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Lisa Belkin Headshot

A Dying Parent's List

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When my neighbor was losing her battle to cancer a few years ago, I stopped by her house every few days to see if I could help. I didn't cry when I saw how much paler or frailer or sadder she looked than the time before. And I held it together when she talked about agreeing to hospice, and upping the pain meds, and signing her will.

But I lost it when I saw the notes.

They were all over the house, square yellow Post-its on which she'd scribbled thoughts and reminders -- almost all of them about her two young sons. A note telling her husband what to buy for the toddler's birthday. And who in his preschool class he most liked to play with. And the songs she sang to the baby at bedtime. Things she didn't want him to forget when she wasn't there to remember.

I am crying now as I write about it.

There is nothing as wrenching as a parent's good-bye. Maybe because I hate any good-bye (I'm the one who leaves a job a day earlier than I have told everyone I would, so that I can avoid the actual farewell moment...) I am particularly undone by the very thought.

I was in my early teens when I watched "A Message to My Daughter," a made-for-TV movie about a young woman who finds a stack of tapes left by the mother who died 18 years earlier. Of course back then I thought it was the story of the daughter, not the mother, but life has shifted my lens, and I dwell on what it meant to be a mom, told by doctors that you wouldn't see your baby grow up, trying to cram everything you want her to know into a 1970s cassette recorder.

Over the years I have dissolved at similar real life stories. Dana Canedy, for instance, a colleague at the New York Times, who lost her fiancé, Charles Monroe King, in a roadside bombing in Iraq. Their son, Jordan, was just 6 months old, and Charles had met him only once, on a leave six weeks earlier, but had filled more than 200 pages of a journal with memories and advice. Mundane messages, like "pick up the check on a date..., take plenty of pictures on vacations, have a strong work ethic, and pay your bills on time," and profound ones:

Listen to your first thought. You will figure this out on your own. Never second-guess yourself. When your heart is in the right place, always go with your first thought. Work hard at things and follow your instinct. Since you were born, you have always been alert. That means you will be very perceptive about things. Believe God and trust yourself. Keep the faith, Jordan. You will be fine.

Or Elizabeth Edwards. In the years before her death in 2010, she kept a file on her computer titled "Dying Letter." "It's more than 'How do you get the core out of a head of lettuce?'" she told People magazine during a campaign stop in Iowa. "It's 'How you choose who you marry and what to expect from that, how you choose a church.'" Looking across a playground at her two youngest monkeying on the jungle gym, she chuckled: "It's got all that butting-my-nose-into-their-lives-long-after-I'm-gone stuff."

And, now, Kate Green, mother of Reef and Finn, who were ages 4 and 5 when Kate died of breast cancer in Somerset, England two years ago. Her own diagnosis came not long after her younger boy was declared cancer-free after his own brutal treatment, and she had clearly thought a lot about the possibilities of loss.

In the days before her death she wrote a list -- some on paper, some in texts to her husband, Singe, as she had more thoughts. After she died, he typed it all into the computer and named the file "Mum's List." He published a book by the same title. Already a best-seller in England, it was released in the U.S. last week.

The list begins:

Kiss boys two times after I have gone.

Go to as many school activities as possible -- praise assemblies, etc.

Please teach them to be on time

Please teach them to say what they mean

Don't fill outside with your boats, give boys space to play

Go camping with cousins or let boys go for long weekends

It continues for pages, including everything from "Mummy liked walks down the riverbank, Mummy loved Finn's laugh and how he sucked his thumb and folded his ear in, Mummy loved Reef's cuddles at night" to "Find a woman to settle down so the boys can have a female influence and stability in their lives."

She urged her husband to "teach them to respect women and not two-time" and to "take them for walks along Mummy's favorite beach where she used to go as a child." "Go to Egypt and snorkel in the Red Sea," she instructed. And place the urn with her ashes "on the top of the wardrobe, with the cuddly toys, to be with the boys a bit longer."

I am crying again.

Every time I seep myself in a good-bye tale like this (if these are not enough for you, there's also Randy Pausch's "Last Lecture" and Bruce Feiler's "Council of Dads"), I open a computer file and vow to write a letter of my own. But I never even get as far as a title. The white page looks enormous on my screen. Where to begin? What to say?

And that brings me back to my neighbor and her Post-it notes.

At her funeral the rabbi talked of her final instructions to her husband. "Whatever you do will be the right thing," she'd told him. In spite of all her lists and suggestions and reminders, her final gift was to tell him that she trusted him to do it for both of them. That he shouldn't spend time wondering what she would have done, or thought, or felt.

Which is all I really want to say in the end. Yes, I want to tell my boys I love them, but I really hope they already know that. And that I hope they find a path in life that brings contentment, even if it takes a few tries. But I know that no matter how eloquently I say that, they will have to figure it out themselves. And that every major decision I ever made was done with their father's advice, and that of the friends I know will step up if I'm gone -- so seek out that advice. But I am pretty sure they will do that anyway.

So, like my neighbor, the only thing left to say is "you don't need a list from me. You already have it. It's with you always -- in your instincts, and your questions, and your choices. Even when they are not 'what Mom would have done,' they are right for you."

And please, wear sunscreen.