People are surprising enough when they’re still alive and you can question them. But some people save the best for last.
This piece is based on a Quora question. Thanks to everyone for answering this very personal question.
1. The dinosaur.
When I went to pick up my son from his kindergarten on his last day of school, I asked him the same question as usual: “What did you do at school today?” He told me, “Papa, I painted a dinosaur today.”
I was not surprised. He was always obsessed with dinosaurs.
That evening, he had a very high temperature (viral fever) and we didn’t send him to school the next day. Instead he was admitted to the hospital. Tragically, he was declared dead two days later. He had a reaction to the medicine.
Some days later, I went to his school to pick up all his belongings. As I was about to leave, his teacher stopped me; there was one thing she forgot to hand over. It was the beautiful little orange dinosaur – the one he drew the day he got sick. It had his fingerprints all over as dots.
Every day, I used to pick him up from school and we used to have long chats about his friends and teacher along the way. That was the first time I had returned from his school all alone, with a lump in my throat, and tears in my eyes.
I am grateful to my son for loving me so much, for making me quit smoking, for being a part of my life and filling it with bundles of joy. I will always be thankful to him for giving me a chance to be his dad.
Friends, don’t take life for granted and always live your life with others as if you are not going to meet them again.
2. A letter from the past.
My mom died when I was 9 of a malignant brain tumor. It hurt like hell, and it took me years to recover. Maybe I still haven’t.
After my mom passed away, my Grandma took care of me. A widow, she got remarried when I was about 15 or so to a great man, and when I left at 19 to do a couple years of volunteer service at my own expense in England, I remember hearing he wasn’t in good health. About 4 months in, I learned he had passed away.
It was at this time I got a letter from my oldest sister. As I pulled it out of its envelope (most letters still came that way at the time), a small slip of paper fell out. On it was written, in my sister’s handwriting, in a purple pen, just one sentence, “Aaron, always remember to be my strong little boy” and under it was something that looked like somebody trying to get a pen to work – quick scribbles back and forth in a small area.
I thought it cute, but odd, and set it aside. But then I read the letter. (continued…)
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My sister quickly said, “Aaron, I was going through an old drawer of things today, cleaning it out and found this. In her last days, mom asked me to write out a little note to each of her kids, and then she signed them at the bottom. I’m sorry it’s not very legible.”
I immediately began sobbing as I picked up the little paper again and felt the warmth of a mother’s love well 10 years after her death.
I hope I made you proud, mom.
My girlfriend was always extremely healthy. We used to run track together.
One night around eleven, while I was doing homework, I suddenly got a phone call from her. She told me she was going to the hospital due to a very bad stomach ache that was making her throw up tissue. She said she loved me and that she would see me when I came to visit her. That was the last time I talked to her. She died when her celiac artery ruptured.
She surprised me when, during her funeral, Footloose was played. That song represented her free and happy personality, and was her favorite song at the time.
The services ended with her aunt giving a eulogy which my girlfriend had written as a long poem. In it, she said that despite her parents getting a divorce, I was what made her happy and for this she wanted to spend the rest of her life with me.
I will never forget her, nor the memories we had together. This was very hard for me to write: I rarely speak about her anymore because it makes me cry every time. Answering has helped me move on in my grieving.
Thanks to everyone for reading all the way to the end.
4. Crash into you.
She had a boyfriend a bit older than her and they were a great couple. She was a medicine student in her mid twenties and had a troubled past. He was a lawyer in his mid forties and was already divorced once. Once they became a couple he quickly turned her life upside down: she was naturally an introvert while he was the star of every party, a fantastic storyteller.
He subtly and gradually pushed her out of her she; to try to experience new things together. He taught her to drive and when she finally got a driving license, he bought her a small second-hand Fiat 500. He taught her new recipes to cook and they travelled a lot together across Europe.
They had been together for a bit more than a year when suddenly, one day, he died of heart attack. But he still had a surprise in store for her. (continued…)
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Her life was authentically destroyed. She had been grieving for months until one day she was driving the car and in a split-second of absentmindedness, she rear-ended the car in front of her. Luckily she was not injured and the damage to the cars was not really that serious. She stopped on the side of the road in order to fill in the joint accident statement.
She struggled to stay calm as she opened the passenger seat compartment where she found the cars hand-book with the form to fill.
Once she opened the hand-book she unexpectedly found a hand-written message from her boyfriend:
“Darling dont worry! If you are reading this it means that you are not badly injured. Thats great! Dont worry if it was your fault: these things happen! Dont worry if the car is destroyed: we will buy a new one as this one is actually quite old already. Now go ahead and fill this form: write slowly and double-check what you write, even if you are a bit in shock. Also double-check what the other driver writes so that you both agree on how the accident happened. Dont worry about anything else: Ill wait for you at home. I love you.”
When my great uncle died, his house got bought and renovated by a young family. A few months later, it was on the market again and it was drastically different to how itd been when he lived in it. My mum went on Google Maps to show us the difference of his house from how it was before he died and how it was after the renovations. She accidentally clicked the arrow to go along the road and we saw a man walking down the footpath. Zooming in closer you could see it was in fact my Great Uncle (his face wasnt blurred out).
What was even weirder was when we went back to look at their house, we saw his wife (who had died 2 years before him) cleaning the windows. They hadnt blurred her face out either!
It was a nice surprise to see both their faces.
6. How much do we ever know?
My violin teacher died late last year, and they had a very moving memorial service following her death.
At this service, people started talking about her life story, in vivid detail. I had been taking lessons with her for several years at this point, so we had quite a relationship. I thought I knew most things about her.
I was wrong. (continued…)
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Turns out, she won a worldwide competition that allowed her to play for the Queen of England. She was named “Woman of the Year” in 1957 by the Canadian Press. She won 7th place in the world Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto competition.
She frequently preformed solos and one the places Ive always wanted to, Carnegie Hall. She had played concert master at top symphonies all over the world. The list goes on!
I didnt know any of this, because she never said anything about it. I thought she was just an old lady who was pretty good at the violin, not a world renowned virtuoso!
When she was teaching, she did it because she loved music and she wanted to help more people experience it. She didnt care about her past resume, because her current mission was so important to her.
After her death, I was so moved to hear this, that it literally changed the way I lived life.
7. Photographic evidence.
My brother surprised me. Im the youngest of three and he was the eldest. There were 8 years difference between us. We did not have the most brotherly of relationships when we were growing up – or even when we were adults. I always felt that he was a bit cold, and as I was the only one in my family to have children, he remained a bit “distant.” I didnt understand until after he died.
My brother was a bit “demanding” when he was home with family, yet he always was extremely tolerant of my son who has Down Syndrome. I just felt like we (my family, mostly my children) werent that close or important to him. I found out (much to my very surprise) after he died that just wasnt true.
My brother was a video editor for the government (I dont want to give to many details as it was military related). Upon his very sudden and tragic death, the owner of the contracting company gave me his personal belongings. One of them was a picture of him in front of his work station, a very complex video editing bay.
What caught my eye and threw me for a very big loop was a picture of both my daughter and son on his bay. It wasnt just that there were pictures, but it was the most recent pictures my wife had sent him. We figured he never did anything with them.
Then, at his funeral, which was attended by many military officers and civilians, so many of them came up to me (as I did his eulogy they all knew who I was), and asked me a surprisingly personal question. (continued…)
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They all asked: “We see your daughter, but where is Michael (my son)?” We had left him home as it was just “easier” at the time. I was shocked. They all knew all these details about my kids. They all told me that my brother constantly talked about them.
I have to tell you that many times I broke down after this privately and cried. I never had any idea that he felt that close to my children. He had such a hard way about him that we just didnt have that type of relationship. It was at that very moment that I realized just how much I lost in his passing.
I always knew my brother was a good person. He always worked, even in tough times, always was saving cats (he loved dogs, but as an apartment dweller they were not allowed). He always paid his taxes. He was just a good person.
It took his tragic passing for me to learn what he was really about. I miss him every day and have his editing clock in my office to always remind me of his presence in our family and my life.
8. Just peachy.
My grandmother died in 2002. I was about 23 then. We were never really close because she had so many other grandchildren and I didn’t live so close. She made the best food, cakes etc and had the best recipes. Most of these recipes she took with her to the grave as most of them were in her head and not written down.
As I became older and had my own house and family I regretted that I did not spend more time with her. I also imagined how good we would have gotten along since I was now older and we would have had the same interests since I also started to baking and cooking. I was longing for this. I also regretted that I never got some of her lovely recipes.
One day I was sitting in the dining room wishing to taste her peach chutney and was wondering where I would find chutney that tastes exactly like hers.
That night I dreamt that me and her was cooking in my kitchen and she explained to me step by step how to make chutney. That morning I got up and remember thinking “I can make chutney!” I then went straight to the shop to get the ingredients for chutney. I did exactly what she told me in the dream. And guess what It tasted exactly like her chutney!
Before that dream I had never made chutney before. I would not have known where to start to make chutney. I so wish she could visit me again with some more recipes.
I am always hesitant to tell this story because I assumed people would just think I am lying.
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9. What’s in your wallet?
In 1993 I was backpacking around Australia. It was before the internet so I wrote actual letters home to my folks. In one of these letters I included a philosophical ramble, because my mom and I enjoyed many great discussions on philosophy/life/religion.
Fast forward 21 years – my mother died from cancer. A few months later, my dad noticed that my wallet was falling apart, so he suggested I take my mothers wallet.
Inside I found a label that I remember making for her Christmas present some 16 years earlier. I also found a raffle ticket for a prize she had won at the Christmas party we went to when she finished chemo. Then there were two items that stopped the world spinning. Ive never felt so loved as I did in that moment.
From the age of seven I started giving my mother a diary for Christmas every year. I always wrote a message of love on the first blank page on the inside cover. In her wallet was the page from the diary I gave her just before I set off on my travels in January 1993.
I also found my philosophical ramble and opened it up. The woman that I admired the most, that I loved so deeply, had cellotape along all the folds of my bit of writing. She had read it so many times over the years that the folds had worn thin.
All my life my mom told me how much she loved me, was proud of me and respected me. Nothing made me feel it more than the contents of her wallet.
10. Our little secret.
My grandfather surprised all of us when he died. My grandfather, a war hero, was involuntarily discharged from the military when he refused to participate in an effort to secretly send troops back into Vietnam. He was bitter when he left the military and was considered something of a disgrace by his peers. He wound up going back to school and becoming a teacher.
He got a decent disability check, and a teachers pension. He said that he didnt get a military pension because of how he was kicked out. The last F-U from the government for defying them.
One day, he got sick of sitting around all the time, and decided he was going to go play a round of golf. He went up to the first tee, took his first shot, and promptly died of a heart attack.
The next year, my grandmother had to file her own taxes for the first time in her lifemy grandfather had always done it. Luckily he still kept all of his old tax documents in his desk.
They went through the old documents and found out that he had actually been getting a generous military pension. Some of it he added to the family savings. Some of it he had put into a trust for me and my cousins to help pay for our college. Most of it had gone to numerous charities across the country.
He had kept hundreds of tax receipts for the $100K+ he had contributed over the years. Some were charities, some were just people he saw on the news who needed help. His generosity was his secret.