Remember you must die

Momento mori – A term I learned about when I started following and practicing (albeit poorly) Stoicism. It means, in short, ‘remember that you [have to] die’. Not only does it remind you that you, yourself are going to die, but that everyone around you is also going to die.

To some, that idea is hard to grasp. Others, come to terms with the concept early. There is no telling how death will impact any single person. I feel like there was a lot of death in my life during my adolescence. Probably not any more than most people I guess. I’m not certain, but I feel I have a very vague recollection of a 21-gun salute at my uncle’s funeral at a very young age. Somewhere in the (4-6)-year-old range.

I was young but can recall my great-grandmother’s funeral, and remember being pulled from a computer class in high school to be told my grandmother had passed and cried in the hallway for the rest of class. The principal didn’t even have to say it. I just knew. Shortly after, my grandfather passed. All on my mother’s side.

Fast-forward to my Sophomore year of college, my father’s father passed away. I never met my father’s birth mother. Following that, I lost a classmate in 2012. I got married in 2014 and two short years later, my wife’s last living grandfather passed.

Life is full of death. Kind of funny when you read that but knowing that I’ve become very comfortable with that, as well as my own mortality.

Every man has two deaths, when he is buried in the ground and the last time someone says his name. In some ways men can be immortal.
— Ernest Hemingway

Last year, on this day (October 20th, 2021) we buried my father who passed away 4 days earlier on the 16th. I was originally going to write something last year after the dust settled but just couldn’t do it. So today, a year later, I decided it was time.

”They” say a man dies two deaths. By “they” you can see from above, “they” are really just Earnest Hemingway.

In the case of my father, he’ll die for sure three times.

In late July 2017, my dad had a second stroke. The first, a year prior, took part of his peripheral vision and his ability to do the work that he loved – driving semi. The second was much worse. It took his ability to form new memories. Everything that was in there, up to the day of his second stroke, was a steel trap. He hardly missed a thing. Anything new, nothing. It just couldn’t stick. Constant repeating of topics and conversations. Five seconds later… Gone

For the first few weeks, there was a lot of hope and expectation that he would gain 70-80% back. Never being 100%. And that was OK. Way better than the alternative.

A couple of months went by and it was clear that he wasn’t going to get anything back. That was the first time he died. At the very least he was trapped in a prison of the mind. Stuck in the same perpetual loop of confusion for the rest of his days. That was when you start to realize you are losing or had lost a parent.

Selfishly in those first few weeks, believing things would be mostly back to normal, I was extremely frustrated with my dad and the situation. Thinking he was mostly there and on the track to recovery, he was placed under supervised care, given access to roam, use his cell phone freely, and recover. It became apparent though that during this time something much bigger was going on.

Every day, there were dozens if not hundreds of phone calls (to me and my mother) I simply couldn’t answer during work.

He just simply did not understand.

He couldn’t understand the situation.

He couldn’t even remember where he was or what had happened.

I create a binder that said. “DAD!!! READ THIS!!!” to help him try and understand the situation.

Sometimes daily trips or a couple of trips a week to see him back in my hometown or get him and take him to doctor appointments and back.

Soon it became obvious that this was his future and he needed to be placed in permanent care.

Over the course of the next 3 and a half years, it would be 1 to 2 hours of driving just to see him for maybe 30 minutes if we were lucky. Most of the time you could tell the mental exhaustion of him trying to understand what was going on took a toll on him and made him too tied. Sweat poured from his forehead as you saw the wheels turning in his head. He’d just want to go to his room and lay down.

As a family, we literally thought he would live like this for another decade or more. We were confident he had multiple lives. That realization was painful.

Before the stroke, he knew his grandson, my first child.

After the stroke, my second son was born, and he could never grasp the fact that was his second grandson. He still knew my first but was surprised to see how much he grew all of the time. In some strange way, it was funny but still so sad.

Because of COVID-19, though he would never have remembered her, my daughter never got to meet her living grandfather. On October 15th, 2021, on our way to our annual family trip in Omaha, as we drove by the Irene I-29 exit, I mentioned to my wife that maybe on the way home we could swing over and see him. Maybe get one picture with him and all the grandkids. Little did I know I’d get a call less than 24 hours later that he had passed. That was it. Physically gone.

I share all of this not because of sympathy or mourning. I share this as a reminder to myself and the few that may find this post to not take anything for granted. Don’t take your life, or anyone else’s for granted. When my father had his second stroke and I came to terms with his reality, I was prepared for the day. That didn’t make it any easier. But it did come as a blessing. My dad was finally free from the prison of his mind.

I know, that if he knew his future, he would have told me to not worry about him. To live my life and do the things that needed to be done. A coworker and mentor told me something very similar and reassuring. That as a father, he would never want his children to worry or for a similar situation to affect their lives in such a way due to his condition. Knowing this didn’t make the situation much easier, but it is a reality I want to make sure I share with my children as well.

I don’t know what the future holds. I do know that even being relatively healthy means nothing regarding what could actually happen at any moment.

This helps me try and focus on the things that I work toward every day:

  • just a little more patience with the kiddos

  • one more minute at bedtime and not rushing through story time

  • more grace in my marriage

  • more understanding and patience of other people in general

I’m terrible at them all. I fail miserably every day. But that is (little ‘s’) stoicism. I’ll never be a stoic, but I can remember one of the most important gifts in my dad’s passing.

That is I may not wake up tomorrow. If I do, someone else I love dearly may not.

I struggle with legacy a lot. I’ve always been driven to build something or to BE something. HAVE something that I built. All the while missing out on the things that I HAVE already. After losing my father, I still have those desires, but I’ve come to realize that if those things are supposed to happen, they will come after all the other priorities in life are met.

Being OK with the day I’m laid to rest potentially being the last day anyone says my name… That’s just fine. While I’m not done saying my dad’s name just yet, I do know there will be a day when he dies one final time. We should all be ok with that.

In true Wickman form, we didn’t have a very traditional funeral service.
We had a memorial where my Uncle Dan, my Dad’s only sibling, gave the message and sang. His wife Karin played the piano. He asked my older brother Wade and me to say a few words. Without communicating anything with each other, our messages were similar. Similar in the fact that we recognized that through everything, our father persevered. If he wanted something, he pretty much worked to get it. It was fun learning and knowing all the different stories about my dad, and up to the day we buried him, I was still learning something new.

I love you, dad. I miss you. Keep fishing and hunting. I’ll see you when I get there.

My brother’s message:

Video of service including my message:

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