The Tough Question No Parent Wants to Think About


If you’re in your late 30s or early 40s, you have likely reached halftime in the game of life. At 44, half of my life is behind me. It seems weird to say out loud, I know, but the finite nature of our time on earth has been occupying my mind a lot lately.

In the past couple of months, two dads in my community of bloggers have been diagnosed with cancer. One has it in his brain, another has it in his lungs and brain.

One of those fathers, Oren Miller, has two kids, ages 6 and 4, which means our parental experiences have pretty much mirrored themselves, as my two boys are just 7 and 4. He’s a pretty special guy in the Dad Blogging fraternity. A few years ago, he noticed that dads were blogging but weren’t gathering. So he created the Dad Bloggers Facebook group that is now more than 800 strong.

Oren was fine on Memorial Day weekend. He had a stitch in his side that he thought was just a pulled muscle from playing with his kids, but two days later he was told he had stage IV lung cancer. Things can change that quickly.

Oren’s diagnosis has touched us all, and we’ve rallied behind him to raise more than $31 000 for his family. We keep his spirits up by doing silly things like serenading him with Billy Joel covers. But the diagnosis has hit my heart hard.

I watched another blogging father colleague of mine, Derek K. Miller, take a long slow walk to the end with a colorectal cancer diagnosis. Before Derek passed away in 2011, he took specific care to ensure his digital legacy would remain. Derek wrote his own epitaph, a final blog post that went viral around the world. A pioneer in podcasting, Derek made plans to have his online life continue long after his physical one ended. He created a digital will so his family would have the ability to keep his words alive. Having a runway allowed that to happen for Derek.

As much as my heart ached for him, and now aches for Oren, I’m glad they had the gift of time.

We do take life for granted. We fill up our calendar with things we will do tomorrow, the following week, the following year. We act as if time is infinite. That attitude changes the moment we are faced with the reality that our clock is approaching :00.

So as I watch others around me start to face a closing window, I’ve started pondering the question no parent wants to face … how do I want to die? Would I want something sudden and unforgiving, or would I like the whisper of a doctor explaining statistics, my chances, and giving my death sentence a definitive timeline?

It’s a morbid, disturbing question to ask, but I’ve asked it. I know that it’s going to be hard on my family no matter what. A quick ending would likely be easier for me to handle, but having an illness that will, eventually, kill me in a specific amount of time would be a gift.

Coming face to face with your own mortality gives you the chance, debilitation notwithstanding, to truly appreciate and celebrate life. For me, it would allow time to get deep into the queue of my blog and record all the thoughts and hopes and dreams for my kids. I could pre-publish posts for when they turn 16, graduate high school, get married, and become parents. I could do my best to offer all the advice that gets doled out in tiny scoops out over a lifetime in one purge, so that it would be there when they need it.

A sudden dismissal from their lives would leave it empty, a long goodbye would give me a chance to fill it for the future.

We plan wills for the “just in case.” We think of who we would like to act as guardians for our kids, how our wordily possessions will be meted out, how we would like our family to be provided for after we’re gone. We do that in case something bad happens, suddenly. But have you included your digital legacy in that will package? Derek’s passing really had me thinking about what would happen to my blog after I left.

I’ve given my brother a master password to get in and unlock my accounts so the photos, videos, and stories I have shared online can be saved for my kids. I’ve set up a notice on Gmail to authorize access to loved ones if my account is inactive for a set period of time. And, with the news Oren has received, I find myself perusing sites like Death and Digital Legacy to make sure I have everything set up properly “just in case.”

I’m also taking video. Lots of video. When my grandmother passed away in 2010,  I was disappointed by the lack of video of her I had. She used to bake with my kids, color with them, and read to them, and I didn’t capture any of it. So now, as my grandfather gets ready to turn 90 next month, I take video. Lots of it. Like this mundane slice of life with my son and grandfather having breakfast at a Denny’s, or this video of them baking. It’s nothing. But it’s a moment that is precious to me.

So welcome to halftime, friends. There’s no rock ‘n’ roll performance, there’s no marching band, there is just a large sigh, and silence.

At my halftime, I’m alone with my thoughts and, for a moment, appreciating mortality. Trying to wrap my head around the gift that is life, and taking inspiration from those whose halftime passed long before they had a chance to take that pause:

I accept that life is finite, and I accept that my time will come soon. I accept that my life had been and still is a gift, and I accept the likely possibility that I won’t see my kids grow older.

Should I complain, though? Should I cry out to the empty sky and say, “Why me?” Or should I feel that now, even now, especially now, a little confused, a little tired, and a little sad, I’m having the time of my life?

Whatever happens to my body in the next few months is still relatively unknown. Here’s what we do know, though:

We know I’m the luckiest sonofabitch who’s ever walked this earth, and we know I will be loved until my last moment by people it has been my utmost privilege to know: by a wife I adore and two kids I’m in awe of every single moment.

Oren Miller

Photo courtesy of Oren Miller
Photo courtesy of Oren Miller
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