Monday, April 23, 2012

Legacy Planning 101

Legacy is not a word that I’ve even begun to contemplate.  Legacy is outweighed by things like car payments, birthday parties, doing the dishes, carpool duty, and walking the dog twice a day.  Who has time for a legacy?

Yet, today I’m thinking about my legacy.  Not today’s legacy though – I sincerely hope I have many more years before anyone has to really consider my legacy.  However, an introspective piece of radio I heard yesterday got me thinking about “legacy”.  Dan Savage, a fairly controversial sex-advice columnist (are there any other kinds?), spoke in front of a live theater audience, which was simulcast on radio (it was recorded about 2 years ago; however, this was the first time I’d heard it).   Whatever your views on Dan may be, his monologue was not controversial at all, nor did it regard his “expertise”. Instead, he spoke about his mother.

You can listen to the whole show to gain all Dan’s insights, but the essence of his communication about how a mother’s love transcends the barriers of circumstance.  Dan’s mother was a devout Catholic.  Dan is a gay man who, along with his partner of 14 years, has adopted a son.  Dan’s mother accepted her son life, loved her son and grandson, understood her son while never abandoning her own strong faith.  It’s a beautiful story of her devotion and Dan’s reaction to her death.

Which brings me back to the idea of a legacy… What will my kids think about me when my time comes? It’s a morbid thought, but, let’s be honest – it’s going to happen one day.  Hopefully, “one day” is many days from now, but since birth certificates don’t come with expiration dates, we’ll never know for sure.

There are a finite number of days between now and then.  And, I know this will be shocking to those of you who know me well, I’m a little bit of a worrier.  And the antidote to worrying, for me, is planning.  So, welcome to Legacy Planning 101:

Step 1: Make Memories
This is a bit tricky.  For a lot of us, when we think about “making memories”, we assume it has to be a big memory, like the time we went to Disneyland and my brother puked on Space Mountain (which is actually a made-up memory – my brother never puked on Space Mountain.  But I might have told all his friends that he did).  When I think back on my own childhood, it’s not the mega-vacation memories that jump forward.  Instead, I remember things like sitting on lawn chairs in my open garage next to my dad as it rained.  He sat and listened to the rain as he smoked a cigar.  Very quiet moments.  I loved those moments.  And I frequently sit on our covered patio in thunderstorms and just listen.  I hope my kids will remember those kinds of moments, too.

Step 2: Create Traditions
Thanksgiving day is my favorite of the year.  I know a lot of people feel that way about Christmas day.  My mom talks about her memories of her family every year around Passover. The traditions of those days are powerful.  It’s been important in our family that our kids know the agenda for every major holiday, including their birthdays, every year. And they do.  They know that Christmas Eve means opening one present before bed – invariably, pajamas to wear to bed on that very night.  They know that Christmas morning means breakfast strata after the first session of opening presents (and the second session invariably commencing as soon as the kids have stuffed their faces as quickly as they can) .  They know we open presents from youngest to oldest, one apiece until we’re all out.  They know we’ll have stuffed shells for dinner that night. They love the tradition as much as the presents.  So do I.

Step 3: Be The Person You Want Them to Remember
Last week, we had a particularly tough morning.  The baby wasn’t feeling well and, as a result, neither my wife nor I got as much sleep as we would have liked.  I was tired and irritable when driving the older three to school.  And they were in rare form, fighting about every last detail of every seemingly trivial activity of the morning.  When all three were being nasty to each other about, of all things, a Pok√©mon game they were playing, the proverbial straw broke.  I laid into them.  I have a long fuse, but you don’t want to be there when I finally go off.  And that day, I went off big.  I was in rare form, first yelling then simply lecturing condescendingly to an audience too afraid to participate in the conversation.  Ten minutes later, when the craziness had finally vacated my brain, I pulled into the school parking lot, stopped the kids from getting out, and sincerely apologized.  Not for the content of my message, for I deeply believe that “taking care of each other” is our family mission, but for the delivery method.  I didn’t want my kids to think that being passionate about a message is reason enough to yell and scream about it.  It’s the least elegant way to communicate passionately, actually.  I failed in delivering my message, and in doing so, abused the trust they put in me as a parent.  I apologized to the kids.  I let them know that I still felt that fighting with each other is wrong on a lot of levels, but I was wrong to have yelled at them about it.  I hope they remember the guy who communicated that message.

Step 4: Model a Healthy Lifestyle
Admittedly, this one is the toughest for me.  I know I have a long road ahead of me to get this one right.  And, I know that I need to hurry down that road before my kids start to follow their own wrong path. 

I don’t know anyone without a vice or two… or eight.  For some, its smoking.  For others, its drinking or recreational drug use.  There are people who regularly “text and drive” or who still won’t wear a seatbelt.  And, for me, for as long as I can remember, it’s been weight. 

It’s one thing to risk your own health, but quite another when your habits start to impact your kids’ habits.  I think about this a lot.  When I was growing up, my dad was very heavy.  In his late sixties, he had a stroke.  We were lucky as it was a mild stroke, and it served as a wake up call to him.   He made changes and is now at a very healthy weight.  However, I’m not there – yet. 

I don’t want my kids to follow my bad habits and have to struggle with this issue.  So, I’m dedicating myself to fixing the problem.  I’m doing it for me, because I want to be the best role model to my kids I can be.  I haven’t been, but I’m going to be.

Step 5: Share the Ride
Everyday, when I first see my kids afterschool, I spend a few minutes with each of them, talking about their day.  Of course, I get the routine answers of “nothing happened today, Dad.” But, I’ve been in the parental management game for far too long to know answer #1 is simply a test to see if you’ll leave them alone.  And I never do.  I’m persistent in asking specific questions: What specials did you have today?  What did you do in Spanish? How was the spelling test? Who did you sit with at lunch?  What did you talk about?  What did you do at recess?  Did your teacher say anything goofy today?  Ask enough questions and you’ll get the real answers. 

My kids know that my wife and I want to know everything – good, bad, funny, sad.  We want it all.  We want to share their experience.  We want to let them be the star of their story.  We love when they tell us how they shine.  And I hope they think of this when they think of me later on.  I think it might be all I’m thinking about when that time comes.

Today is the first day of the rest of your life, right?  I’m choosing how I want those days to impact my kids – legacy planning 101.