If you could write your own obituary, what would it say? Would it just be a standard list of the names, facts and dates of your life? Or would you use it as a chance to admit the things you’d never confessed before?
For 59-year-old Val Patterson, his obit was a chance to confess and a chance to express who he really was. The Utah man died of throat cancer last week and his first-person obit is funny and charming, but it also confesses at least a couple of secrets. (You can read the entire text of the obituary at the end of this article.)
Patterson had to confess to the other electronics engineers that he worked with that he didn’t really earn the Ph.D. from the University of Utah that he had hanging on his wall.
“I really am not a Ph.D.,” said Patterson’s confession. “What happened was that the day I went to pay off my college student loan at the University of Utah, the girl working there put my receipt into the wrong stack, and two weeks later, a PhD diploma came in the mail. I didn’t even graduate, I only had about three years of college credit. In fact, I never did even learn what the letters ‘PhD’ even stood for.”
His other big confession was of a crime he committed when he was 18.
“As it turns out, I am the guy who stole the safe from the Motor View Drive Inn back in June, 1971,” he said. “I could have left that unsaid, but I wanted to get it off my chest.”
Although the obit was a confessional, the biggest thing that Patterson’s words confessed was his love for his wife.
“But the one special thing that made my spirit whole, is my long love and friendship with my remarkable wife, my beloved Mary Jane,” Patterson said. “I loved her more than I have words to express. Every moment spent with my Mary Jane was time spent wisely. Over time, I became one with her, inseparable, happy, fulfilled.”
In fact, he loved his wife so much that his one big regret in life is that he started smoking when he was young, which apparently led to the throat cancer. His words are full of regret about what that decision means now to his beloved widow.
“My regret is that I felt invincible when young and smoked cigarettes when I knew they were bad for me,” Patterson said. “Now, to make it worse, I have robbed my beloved Mary Jane of a decade or more of the two of us growing old together and laughing at all the thousands of simple things that we have come to enjoy and fill our lives with such happy words and moments. My pain is enormous, but it pales in comparison to watching my wife feel my pain as she lovingly cares for and comforts me. I feel such the ‘thief’ now — for stealing so much from her. There is no pill I can take to erase that pain.”
Patterson’s obit leaves me feeling that he’s someone I would have liked. Most obits are dry and generic, but his makes me feel as though he was someone full of life — someone who enjoyed his life as long as possible.
Mostly, though, his words make me wonder what I’d write for myself. This is a topic I’ve written about before, but the subject continues to fascinate me. If you really love life, you’re forced to think about death if you’re honest with yourself. And the more I think about death, the more I want my life to matter.
I still don’t have enough to say for my obituary that I’d be happy for the world to read. Maybe I don’t think it’s interesting enough. Maybe I want it to be more meaningful. Mostly, though, the things missing from mine are people to speak of loving. I need to add the wife who I could love as much as Patterson loved his wife. I need to have children and build a family. Those are the things that matter to me most that are blank spots in my future obituary.
It would be nice to have great achievements to write about. I hope those come, but I can be satisfied without them. What I most need is to be able to say that I lived every day and every minute possible with the woman I love. If I can one day write that, I’ll be happy and satisfied, whether I died at 75 or 95 or 125.
For me, the right love at my side would make all the difference in the obituary that I one day write. I suspect that’s true for a lot of people.
Note: The sculpture illustrated above is “The Eternal Idol,” by Auguste Rodin. It seemed to represent the kind of love I’d like to write about in my obituary and that Patterson wrote about in his own.
I was born in Salt Lake City, March 27, 1953. I died of Throat Cancer on July 10th 2012. I went to six different grade schools, then to Churchill, Skyline and the University of Utah. I loved school, Salt Lake City, the mountains, Utah. I was a true Scientist. Electronics, chemistry, physics, auto mechanic, wood worker, artist, inventor, business man, ribald comedian, husband, brother, son, cat lover, cynic. I had a lot of fun. It was an honor for me to be friends with some truly great people. I thank you. I’ve had great joy living and playing with my dog, my cats and my parrot. But, the one special thing that made my spirit whole, is my long love and friendship with my remarkable wife, my beloved Mary Jane. I loved her more than I have words to express. Every moment spent with my Mary Jane was time spent wisely. Over time, I became one with her, inseparable, happy, fulfilled. I enjoyed one good life. Traveled to every place on earth that I ever wanted to go. Had every job that I wanted to have. Learned all that I wanted to learn. Fixed everything I wanted to fix. Eaten everything I wanted to eat. My life motto was: “Anything for a Laugh.” Other mottos were “If you can break it, I can fix it,” “Don’t apply for a job, create one.” I had three requirements for seeking a great job: 1) All glory, 2) Top pay, 3) No work.
Now that I have gone to my reward, I have confessions and things I should now say. As it turns out, I AM the guy who stole the safe from the Motor View Drive Inn back in June, 1971. I could have left that unsaid, but I wanted to get it off my chest. Also, I really am NOT a PhD. What happened was that the day I went to pay off my college student loan at the University of Utah, the girl working there put my receipt into the wrong stack, and two weeks later, a PhD diploma came in the mail. I didn’t even graduate, I only had about 3 years of college credit. In fact, I never did even learn what the letters “PhD” even stood for. For all of the Electronic Engineers I have worked with, I’m sorry, but you have to admit my designs always worked very well, and were well engineered, and I always made you laugh at work.
Now to that really mean Park Ranger; after all, it was me that rolled those rocks into your geyser and ruined it. I did notice a few years later that you did get Old Faithful working again. To Disneyland, you can now throw away that “Banned for Life” file you have on me, I’m not a problem anymore. And SeaWorld San Diego, too, if you read this.
To the gang: We grew up in the very best time to grow up in the history of America. The best music, muscle cars, cheap gas, fun kegs, buying a car for “a buck a year” — before Salt Lake got ruined by over population and Lake Powell was brand new. TV was boring back then, so we went outside and actually had lives. We always tried to have as much fun as possible without doing harm to anybody — we did a good job at that.
If you are trying to decide if you knew me, this might help. My father was RD “Dale” Patterson, older brother “Stan” Patterson, and sister “Bunny” who died in a terrible car wreck when she was a Junior at Skyline. My mom “Ona” and brother “Don” are still alive and well. In college I worked at Vaughns Conoco on 45th South and 29th East. Mary and I are the ones who worked in Saudi Arabia for 8 years when we were young. Mary Jane is now a Fitness Instructor at Golds on Van Winkle. You might be one of her students. See what a lucky guy I am? Yeah, no kidding.
My regret is that I felt invincible when young and smoked cigarettes when I knew they were bad for me. Now, to make it worse, I have robbed my beloved Mary Jane of a decade or more of the two of us growing old together and laughing at all the thousands of simple things that we have come to enjoy and fill our lives with such happy words and moments. My pain is enormous, but it pales in comparison to watching my wife feel my pain as she lovingly cares for and comforts me. I feel such the “thief” now — for stealing so much from her. There is no pill I can take to erase that pain.
If you knew me or not, dear reader, I am happy you got this far into my letter. I speak as a person who had a great life to look back on. My family is following my wishes that I not have a funeral or burial. If you knew me, remember me in your own way. If you want to live forever, then don’t stop breathing, like I did.
A celebration of life will be held on Sunday, July 22nd from 4:00 to 6:00 pm at Starks Funeral Parlor, 3651 South 900 East, Salt Lake City, casual dress is encouraged.
Online condolences may be offered and memorial video may be viewed atwww.starksfuneral.com.
Published in Salt Lake Tribune from July 15 to July 22, 2012