Dying Mid-Sentence

I just returned from my family’s farm in Virginia. It wasn’t under good circumstances. My family was holding an estate auction. It was a surreal experience.

Back in May, my Dad suddenly died of a heart attack. He was 55. He was an ambitious guy, with big plans, lots of projects, and lots of stuff.  He was obsessed with getting work done. When he died, all of his projects were suddenly suspended, like he disappeared mid-sentence. His ideas will never be executed, and it’s difficult to watch.

My parents lived in the northern US for nearly their entire marriage of 30+ years. But they always wanted to move South, because all their family lived in Virginia or below. Finally, two years ago, an opportunity arose. A family farm was going to be for sale in Virginia – one that had been in the family since the Civil War. We used to have family reunions at the farm. Long story short, my parents decided to purchase it. They were super excited. Finally, after all these years, they could create their Southern homestead, near family, and never move again.

A couple months later, before they had officially bought it, my mother died of aggressive breast cancer. We were all devastated. She was 55. My Dad was crushed. My mother died in upstate New York – she never made it to the farm.

So my Dad had a decision: follow-through with purchasing the farm by himself, or let the project end before it started. He chose to buy the farm and had big plans for it. It was going to be one of the only teff farms in the US; it was going to be our family homestead; he was even going to fix up an old share-cropper house for his mother to move into.

He was following through. He’d already met with some Virginia professors about teff farming, cleared out acres of trees, planted his first round of crops (soybeans), purchased lots of farm equipment, and was in the middle of fixing up the share-cropper house – all the while working insane hours at his regular job as a nuclear power plant consultant. His plan was to work in the nuclear industry for a few more years to pay for his retirement-job on the farm.

Then, back in May, he suddenly died of a heart attack. All of those plans came to a halt.

Shortly after his death, my brother and I had to take a trip to Mississippi (one of the places he was working), to pick up his belongings and paperwork. When we entered his apartment, you could tell he was in the middle of life, expecting to return. Papers were scattered around. Stuff wasn’t perfectly organized. He’d left his apartment like anybody else. It was a snapshot into his life. But he wasn’t going to return.

The projects he was working on, the contracts he was involved in, the email and text message threads he was in the middle of – they were permanently suspended. The share-cropper house in Virginia was 85% finished. You walk in, and there’s paint on the walls, but a few outlets show bared wires. The water isn’t hooked up to the kitchen. Some lights aren’t covered by fixtures, and there’s no furniture. Nor will there ever be.

The teff won’t get planted. The farm will have to be sold, because nobody in my family can pay the mortgage. The homestead won’t exist. And the stuff – three generations of accumulated stuff, plus several apartments full of his stuff (in the past decade, he’d lived in Florida, Vermont, New York, Nebraska, Virginia, and Mississippi) – almost all of it had to be sold or given away.

The conversations he was having with family and friends are all lacking final punctuation. I had lots of things left to talk to him about. And in an instant, it all evaporated.

My Dad was fairly persuasive. I am naturally skeptical, but he had me convinced that the teff farm was going to be a success. He was all about the vision – imagining the end-goal as clearly as you can, and allowing everything else to fall into place. He had a good track record. He was a nuclear power consultant (among other things) and didn’t have any college education. He’d teach educational material on cognitive psychology to university professors who all assumed he had a PhD. I honestly did believe the farm would be an awesome success and anchor point for our family. But none of it is going to happen. I have a hard time with that.

You can visit the farm, right now, and see my Dad’s ideas. The house he was fixing for his mother – it’s beautiful, and there isn’t a chance it would exist without him. He saw the potential and brought his vision into reality. Or at least, he was in the process of doing so. The farm is full of his ideas, halted mid-execution.

Just this weekend, my family held his estate auction. “Peculiar” doesn’t quite capture the feeling of seeing stuff from your childhood auctioned off to the highest bidder. A bunch of my parents’ clothing was sold for two dollars to somebody who will probably throw away half of it. Our old toaster oven – gosh, I must have used that thing five hundred times growing up – was held up for strangers to bid on. Stuffed animals you drooled on as a kid, sold to somebody who has no attachment or knowledge of the memories it brings back. I kept some stuff for sentimental reasons, as did my siblings, but 95% of it is now gone. This is partly liberating, as way too much junk had accumulated, but part of me feels a loss. I know I’ve just lost memories I’ll never recollect, because they won’t be triggered by some random thing.

Given five more years, I’ve little doubt that my family would have an awesome homestead in rural Virginia, and my Dad would be a teff farmer. Instead, we’re struggling to rebuild ourselves after losing both our parents in two years. (Not to mention my wife’s father, too, who died last year of a sudden heart attack.)

Other people have had it worse, and I am sure everything will work out. But it’s tough. It’s also a sobering reminder: tie up as many loose ends as you can, with friends, family, and work, because you might die tomorrow in the middle of a sentence.