My father hated going to doctors, even though he was one. He detested hospitals even though he worked in them for 50 years. He knew too much about what can happen to the elderly when they go into the medical system – a system understandably devoted to keeping people alive as long as possible.
What kept him almost calm about going into hospital a few months ago was a piece of paper. A thin page that looked insubstantial and inconsequential, but proved hugely important.
Because that bit of paper meant doctors, nurses, his family and the system knew his wishes. And when the end, came most of my beautiful, brave dad’s wishes were finally respected.
That piece of paper came out of a difficult conversation my dad initiated. It was a difficult, tortured and awful exchange – but I’m so glad we had it.
The paper said he didn't want to be revived if he had a heart attack or stroke. That he wanted to be able to live in a condition where he could still feed himself. That he'd rather die at home. It was witnessed by neighbours and signed by his doctor.
It's really hard for me to talk about this.We talk daily with our parents about little things, but talking about the biggest things of all can be so hard we put it off for another day, for a 'better' time, for when we have more time. But here's the problem: the need for clarity around those big issues can come in an instant. It can also creep up slowly and capture us unaware - and unprepared.
Take it from me - someone who recently lost their dad - there are things we should talk about with our parents before it's too late. None of them are easy. Some of them are impossible, if relationships are fraught or parents have utterly failed to care for their children. But if it's possible, just do it.
1. Talk about memories.
Even if you aren't soppy types who say 'I love you', it's great to share and compare your earliest and strongest memories. Dad and I never forgot the day he'd picked me up from gymnastics and we heard on the car radio that John Lennon had died. We both cried as we listened to Imagine. We laughed for 40 years about the time he woke me up for swimming and it was raining and I told him I wouldn't go "because my arms will get wet".