By Donna Scales
My husband, Ken, has a special wit and is gifted at telling funny, endearing stories especially at the funeral services of friends. He also has a habit of putting himself down. Ken has often quipped that his funeral could be held in a phone booth.
Not too long ago, Ken’s chronic pain and poor balance finally caught up with him. He moved into assisted living. His delightful and upbeat personality is now limited to phone conversations with friends and the other people at his residence. He began to feel worthless. Then COVID hit. The contact he has with the outside world became even more limited.
As his 80th birthday approached, I pondered and prayed how to make Ken feel valued and appreciated? He desperately needed to know he’d made a difference in the world. But I’m only one person. Gatherings were ill-advised under COVID. What could I do?
Our daughter gave me an idea—write to his many friends from work and athletics, old school buddies, and family members. Ask them to send me thoughts and/or memories of Ken—as much or as little as they wanted to share. Men love to razz each other, and he’s an athlete of long standing. I prayed that at least some would make the effort in this crazy COVID time.
The request was to send their words to me via e-mail or post. I could easily transfer them to a large, readable font that was double spaced—especially designed for aging eyes.
I had a nice album on hand with about ten pages—enough for twenty stories. That should be enough. It wasn’t! Fifty people loved on my husband and sent him words of humor, respect, razzing, and gratitude. In order to fit all the stories into the album and keep them durable, I inserted each into a thin plastic cover. Friends told other friends, and stories continue to come in.
My niece, now the mother of two grown sons, wrote of being at our home just after getting her driver’s license. Her nose was out of joint because her parents made her drive an old, faded, yellow Pinto station wagon—definitely not her image. When Uncle Ken asked if she wanted to drive his bright yellow Porsche Targa, she jumped at the chance. After she’d driven one block, she stuck her chin in the air thinking, now this is my style. Then she had to shift gears, go up hills, and make turns. By the time she returned, she was scared out of her wits and gasping for air. She decided her parents’ idea was not so bad after all.
An athletic friend described Ken taking him under his wing to give him tips on his racquetball game. Ken was a legend at their athletic club. This young man eventually replaced Ken and became the club’s top player for many years to follow. This writer also added pictures of a card Ken gave him when he was expecting his first child. Ken’s message in the card was, “There will be nothing you will ever do that is more important or valuable than being a father.” That baby is now twenty-six years old and that father still has Ken’s card. He’s kept it in the front drawer of his desk all these years.
Ken has great admiration for people who have served in the military. However, he’s always questioned whether he would have had what it took to serve courageously. One of the men Ken greatly admired was Gary Brink who was a helicopter pilot in Viet Nam. He picked up wounded soldiers in the middle of the battle and evacuated them to medical care. Gary Brink died of cancer. One of the things Gary had told a mutual friend was that if he was ever trapped in a foxhole, he’d choose Ken to be there with him. The mutual friend told Ken about Gary’s comment in the letter he wrote. That was a very respected opinion that Ken needed to hear now, not have others hear later at his funeral.
On his 80th birthday, I gave Ken the album. It included fifty stories from every aspect of his life. He was touched beyond words, and it accomplished more that I could have hoped. This project also produced an unexpected result—in me. Ken had rarely shared his business or athletic life with me. Reading how loved, respected, and valued Ken is enhanced my image of him, and I didn’t have to wait to receive it until after he was gone. The album now sits on the table right beside Ken’s favorite recliner. Ken likes to reminisce—these stories will be read and reread until the day he can no longer turn the page. Then we may read them to him.
We have prepared an Advance Directive. Ken’s album has become his “Advance Memorial.” One gave preparation, the other gave affirmation.