We had just paid for two overpriced $10.50 IPAs at the Drake Hotel bar when I asked this question. I regret I never implemented his answer as well I was expecting to on that day.
This was eight years ago, and I had an opportunity to meet with an academic hero who had been cross-cuttingly successful across a half-dozen of behavioral fields, but most notably in law. His discoveries had changed the way cross-examinations and evidence weighting is done in certain felony cases. One of my former Teaching Assistants had gone on to work with him, and this had eventually led to us meeting whenever I was in town.
Since he only had an hour, we met for a quick drink. After enthusiastically telling me about a new project, I asked, “Of all that you’ve done in your life, what makes you most proud?” I was half expecting that he’d probably say one of his legal discoveries, or maybe he’d talk about his two grown children. Neither. He paused for maybe 20 seconds and then said this:
“What I’m most proud of is how I was I was really present for both my father and mother in the last years of their lives.”
He explained that he had “being really there for them” and had made it a central priority. No regrets about what other projects he might not have started or finished because he was focused on making them feel comfortable, loved, special, and that they had led meaningful, appreciated lives.
At the time both of my parents were healthy and 85, and I vowed I’d make sure I did the same.
My dear Dad passed away on June 2, 2020. He was one of the greatest generation -- selfless, modest, team-focused, honest, hard-working, and tireless.
He had 91 years of great health and good humor, followed by a couple stinker years due to him breaking his hip the day after my Mom died. Still had his sense of humor to the end.
I keep thinking that his last 18 months would have been easier had we moved him in to live with us. My wife wanted to, but I thought there were too many uncertainties. Instead, we moved him into assisted living about a mile from my brother, who could then see him most days, and where we would travel the 10 hours down to see him every couple months. Thinking back, if he had moved in with us, he might not have lived longer, but I think he would have been happier.
When a heroic, single-surviving parent can no longer live by themselves, the decision about where they should go deserves a lot of heartfelt thought. There's a difference between "being there for them" and "being really present in the last years of their lives." Being present was what he was most proud of having accomplished. I now wish I would have given to that level.
I hope that if you are still blessed with one of more living parents, you'll give think about this in a way you won't regret in eight years.
* * *
John Charles Wansink, 93, of Sioux City, Iowa, died on June 2, 2020.
John was born October 28, 1926, in Sanborn, Iowa, to Henry and Clara Wansink. After graduating from Sioux City East High School, he studied business at Morningside College, where he also lettered in football and basketball. He had a number of unusual experiences in his life, including working as a cowboy in Montana and playing basketball against the Harlem Globetrotters. After running his own business in his 20s, he went on the production line at Metz Baking Company for over 30 years.
John married Naomi Fullerton on March 21, 1948. With their two sons, Brian, of Ithaca, New York, and Craig, of Virginia Beach, Virginia, for years they enjoyed trips to Montana, summer family camps, and Friday night Jeopardy games, complete with popcorn and M&Ms. John had an active mind and loved crossword puzzles, reading, and movies. He was a lifelong athlete, playing golf into his late 80s. Along with Naomi, he enjoyed both square dancing and volunteering at nonprofit agencies for over 20 years after he retired. For over 50 years, he was an active member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sioux City. For the last two years of his life, he was a proud member of Second Presbyterian Church in Norfolk, Virginia.
Those left to honor his memory include his sons, Craig (Nancy) and Brian (Jennifer), and five grandchildren, Katrina, Teddy, Audrey, Valerie, and Lieve.
John will be remembered as a good, decent, fair, thoughtful, and hard-working man. He was deeply loved. He will be deeply missed. Memories of him will be deeply treasured.
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