CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- My parents both died of Alzheimer's the same December morning, 19 days before Christmas, in the same room, side-by-side.
Some people say that’s romantic. Some people say it’s religious. Some people say it’s spiritual.
I just say they were inextricably connected.
Their wedding vows said, “Til death do us part.”
But even death didn’t part them for very long.
Nell and Stuart Watson were married for almost 63 years. Until the last six months of their lives when we moved them up to an assisted living center, they spent that whole time in the same town, Albany, Georgia--more than half a century at the brick home they built on Hilltop Drive. I don’t think they ever spent more than a week apart.
Before Alzheimer’s took away their memories, I insisted that they sit down on camera and tell me about how they met (a wedding reception) and how they got engaged (he never even proposed – they just agreed) and where they honeymooned (Gatlinburg, then an unspoiled mountain village.)
“There was never any get-down-on-your-knees saying, ‘Will you marry me?’” my dad told me one day as we sat at a picnic table in Mallard Creek Park. “We just said, ‘When we get married we'll do this or that.’”
Ever the good investigative reporter, I discovered my mom noted her wedding expenses in a farmer’s pocket notebook on a page intended for planning livestock breeding. She laughed.
“See it wasn't written for posterity, Stuart,” she told me.
My parents adopted me and my sister Liz when we were just babies. I asked my mom where we came from and she said, “Heaven.” (I suspect she revised that estimate downward when we became teenagers.)
My parents introduced us as kids to the joys of the sliding rocks in the mountains of North Carolina, God’s own waterslides, smelling of mountain laurel and rhododendron. And my sister and I in turn introduced our kids to the bust-your-butt ride culminating in a freezing plunge.
It was easy for them to talk to me about money and hard to talk about sex.
It is easy for me to talk to my kids about sex, and hard to talk to them about money.
But none of us ever minded talking about death. Mom asked me and my sister to divvy up tables, chairs and what-not before she died because she wanted no squabbling.
She took me around the walled family graveyard near Leesburg, Georgia, rimmed with bamboo trees and conch shells and explained that she wanted it kept up after her death.
So when their deaths came, I knew what to do. I knew because they told me. They told me in conversations. They told me because I asked. And they finally told me in a legal document called an “advance health care directive.”
It was one of the most thoughtful things they ever did in a life filled with consideration for others.
Because it meant my sister and I didn’t have to worry or fuss or debate or wonder what mom and dad wanted. They had spelled it out.
She wanted to be cremated. You can tell by her own handwritten initials, NMW, Nell Martin Watson, right there on the notarized form. He left it up to me as his legal designee. I talked it over with my sister and we placed their cremated remains in the same double urn, separate chambers.
My mother was proud Scots-Irish. She could pinch a penny with the best of them. I told my kids that and they called me a racist! Maybe. But the last thing she would have wanted was a big expensive send off.
They wrote their own obituaries, beginning decades ago, typing on onion-skin paper and making edits in pencil until the crinkly paper tore. Four, no six, no seven grandchildren. They included things I would have left out (committees, a resume in past tense) and left out things I would have included (he picked up a few bucks one night ushering at the premiere of “Gone With The Wind!”) But it wasn’t my obituary to edit.
Mom made notes at the bottom of her obituary of scriptures and hymns for the funeral. “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”
It’s not what I would have picked but it wasn’t my funeral. My job was to honor my father and mother by following instructions. I did my best.
They had one funeral, one grave and they’ll have one headstone. For better or for worse, they gave up their individual identities to each other and the two became as one.
My dad raised prize-winning camellias in a greenhouse behind our home. We cut some of his blooms and tossed them in the grave.
My dad told me he had no regrets.
“I’ve had a good life,” he said. “The Lord’s been good to me. Nell’s looked after me well.”
If you’ve got to die, you might as well go with no regrets.