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Ted Bosak
Legacy Project Co-Founder Susan V. Bosak

Social researcher, educator, author, speaker, changemaker Susan V. Bosak

Susan V. Bosak, MA
Social Researcher, Legacy Project for YOU 177

It's been seven years since my father had a stroke that silenced him. But I can still hear his voice, "Did you get it done?"

I don't believe each of us automatically "matters." We all have fundamental human rights, but that's different than making your life matter. Each of us evolves our legacy and makes ourself matter over the course of our life.

The last gift my father gave me was his story. He had told me bits and pieces through the years. He had told me certain anecdotes over and over again. But he told me the most important part of his story during his last year – and he couldn't even talk.

Theodore (Ted) Bosak was born on October 5, 1923. According to my great aunt, his mother was at home, went into the bedroom by herself and closed the door, and emerged a couple of hours later with a baby. No one heard a sound.

Dad died on July 10, 2010. He died peacefully, a little over a year after the stroke. He died with dignity, in his own bed at home. He fell asleep and, quietly, simply stopped breathing.

He was born. He died. Just like everyone else on this planet. It's what happens in between that is, of course, most important.

Historically, the day of a person's death has been seen as the most important day of their life, the day against which their entire life is measured. Said poet John Donne, "our critical day is not so much the very day of our death, but the whole course of our life."

Dad was always interested in the work I do through the Legacy Project. He called himself my biggest cheerleader. He didn't completely understand my work, but he felt it. So we talked a lot about what it is that I do.

Dad's interpretation of what I do was encapsulated in one question: Did you get it done?

That question became a running joke between us. He would ask me the question about important things I was working on, and I would ask him. Did you get it done?  The "it" always referred to something important and meaningful. Dad wanted to get all his important "its" done. To him, that was legacy.

The idea of legacy may remind us of death, but it's not about death. Being reminded of death is actually a good thing, because death informs life. It gives you a perspective on what's important. Legacy is really about life and living. You look at what time lies ahead of you and decide the kind of life you want to live, the kind of relationships you want to build with others, and the kind of world you want to live in. Your legacy evolves through childhood into adolescence, then into young adulthood and older adulthood.

Dad's life, and in turn mine, changed in a very profound way on May 18, 2009. That's the date he had a severe hemorrhagic stroke.

At the time, Dad, 85, and Mom, 79, lived in a retirement community. With some community supports, we had a delicate system in place to help them remain as independent as possible. Dad wanted to be in his own home, running his own show, as he would say. For me, running your own show is an important part of aging with meaning.

With my parents, I've experienced both sides of the aging coin. Mom has dementia, but her body is relatively strong and healthy. Dad was cognitively sharp; he particularly enjoyed spending time on the computer, which we taught him to use in his early 70s. But he had a number of health challenges, including two heart bypass surgeries, mild congestive heart failure, back problems due to collapsed vertebrae, and ulcerative colitis. He was also almost completely deaf.

On that May morning, Dad got up early, as usual, and made himself some breakfast. Mom was still asleep. At some point after eating, Dad had the stroke. He fell to the floor and then had a heart attack.

We don't know how long Dad lay on the floor. We do know that when Mom came out of the bedroom, she found him semi-conscious in a pool of urine and vomit. She couldn't make sense of what she was seeing. She pressed the speed-dial button on her telephone to reach my cell phone.

One moment can change everything. You never know when that moment may come.

I was out of town on work. I had just finished a presentation to a group of energetic fourth and fifth graders at a school in Cincinnati. When my cell phone rang, all Mom could get out was, "Dad is on the floor."

I told her to push the panic button on the kitchen counter. And I started driving home.

On the way, the Emergency doctor at the hospital called to tell me he didn't think Dad would last the ten hours it would take me to get back.

Ted's 1953 Oldsmobile

It wasn't the first time Dad was supposed to die. When I was about five years old, he was in a car crash so horrific that the police officer who arrived on the scene couldn't believe that Dad had crawled out of the crushed vehicle – his beloved 1953 red-and-white Oldsmobile – and walked to a nearby phone booth to call 911. In his 60s, Dad had two serious heart attacks, and each time had to go in for emergency heart bypass surgery. The last surgery lasted 14 hours as the doctors faced challenge after challenge while Dad was on the table. Then his colitis got so bad that the blood loss was nearly irreversible. But he didn't die at any of those moments in his life. He wasn't done yet.

On the day of Dad's stroke, I finally got to the hospital's intensive care unit at 10:00 pm. He was still alive. And, in fact, in the week that followed he surprised everyone by remaining alive.

Then the neurologist called us in for a meeting. "This is a different discussion than the one we thought we'd be having," he started. My dad would live – but with serious deficits.

The thing is, Dad was still Dad. Cognitively, he was fairly intact. He understood what was happening. He could read. I could see his personality. But he was unable to speak intelligibly; he could only make sounds. Aphasia muddled his attempts to communicate through writing. He had problems swallowing and could only take in thickened liquids fed to him slowly by teaspoon. He had significant weakness on his right side and couldn't move his right arm or leg. Perhaps hardest for this proud man was that he was incontinent and, especially with his colitis, had to be diapered several times a day.

Even if Dad couldn't speak, he was creative in his left-handed gestures. While Dad was in the hospital for two months, there was one thing he communicated clearly and repeatedly: he wanted to go home.

This moment contains all moments. That's a big part of understanding legacy – that your past and future and who you are become more real with every breath you take.

Did you get it done?

Family was always an important "it" to Dad. Even if we just ordered in pizza, he was happiest when the family was gathered together sharing a meal. When I was a child, he would tell his boss he couldn't put in a lot of overtime – which was expected at the large architectural firm at which he worked – because he had to get home to his family. And for every debating and science fair competition I entered, Dad would help me prepare, and then would sit for hours in gymnasiums and classrooms listening and encouraging.

Dad wanted his family together. He wanted to run his own show and be with his wife of nearly 50 years. He wanted to go home. All of this meant I faced a big decision.

The hospital spoke to us about a long-term care home. An elder isolated in a hospital or nursing home is often sad. An elder at home is part of the cycle of life; there are far more opportunities for meaning and connection.

In the best possible sense, what I do is who I am. This personal challenge cut to the core of both. I had several sleepless nights. I went for a long walk through the Legacy Center Arboretum, a favorite source of comfort and inspiration for me and for my father. I made a decision.

We told the hospital we were taking Dad home. He and Mom would come to live with us.

It changed us and it changed our lives. My husband, brother, and I became masters of a juggling act.

Once my folks moved in, truthfully it was much harder than I expected. We were "on duty" 24/7. Caregiving is very physical, utterly exhausting work. It is also intimate work, and profoundly work of the spirit. Every day challenged what I thought I knew. Our resources were stretched to their limit. I wasn't able to concentrate on my work full time for over a year. Sometimes the emotion of it all was just too much. But the heart remained strong. I never once questioned my decision.

Meaning is a notoriously vague concept. Yet the very nature of being human means we venture into the web of what meaning is to try to understand ourselves and our life. We want it all to "make sense." Some may say these "big" questions are just too heavy. It's better to just forget about them and live your life. The problem is that we all eventually face moments of desperation in which we must deal with the big questions and extreme emotional pain – moments when we look into the mirror and don't recognize ourselves, times of personal loss, or even horrible world events that seem incomprehensible.

It was important to me to make sure Dad's life still had meaning, especially given all he had lost.

I got into the habit of asking Dad every morning, "Did you get it done?" I was referring to the hour of physiotherapy he did with my husband. That was his job now – to get stronger.

We let Dad run his show. He liked the blinds beside his bed opened and closed in specific ways at different times of the day so that he could control the view and daylight. Dad set up his base of operations in his bed. I got a laugh out of watching him adjusting his little domain. We had to put the bed controls in exactly the right spot on the bed so that he could adjust the head and foot of the electric hospital bed. He always wanted two tissues folded exactly the right way and placed in their designated spot on the bed. And he had to have his TV remote at all times, even during the night. He liked to be able to watch a little TV any time he wanted, especially if he couldn't sleep. The remote was frequently in his hand, finger poised over the channel button.

We recorded his favorite TV shows – Blue Jays baseball, Golden Girls, Price Is Right – so that he could watch them when he was alert. And he cheered right along with my husband and brother when they all watched the gold medal hockey game at the 2010 Winter Olympics. He would have had none of these things in a long-term care home.

Dad also had to make sure everything was up to his standards. When he first moved into our home, he wanted us to get him into the wheelchair. He looked over all the renovations. He inspected the suite we created for Mom. Then, we got the thumbs up.

Whenever we got the thumbs up from Dad, it made our day. It was his power signal.

Our legacy naturally intrigues us. Feeling like we matter, leaving a legacy, is a human need. A legacy can take many forms – children, grandchildren, a business, a book, a home, an ideal, some piece of yourself.

Even after seven years, I remember so many of my dad's stories. They helped shape me and they still inform my decisions.

There's one story that has stuck with me. It ties to the Legacy Project's goal of bigger-picture, longer-term thinking.

Dad always had the admirable ability to see the big picture, the long term, and make choices, often difficult ones, in that context. In his job as an architect, he was onsite one day supervising the construction of the city's international airport. A large part of the concrete foundation had been poured when Dad noticed a problem. The foundation would be fine in the short term, but could cause serious issues many years down the road. Dad made the construction company rip up all the work they had done and start over. The construction company was angry at having to absorb all the costs. My father knew it was the right thing to do. He stood his ground despite tremendous pressures from both the construction firm and his bosses at his architectural company.

To this day, even though they don't know who my father was and never met him, every traveler who moves safely through that airport is touched by my father's legacy.

In part, legacy is selfish – we want to feel immortal. The idea of leaving something behind that will "live forever" is appealing. We also want to feel like we matter in the vast sea of humanity. By connecting with those who are younger or at the beginning of their lives, we complete a full circle in life's journey and leave some of our "selves" – our experiences, ideas, values, and personal example – in the minds and hearts of others.

In the last few weeks of his life, it was clear Dad's health was failing. I believe he died when he finally "got it all done." He had spent extra time with us. Mom was taken care of. He pushed his body as far as it would go.

While he was still well, I had Dad write his own obituary. He initially found it uncomfortable. But after doing it, he told me it was a profound and thought-provoking exercise for him.

When Dad died, I pulled out the file with his obituary.

I hadn't read what he had written in a couple of years. I glanced at it quickly and started typing it into the online form for the newspaper. As I was typing, I got to a part that read, "He lived with a devotion to doing things to the best of his ability with integrity."

And then, "His family was the most important part of his life."

I could feel the tears welling in my eyes.

He ended with a quote he wanted included: "My life on earth has passed. Remember my love for you, and my hope is you will care for each other as I have you."

He hadn't talked in over a year, and here he was talking to me.

You got it all done, Dad. You got it all done.

Death does inform life. When you lose a parent, you come one step closer to your own mortality. "Getting it done" becomes a little more urgent. You refocus on what's important.

Ted's Oak tree in the Legacy Center Arboretum

We use the trees in the Legacy Center Arboretum to tell stories.

We planted and dedicated a little Oak tree on the site for Dad, beside a contemplation circle. It's grown a lot over the last few years. I look at it often, in the sunshine or through the snow, especially when things are difficult.

When visitors are walking the arboretum, we stop at the Oak tree and ask, "Did you get it done?" As we share Dad's story, everyone shares their own "get it done" story. And we talk about how legacy is the coming together of what you have been given, what you bring into being, and what you give back.

Did you get it done? I'm still working on it, Dad.

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