A serious gift -but a necessary one

"It's the most wonderful time of the year. There'll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near" ... or so old crooner Andy Williams sings every holiday season.

Given all the emphasis on "parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting and caroling out in the snow," I had to chuckle when a press release from the surgeon general crossed my desk urging Americans to take a break from all that mistletoeing when loved ones are near and discuss our health histories.

Yes, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona wants Americans to make a list and check it twice to find out what diseases are in our family trees.

In the news release, Carmona stated, "I encourage all families to take time to collect important health history information that can benefit all family members. ... It's clear that knowing your family history can save your life."

I can see it now, loved ones sipping mulled cider by the fireplace and talking about such heartwarming topics as Grandma's arthritis, Nana's high cholesterol and Aunt Clara's bunions.

Gee, I can hardly wait for the fun to begin!

I mentioned this to a coworker, Valerie, who laughed and said, "It's my experience that when my parents or my husband's parents are around, it takes no prompting to get them to talk about their medical histories, whether I want to hear about it or not!"

The news release also served as a reminder of a somber conversation we had with another coworker, Rochelle, last holiday season and the pact we made for 2005.

We had vowed that by this Christmas we were going to have living wills completed and tucked away in our respective safe deposit boxes.

The conversation nearly a year ago began when Rochelle gave us the tragic news that her brother died unexpectedly on Christmas morning after his aorta ruptured.

Suddenly, Rochelle's family was being asked to make decisions for her brother - with no idea what he would have wanted. "We thought my brother had a living will and a regular will. When it was obvious he was failing, we wondered if he would want to be resuscitated, placed on a ventilator or have his organs donated."

The family searched for a will, but never found one. "Instead, in the stress of the moment on Christmas Day, we had to make all these wrenching decisions," Rochelle said. Beyond the medical questions, the family agonized over the funeral location, the hymns and the burial site.

I also witnessed a tragedy last year. Shortly after Christmas, a dear friend, Missy, had a seizure - on her daughter's birthday - and never regained consciousness. Her devoted husband and young children stood vigil for two months before she developed a lung infection and died.

To this day, doctors have no insights on the cause of the seizure. Missy enjoyed hiking, biking and other vigorous activities; it was inconceivable that she could be struck down so swiftly.

She, too, did not have a will, and in the midst of their grief, her loved ones had to make some intensely painful decisions.

Now, almost 12 months later, Valerie, Rochelle and I sheepishly admitted we had not drawn up our wills.

"I have no excuses whatsoever," Valerie said, "I make comments, but I don't think my daughters want to think about it. The problem might be that these conversations usually come up during the middle of an 'ER' rerun."

Recalling her brother's untimely death, Rochelle sighed and said, "Life is too fragile to put off making these tough decisions. You can die tomorrow. You're really, really doing this for the people you love. I know how a family agonizes over fulfilling your wishes.

"A will is a kindness to your family. It lets them know what you want."

Life's transient nature has been weighing on me ever since I opened the first box of holiday decorations last week. The top items were two little fabric snowmen that Missy made for my sons last December, taking extra care to make sure the adornments matched their interests.

Instead of cluttering the dining room table with the usual assortment of store-bought candles and baubles, the only decorations I placed on it this year are the homemade snowmen.

Not a week goes by when I don't miss her, and I find the miniature snowmen gazing out on our mistletoeing and marshmallow roasting very comforting. It seems as if Missy's spirit is watching over us.

When she presented them to the boys, we had no clue that it would be the last time we would see her. With her uppermost in my thoughts, my New Year's resolution is to keep the snowmen on display until my will is notarized and in my safe deposit box.

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