I got a call from my son the psychiatrist. “How do you want to celebrate your death?” he asked. I was surprised. He had never asked this before, even though I am now pushing 92. Apparently, he had a dream that got him thinking.
Now that got me thinking. What were the values that guided my life? I thought of a favorite phrase: “Always leave your campsite better than you found it.” I thought of the passion that had permeated my professional life: camp. In fact I got my first job at a summer camp at age 16. I had hoped one day to own my own camp. Short of that I became director of my favorite camp, Camp Chi, now in Lake Delton, WI. And ultimately, I became general director of JCC’s of Chicagoland, the organization that owns and runs Camp Chi.
“How about a Canoe Coffin?” I responded?
A goodbye to celebrate the best parts of life.
“I went online and found they do make canoe coffins,” I said, laughing.
The job that launched my camp trajectory as a 16-year-old was as a dishwasher for the Boys Club in Chicago (it was still just the boys club in 1943). I was still in high school. The camp baker saw my work ethic and invited me to be his assistant. I was up at 4 am to start the ovens. Then when I was older, I worked on the waterfront, and finally camping. I saw value for both the children and adults.
I joined Camp Chi in 1955 when it first opened to boys, as a Unit Head overseeing four cabins. From Unit Head I moved up to Program Director, then Assistant Director and eventually Director of Camp Chi. In 1980 I became General Director of JCC.
What camping has meant to my life.
Camping is part of me forever—it’s a magical land. And I love the story camp tells about the times. In the years of Camp Chi, in the 1930’s when it was a girl only camp, they wore uniforms. The idea was to give the girls a respite from tenement living—get them fresh air, good food and their own bed. It was an army cot, but that still was something special, as many were likely sharing a bed with siblings at home.
I got more serious about the benefits of camp after finishing my Master of Social Work degree. I led camper trips on canoes starting in Minnesota in Superior National Forest. There I was honored with a paddle with my name on it, a paddle that Michael (the aforementioned son the psychiatrist) now owns.
When I became Director of Camp Chi I launched canoe tripping down the Wisconsin River. That was a “start-up” if I ever saw one. They didn’t even own any canoes. And, unlike today, there weren’t any “designated stops” along the way. I went down the river first in a boat to see where the kids and canoes could pull over. I met with state forest rangers and local farmers to get permission for places where campers could stop and camp overnight.
You can find anything on the Internet.
Michael did a little research and found that there were actually four different models of canoe coffins. One of them allowed you to sit in it.
“Put me in that one, with my paddle,” I said. “While you’re at it, put in a small reflector oven and all of the ingredients for my famous pineapple upside down cake. Dehydrated, of course.”
“And don’t forget to throw in the star maps so I can find Margaret (of blessed memory) to be my bow person.”
Are you sure you’re not upset, dad?
After a good chuckle together, we talked more. “Are you sure you’re not upset that I brought death up, dad?”
“Of course not,” I assured him. In fact he had been so helpful when my wife Margaret passed away. Then he asked about what he should say in the ceremony. “I’m not ready to help you write the ceremony,” I answered. “But in 10 years I can, when I’m 101.”
Talking about death this way is not morbid. It’s happy.
I let my son know this was not about facing my death. It was more about how to celebrate my life while I’m still alive. And it’s a good conversation to alleviate stress when, someday, I will die. My children will know what I want. You don’t want to be having a conversation like this in the middle of a crisis. It’s better this way.
With this conversation I could let them know that under any circumstances do not have me cremated. Because of my Jewish heritage and visits to see the concentration camps in the 1980’s, I feel strongly about this. The Holocaust saw enough burning of Jewish bodies.
Reasons to celebrate now, before I die.
But other than that, I look forward to giving you ideas for celebration. If I decide everyone should have a shot of Old Granddad and tell stories…well, you can do it then, but let’s do it now, too.
This conversation may have started with death. But it’s an invitation to talk about life, and how to celebrate a long life, well lived, and well loved.