Here’s the Most Important Thing I Would Want My Obit to Say

Obituaries are a funny thing. Like, here is a life: someone learned to ride a bike and drank coffee from a favorite chipped mug and argued about curfews and made perfect grilled cheese sandwiches. Here is a person who was terrible at parallel parking and baked homemade sourdough bread and wished they had learned to play guitar.

Here is someone who worked in finance or social work or maybe never outside the home, who was terrible at telling jokes but excellent at remembering birthdays. How do you fit the story of one’s life into 250 words or less?

I never thought much about obituaries until my father passed shortly after my 46th birthday. Sorting through his belongings, I found his old briefcase under a pile of sweaters in a bedroom closet, the cognac leather stiff and cracked with age. Opening it was like taking the lid off a time capsule filled with the prerequisite company ID badge on a lanyard and faded business cards.

Only a single line of my father’s self penned obituary mentioned his family. (Photo credit: Betsy Hegan)

I found an obituary my father had penned for himself

But I am never more surprised than when a yellow legal pad falls out covered with my father’s self-penned obituary in scrawling blue ink. It took up an entire page of that yellow pad, reading like a laundry list of his various accomplishments.

The obituary progressed from college and graduate school all the way through a business career that spanned over 40 years: degrees, promotions, detailed job responsibilities and professional titles that he held. At the very end was a single sentence mentioning his wife and 3 children.

When I found my father’s hand-written obituary, my boys were 13 and 15. The days of potty training and finding babysitters and negotiating bedtimes and playdates were behind me. While neither of my boys was old enough to have a driver’s license, I could see how time was speeding up as they hurtled headlong into the teenage years. One eye on the learner’s permit on the dashboard (me white-knuckled, clutching the passenger door) and the other looking out the front door, they were already peering at a bigger world beyond our house, our family of 4.

My dad and me. (Photo credit: Betsy Hegan)

How do I define what I’ve done with my life

I had spent the better part of the last 15 years planning my life and schedule around my boys and their activities: my morning run, meeting clients, joining girlfriends at the local wine bar. But in between, thoughts of science projects and baseball concession stand schedules, I could see the blue ink of my father’s words defining his life through his work, scrolling like football scores on Sunday afternoon at the bottom of my mind’s screen.

Was motherhood supposed to be my defining thing? Or my job? Neither? Both?

Unlike many in my mother’s generation, most of my friends work outside of the home. We take pride in our type-A ambition; we have careers, juggle parenting and complain (let’s be honest–humble brag) that we do it all. We manage carpools, school fundraisers and dugout mom with snacks in hand, all while meeting work deadlines and answering to clients.

Life has taken unexpected turns for all of us

Some of us hold jobs that correlate with subjects we actually studied in college. We’re partners in law firms, handle public relations for theaters, design athletic apparel, own marketing companies, and coordinate heart transplants.

Some of us landed in careers that didn’t quite follow us into motherhood as planned, because real life sometimes takes unexpected side trips–an aging parent who needs care, a spouse taking a job in another city, or a child who struggles in school and needs us at home every day at 3:00pm to oversee homework. No one warned us that, even if we worked in the career we thought we wanted when we took off the cap and gown, life would take turns in ways we couldn’t possibly have anticipated.

Here lies the underpinning of it: the women of my generation are supposed to have the ability to do all the things, but “all” gets cloudy as you get older. Maybe it was happenstance that finding my father’s obituary coincided with a time in my life where my boys were at an age that they were starting to need me less.

But show me a woman with her 50thbirthday in the not-too-distant future who isn’t thinking about what she’s done with her life—whether she’s on a path that she chose, or one she stumbled into and is surprised to find herself there, like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.

It’s easy to live an “unexamined life” when you are in the weeds with little kids

It’s easy to live an unexamined life when you’re in the weeds with small children and a career. You get so bogged down with the daily minutia of homework and sports practices and work deadlines that you fall into bed at night exhausted and don’t think about how you could be living any other life. But reading my father’s obituary, with its timeline of educational degrees and career accomplishments, made me think about my own tumbling. 12-year-old me would be surprised to see that I am not working as an editor and haven’t published a book yet, that for years the only writing I had time for consisted of emails to clients and my boys’ teachers.

But maybe success isn’t holding the dream job you thought you wanted, but rather remembering what you love to do and carving out time for whatever piece of it you can. Perhaps success is giving yourself grace, and living a life that fills you in ways you never imagined, whether it’s through your career or motherhood or neither or a little bit of both.

Maybe I should be hurt by only getting a partial mention in one sentence of my father’s obituary on that yellow legal pad. But how we define ourselves is so personal that to judge anyone else for it feels like trespassing on their heart.

Motherhood is not the only thing I have done, only the truest

Being a mom is not the only job I have had on this earth, but I would like to think that if someone wrote my obituary tomorrow, they would not mention my career at all.

My yellow legal pad would have this:

I am someone who loves finding the perfect gift, makes friends with complete strangers and sends hand-written thank-you notes. I am someone who is terrified of roller coasters and snakes, but not afraid to tackle half-Ironman races, hike precarious mountains and bring groups of women along to empower them to do hard and amazing things with me.

I am not good at apologizing, but I don’t end any phone conversation with my family without saying “I love you,” and have taught my boys to do the same. I swear too much, but believe in the power of words and how they can change a mood, a perspective, a life. I believe in holding hands and date nights, even after 28 years of marriage. I am a hugger, an optimist and someone who cries easily. I am someone who is highly impatient, but have taught my boys that kindness matters in the world, and tried to live my life by that belief.

Motherhood is not the only thing, but it is the truest thing I have ever done. I choose to believe that there is grace in knowing that your children see you for all that you are and what you bring to the world, far beyond just being their mom. 

More Great Reading:

My Best Friend’s Father Just Died: How We Share Memories of Our Parents

About Betsy Rathburn Hegan

Betsy Rathburn Hegan’s writing has included 3rd grade short stories, college literary magazine essays, freelance editorial work and finely crafted emails to her children’s teachers in middle school. A midwesterner at heart, Betsy lives in Jacksonville, FL with her husband, adorable dog, and (occasionally) two boys who attend colleges further away than she would like.

Read more posts by Betsy

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