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Susan V. Bosak

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by Susan V. Bosak
Legacy Project

There are
7 billion people on this planet. How do you matter?

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.

Ted Bosak

Dad died on July 10, 2010. He died peace-fully, with dignity, in his own bed at home. He fell asleep and, quietly, simply stopped breathing.

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."

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.

I helped found the Legacy Project, a multigenerational learning project that in large part explores connection and meaning across the life course. We work with children, teens, adults, and elders, helping them with growing up and growing old and how to make it all matter.

Did You Get It Done?

Dad was always very interested in the legacy work I do. 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.

Legacy has been a theme in my life since childhood.
My grandmother introduced it to me at its simplest level. She would regularly give me little keepsakes, each time saying almost exactly the same thing: "This is a little something to remember me by." I was inspired by her to write A Little Something, which is a way to introduce even young children to the emotional power of legacy. My grandmother would be pleased to know that I think of her often.

Dad pushed me to explore legacy at a much deeper,
more personal level, particularly in his final year. I've researched legacy, talked about legacy, written about legacy. I've spoken to tens of thousands of children and adults. I've reached hundreds of thousands more through my books. I've listened to stories and helped people explore what legacy means to them. But then I lived it with one man. I lived making your life matter – living with meaning, and dying with dignity.

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.

One Moment Changes Everything

Dad's life, and in turn mine, changed in a very profound way on May 18, 2009. 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.

I was away 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. They warned me Dad was surrounded by machines, wires, and tubes. I was worried that scene straight out of the TV series ER would bother me. It didn't. I didn't see anything else in that bed but my father. His precisely manicured hands – he had been an architect and did everything precisely, even his fingernails – were reassuring. I held his hand and talked to him. He didn't have his hearing aid, so I don't know how much he heard. But as I talked to him, a few tears spilled down one of his cheeks.

For the first week, everyone expected Dad to die. Mom couldn't quite follow exactly what that meant.

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.

In the weeks that followed, it became clear to me that 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.

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 49 years. He wanted to go home. All of this meant I faced a big decision.

As the Legacy Project's logo suggests, our lives can be a path along which we ask questions and make choices that have both short-term and long-term consequences on personal and social levels. The questions we ask and the answers we find determine the kind of life we create for ourselves, the depth of the connections we have with others, and the ways we can change our world.

The Big Decision

The hospital spoke to us about a long-term care home. An elder isolated in a hospital or long-term care 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 woods. I made a decision.

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

The doctor told us home wasn't the best place for my father and that she didn't think we could care for him.
I asked her for a better suggestion.

When I told Dad we would move him and Mom in with us, it was the first time I saw hope on his face. He got his dignity back. He could run his own show.

My husband, brother, and I became masters of a juggling act. We did a very quick and stressful renovation, while selling my parents' existing home and packing up all their belongings, and taking care of my father who was still in the hospital.

In our old master bedroom, we set up a suite for my mother with her own bathroom. We kept the décor and layout simple to minimize confusion and create a calming environment. We opened up a closet into a small existing bathroom to create a wheelchair accessible bathroom with a roll-in shower. My father's room had to be outfitted with everything he needed for his care, including a ceiling lift because he couldn't move on his own. He also specified the personal things he wanted around him – like his hard hat from his construction sites so many years ago.

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.

In Search of Meaning

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 nursing 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.

The Dream

One of the biggest challenges for Dad was his limited ability to communicate. This was a man who loved to talk and share stories. For the entire fourteen months he was alive after the stroke, he couldn't talk. The farthest we got in speech therapy was a mostly intelligible "HI!"

Ted's 1981 Oldsmobile

Dad could read, but couldn't seem to pull all the letters together to write. He got fairly adept at using his left hand, and could copy letters we wrote out on paper. But when he tried to string letters into words, they became garbled. The one and only note he wrote that we understood was "c – a – r - ?" He wanted to know what we had done with his classic car, a 1981 Oldsmobile Cutlass. We put him in the wheelchair and took him to the front door to show him it was right outside.

Dad depended on gestures. Shortly after moving in, he repeatedly tried to communicate something. He would tilt his head to the side, close his eyes, and make a horizontal slicing motion with his flat left hand. The first couple of days he did this, I ignored it. I had a guess what it might be, and I didn't want to go there. On the third day, I decided I needed to confront it. "Are you saying that you want to die?" I asked. He nodded yes.

I think he felt like a burden and that his life had no meaning. I told him that as long as he was alive, he was contributing to the household by bringing in pension money that helped us care for Mom. And I told him his story was going to become part of my work, which would help other people. That prompted a really big, lopsided smile. He never brought up dying again.

A few days later, when I asked him the daily morning question, Did you get it done?, he pointed to the bookshelf in his room. On it was a copy of one of my books, Dream.

I had used the Dream book with Dad to talk about his dreams and goals through his life. We had also talked about my dream to expand the Legacy Project's work.

Dad had me pull the Dream book off the bookshelf and bring it to him. He pointed to it, pointed to me, and then pointed outside. "Are you asking about my dream for the Legacy Project?" He nodded yes. "Are you telling me to get it done?" I laughed. He nodded yes.

After that, every morning when I asked him, Did you get
it done?
, he pointed the question right back at me. We understood each other.

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.

Leaving a legacy also has a bigger component. Legacies across time can either be a burden or a gift. It's our choice. If we don't leave a positive legacy, what kind of society are we building? What kind of world are we leaving behind? What are we passing on to our children and grandchildren?

Living Legacy

This dream of mine, of creating something through the Legacy Project, was a big leap for my father. Raised in the Depression, he lived his entire life very simply and frugally. He didn't believe in being in debt. One of his proudest accomplishments was paying off the mortgage on his house. He and my mother owned their home free and clear. Putting money into the Legacy Project has meant we've taken on debt.

Ted's Oak tree at The Cedars

My work is indeed part of Dad's legacy. We've planted and dedicated an Oak tree in his honor. I chose the Oak because it symbolizes strength, integrity, and wisdom. The acorn is the seed of the mighty Oak, representing potential and strength. When I need to feel strong, I look at that Oak tree and think of Dad. Did you get it 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.

Sometimes I think my mother, as she loses memory after memory, is refocusing on what's important. Only those memories and people that are meaningful are the ones to which she tries to cling. There may well be a legacy lesson to learn in dementia, another way of looking at the world.

Did you get it done? How can you make yourself matter? I ask children and adults these questions all the time. Legacy is the coming together of what you have been given, what you bring into being, and what you give back.

The Bigger Picture

In death, sometimes people become bigger than life. I don't want to do that with Dad. He was a real, complicated, ordinary man, just like so many of the people I work with. And that's the point: an ordinary man who made his life matter. That's what we help people do. The Legacy Project's smaller, everyday goal is to help people with time, in the context of their lifetime and the people and world around them.

I used Dad as a guinea pig in my legacy work. He enjoyed it. I had him write his autobiography as part of the development of the Legacy Project's Legacy Links program. In keeping with the tradition in some cultures of writing an ethical will – which, instead of passing along valuables, passes along values – a Legacy Link is a way to explore who you are, your relationships with others, and your impact on the world.

Dad spent weeks slowly typing his autobiography on his computer…

A young Ted Bosak

He was the son of Ukrainian immigrants. His father dug basements, and couldn't read or write… He was a child of the Depression. His family had very little money. He was jealous of a rich boy down the street who could have a Coca-Cola any time he wanted… His mother cleaned houses. She would bring home old clothes her customers gave her and resew them to fit her three sons… As a teen, Dad got a job selling newspapers. He saved up enough money to buy himself a Bulova watch, the envy of all the other boys. He had that watch right to his death… His brothers ended up in jail for robbing local stores and car theft. Dad was ashamed. He saw his mother cry more than once. He didn't want to cause his parents any more pain, so he decided to make something of his life… He worked his way up in the architectural field, starting as an apprentice draftsman with the Canadian Pacific Railway and eventually becoming an associate in a prominent local architectural firm… He worked on the design of several landmark buildings in the city… Because he wasn't able to have the clothes he wanted when he was growing up, he now enjoyed having many of his suits tailor-made… Later in his career, he got a secure job, his dream job, working with the government. When he saw the way they wasted taxpayers' money, and the boss did nothing when Dad raised concerns, he quit… When he and his wife began having more health problems, he moved from the city he had lived in all his life to be closer to his children.

There's one story from amongst all these little stories of my father's that has stuck with me. It ties to the Legacy Project's bigger, long-term goal to help transform our fundamental relationship with time in a way that moves us toward a more meaningful, equitable, sustainable world. It's about the long term over the short term.

Dad always had the admirable ability to see the big picture, the long term, and make choices, often difficult ones, in that context. He was 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.

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.

The Legacy Project is a big-picture learning project that helps children and adults make the 30,000 or so days matter that each of us may have walking this planet. Create, connect, change – using the multilayered LegacyCubed metaperspective.

His Story is Everyone's Story

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.

July 10, the date Dad died, is my brother's birthday. Thirty-two years earlier, my grandfather had died on the same day. My brother has a unique legacy connection to the two men who preceded him. Even in his death, Dad gave me something to think about in my legacy work.

There was one thing more. Dad – Theodore (Ted) Bosak – always signed his name "T. Bosak." On the night he died, as the police officer who responded to our 911 call was leaving, he handed me his card. I looked at it and didn't think I was reading it correctly. I asked him to tell me his name. The officer read his name from the card, "T. Legacy." In my mind, that immediately connected as "Ted's Legacy." I couldn't believe it. I truly felt my father was telling me it was alright, that it was time for him to go. And he was telling me that getting back to my work was the best way to honor his legacy.

Did you get it done? You got it all done, Dad.

I'm still working on it.

© SV Bosak, www.legacyproject.org

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Susan V. Bosak

Susan V. Bosak