Other Voices

Cozy family gatherings and serious conversation

The holidays remind me of the things for which I’m grateful.

In my home, as the ravenous hunger of the Christmas meal gave way to savoring the last tastes of dinner, the stories — our collective lore — began: Do you remember when …?

Someone would tell a particularly funny story, and my mom would start laughing. Soon, the contagion of her laughter led to tears of our own laughter and near-convulsions around the table.

But when I was about 30 years old, my dad started to change.

I think there’s a consensus now that a family tree-pruning debacle in which a large overhanging branch fell on top of him as he cut it down set bad things in motion — things that would culminate in his passing some years later.

After one Christmas around that time — with all four of his kids together — we all sat in the family room, the wood stove crackling in the background.

Because we saw things changing, we felt we needed to have a little talk.

My dad didn’t appreciate kids of any age questioning him. But we tried to make things easy.

We asked some simple questions. If something were to happen and you weren’t able to tell the doctors what you wanted done, what would you want us to tell them? How far would you want the doctors to go?

If the physicians sat us down and said, “Listen, we could do this, but it means he won’t walk again,” what would you want in that circumstance?

In other words, tell us how we should care for you when something happens. Because we want to honor your wishes.

These kinds of discussions are never easy. But face them, we must.

It will never be convenient. But speaking these words while our loved ones are able to hear our love and affection is preferable to doing it over a hospital gurney in the emergency room.

Having these talks before bad things happen is the most realistic and compassionate thing we can do.

There’s no better place to have hard conversations than a family room redolent with the smells of burning firewood, laughter and love close at hand.

We didn’t belabor our time talking about those hard things, but we did it every few years, to make sure we all still understood each other’s priorities.

We just needed to say we love you, we want to do right by you when and if something happens.

Our dad and our mom have left us now. I’ve never forgotten those family meals.

The process of getting to where we understood that it was their time still wasn’t easy.

But knowing who they were and what they wanted throughout their lives — long before they got really sick — eased things considerably.

Don’t fear talking about life on a beloved holiday. It’s just a start, after all. It’s not the whole journey.

These days, we’re fortunate that once we have these important conversations, we can digitize them — put them online in places like MyDirectives.com and keep them updated and accessible as circumstances in our lives change.

Advance care wishes locked away in a drawer don’t help anyone, after all.

Contexts of love and togetherness are a gentle balm to the fear of looking at hard things.

Mike Davis is a cardiovascular chaplain at Baylor Health Care System’s Jack and Jane Hamilton Heart and Vascular Hospital in Dallas.