science, politics, sociology, and humanities. Diane volunteers as a proofreader for the OLLI catalog and for OLLI Connects. Diane has been Co-chair of the Volunteer Management Committee since 2019.