The last time I saw my father in person, which may be the last time I ever sit across from him, I spoon-fed him dinner the way he spoon-fed me as a baby. His hair, soft as a duckling’s down, was longer than he’d ever kept it when he was younger, but it suited him. I held both of his hands in my other hand to keep them still, as I remembered different meals we’d shared throughout the past four decades.
He used to say things like, “A legacy is a circle ― a chain reaction that never ends ― of what you pass along to your family members and community.” He’d repeat himself to my siblings and me, as if there would be a quiz later. He wanted us to remember what he meant.
Death was a dinner-table topic almost every night when I was growing up. There was no fear or stigma attached to the subject in our house. My father was a successful estate planning attorney. He wrote wills for a living, spending his days meeting with families, couples and individuals, helping them draft their plans for their funds and family businesses.
In addition to the standard will, he encouraged his clients to write what some call an “ethical will,” but what he called a Legacy Letter, as a sort of road map of wishes ― to share beliefs, experiences, life lessons, even regrets, with the family members who would outlive them.
My father would prompt his clients to write their Legacy Letters by asking them a few questions: What do you want people to remember about you and integrate into their own lives? What do you want your legacy to your community and your children to be after you’re gone?
“The letter offers trustors peace of mind,” my father would say. “It leaves nothing unsaid.”
My father would prompt his clients by asking them a few questions: What do you want people to remember about you and integrate into their own lives? What do you want your legacy to your community and your children to be after you’re gone?
As part of his own legacy plan, he kept Dictaphone tapes of his verbal letters to us, his three kids, in the event something sudden and tragic happened to him. Over the decades, he updated the tapes whenever my siblings or I got a new job or spouse, had a baby, got a dog or lost one.
“Keep it current,” he told us and his clients. “Everyone should know how loved they are.”
He prepared for the worst, but we were not prepared for what happened to him. Parkinson’s and dementia overtook his brain, and within a couple of years, at the age of just 72, he could barely speak or walk. My titan of a father, this man who believed in building on the foundations of the generations before, could not remember our names, let alone the names of our children.
Because of what he’s taught my siblings and me, and because of what I’ve seen happen to him, my husband and I often update our ethical wills on our computers. In my Legacy Letter, I tell my daughters what I want them to know after I’m gone. I offer practical advice: “Try not to let another person’s insecurities shape your own behavior and beliefs.” “Always approach dogs with your palm facing up to the sky, so the dog knows you come in peace. Approach some people like this as well.” And I offer some opinions: “Someday, you will consider getting a tattoo. Fine. Just not on the face. Never on the face.” “Please don’t spend your college funds on collagen.” I try to be funny. I try not to imagine how old they will be when they read them. More than anything, I make sure to express my unconditional love for them. I express it out loud, too, like my dad did.
When he could communicate, my dad never missed an opportunity to tell us how proud he was of us, and how much he loved us. Even as recently as six months ago, in rare moments when he still made sense, he quietly said very important things. I love you so much. Don’t ever give up. You go on with your life. He repeated that last one a lot.
I flash back to the phone calls he made over the years to my siblings and me any time he was about to get on a plane.
“Now listen to me,” he would say, from an airport pay phone on his calling card. “The Dictaphone tapes are in my desk’s top drawer. If anything happens to your mother and me ― if we die ― know you must go on. You would dishonor us by not going on with your life.”
The message was different for each of us. My sister recently told me that his message to her was always: “You honor us by getting along with your brother and sister after we’re gone. No infighting, you stick together for dear life, understand?”
In his phone calls to me, he’d stress: “Living well and taking care of yourself and each other is how you honor us.” In his line of work, he’d seen it too often: A family’s matriarch or patriarch died, and their children stopped living, through a variety of responses to the grief ― alcoholism or drug abuse, profound depression, suicide.
My siblings and I had come to expect these phone calls, and often rolled our eyes when he called each of us. “God, Dad, you’re so morbid!” I once said. And, “We get it, we’ll go on with our lives,” with a laugh.
Even as recently as six months ago, in rare moments when my dad still made sense, he quietly said very important things. "I love you so much." "Don’t ever give up." "You go on with your life." He repeated that last one a lot.
On my most recent visit to him in the nursing facility where he lives, as I sat and fed him dinner, I made sure to let him know how proud we are of him, of his life and career. I told him how much everyone loves him ― even friends of mine who’d only met him for a few minutes 20 years ago. Everyone has a fond memory or a sweet or funny story to share about Rick Friedman.
My dad, hearing this, grew slightly taller in his wheelchair, chest puffing out a bit with pride. Everyone should know how loved they are.
Since that trip, the unforeseen my father anticipated has happened. A pandemic has killed over 100,000 people in the U.S. alone. We cannot visit him because of the coronavirus, which has taken a particularly devastating toll on nursing home patients and staff.
For his 73rd birthday recently, his caretakers orchestrated a video call. We saw each other ― my brother, my sister and me with our families, and my mom and dad ― in five places simultaneously, together on one screen for a few minutes. We talked and laughed and sang him “Happy Birthday.” My father sat and watched us, silent during the call. I don’t know if he heard us or understood us, but I like to think he did.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to fly to see my father again, or when my mother will be able to simply enter his facility and sit next to him. Quarantined and home-schooling my first- and second-grade daughters, I immerse myself in the present. I look forward to daily walks with them. I watch them climb trees. We talk about our favorite flowers. I share that hyacinths are mine because they smell like spring. We even talk about grief sometimes ― the lost plans and disappointments caused by this unexpected and ongoing tragedy.
As sad as I am to be losing my father, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude. I know what my dad believed in, who he was at his core, what he wanted for my siblings and me and how much he loved us. Nothing was left unsaid. He has given us these gifts that I can now share with my own children, and with the world.
A legacy is a circle, a chain reaction that never ends.
Carrie Friedman lives in Los Angeles. She has been published in The Washington Post, the New York Times and Newsweek, among other places. You can find more from her on her website, carriefriedman.com.