How can we help our son know his father?
August 13, 2012 8:58 AM   Subscribe

My husband has a few more months before cancer takes his energy, and then his life. We have a 17 month old son. My husband plans to write some letters to our son, but beyond that, I am not sure what to do to help my son know his father. Any ideas?

Many people in this question mention videos, but we have never been video people, so I don't know what to video (and my husband isn't keen on video the way he looks now).

I'm looking for specific ideas on what to do, keep, or capture now. And I'm also interested in ideas for rituals or ways to use what we've captured later.

(It goes without saying that this sucks and you are sorry, and I promise I won't hold it against you if you skip those sentiments)
posted by Mozzie to Health & Fitness (59 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
If an objection to video is the way your husband looks now, how about recording some audio? Maybe your husband could read some of the letters aloud.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:01 AM on August 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

For sure some audio; I really wish I had something to help me remember my grandmother's voice.

Also, some physical objects to give your son - favorite watch/jacket/football/wallet/whatever.

And pictures of him holding your son. Even if he doesn't want them. Get a professional to do some. They'll make them good.

So, so sorry.
posted by dpx.mfx at 9:04 AM on August 13, 2012 [10 favorites]

If not video, then audio. Recordings will bring your son closer to his dad. I think hearing Dad just freeform reminiscing about his own childhood is probably the single most bonding thing. Also, recording birthday messages for each birthday up until whatever feels significant (18? 21?) would be lovely. Recording the two of them talking would be special. Recording him reading bedtime stories, maybe?

If you don't have photos of your husband as a child, maybe getting copies of those from relatives who do so that your husband can annotate them ("This is me with my first bike. I was so happy! And then I broke my collarbone. But I still loved my bike." or whatever) in a special album for your son.

I am sorry you all have to deal with this. Stupid fucking cancer.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:04 AM on August 13, 2012 [16 favorites]

Best answer: You're not video people, but I know that I would kill for some moving pictures and audio from my Dad, who died when I was 18.

Maybe a Skype session with your husband on one end and your son on the other end? Then your son could see his Dad interacting with him on-screen. It cuts down on the setup and just allows natural moments to happen between them.

And I'm very sorry.
posted by xingcat at 9:06 AM on August 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

I think the letters are a really great idea, but it will be a number of years before your son really understands them. Maybe your husband could record himself (audio or video) reading aloud some books appealing to varying age levels that would engage your son over the next few years? It might make video easier, because it would be something structured, and he could show the pictures. He could also read books that were special to him as a child which might even make more of a connection.
posted by kimdog at 9:07 AM on August 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

A record of things they have done together? I imagine it would be nice for your son to know what they did (like go to X restaurant, read this book). I could see it as a scrapbook.

Incredibly sorry.
posted by quodlibet at 9:08 AM on August 13, 2012

More on audio: would your husband have favourite stories he could read, either children's stories or ones from his own life? Stories about relatives, where he grew up, his favourite place, or any funny stories that are in your personal canon. Even fairy stories or poems or standards, or if he sings even a bit, songs.

I also really like the idea of an album. The more personal and relatable, the more I would imagine a child can grow to understand his father as a person and include him in his memories. Especially if there are things where they are both characters, or where your husband is addressing your son.

I'm so sorry.
posted by carbide at 9:10 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

How about audio of him explaining various photos--wedding day, birthday, vacation, etc.? That way your son knows how his father felt about various things and events, but doesn't have to see his father only in the context of his illness?
posted by Ideefixe at 9:11 AM on August 13, 2012 [9 favorites]

Do i slideshow (or individual 'videos') based around old photos of your husband growing up, with audio of your husband telling the stories around those photos. (Things that your husband might have naturally talked about as your son gets older, not just 'big events': 'this is what my family dinners were like', 'this is how i fought with my sister', 'when i got mad and punched a kid at school', 'my favourite band/music/concert', 'the first girl i had a crush on', 'how i knew i was in love with your mom', 'this is my amazing recipe/soccer move/favourite book' etc)
posted by Kololo at 9:12 AM on August 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am incredibly sorry to hear this. I would suggest in addition to making audio recordings of letters or stories, maybe you can make recordings of him interacting in a daily/normal ways with your son.
posted by ssri at 9:12 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I still have the recordings of my grandparents singing lullabies to me, and actually had them put on cd to share with my nieces and nephews. The recordings start out with them saying "Hi, its grandma and grandpa. We love you very much, now close your eyes and go to sleep little ladybug" (feel free to skip the insect naming part, they were silly).

While your husband is reluctant to do the video thing, that is really and truly the best way to experience someone who is gone. A video of a father who doesn't look like he is in his prime is better than no video.

I am so sorry for what you're going through. Someday your son will be very thankful for all the measures you're taking now.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 9:12 AM on August 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would try to capture the essence of your husband's personality. Is he artsy, an engineer, have a great sense of humor? I think what will be really meaningful in the future is if your son can connect his love of art, his athletic ability, his love or math, or whatever, back to his father. That'll be a real connection that will transcend the fact that you son has no personal memory of his dad.
posted by COD at 9:14 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

we have never been video people, so I don't know what to video

Does your husband have any favorite objects that have special meaning to him, like a book or old baseball glove? Maybe video him handling the objects and sharing his memories about them. This might help your son feel more connected to him through those objects when he's old enough for you to pass them on to him.
posted by platinum at 9:17 AM on August 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

This is tough... I know that your husband may be against video but I would encourage him to consider it. After all, this is the father that your son has.... No matter how he looks. Your son at age 20, 25, 30 and beyond will treasure that video. Reading books, letters to the future young guy, preteen, teen, young husband, etc.....all will be priceless. I'm so sorry that you are having to plan for this but you guys are amazing for putting your son's need to know his dad ahead of your own pain. Enjoy this project, whatever you decide to do. It's the best gift you can possibly give him.
posted by pearlybob at 9:18 AM on August 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Maybe your husband could read some of the letters aloud.

Following up on this, he could read several children's stories, which your son could play back.

I know this is an extremely difficult time, more than most people can imagine, but a small bit of video might be good. It doesn't have to be anything extraordinary, it could be as simple as him holding your son and reading to him, or simply holding him.

As you're not a video person, if there where any friends and family who are, ask them to help.

I mention video only because I've noticed kids tend to feel a particular kinship and closeness when they see some of their own speech patterns or habits in their parents. It's like a visual confirmation of that genetic bond. Worrying about his appearance is completely understandable, but your son would enjoy having several videos of him, especially if they're together. It doesn't have to be anything major, simply swimming, pushing him in the stroller or swing, reading, playing a game or just getting him dressed would be great.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:19 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: His signature. His full-on signature. It immediately triggers memories of my dad signing my report card. Perhaps framed in your son's bedroom. Plus "love, dad" at the bottom.

A birthday card for each year. And an instruction of something for him to do that year, or what your husband liked about that year.

His perspective of meeting you and having your son.

Getting into trouble stories from his childhood. Specific being a BOY stories. Hints on how to deal with growing up.

I'm so sorry to hear this, and you are a wonderful parent.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 9:20 AM on August 13, 2012 [17 favorites]

Does your husband still have enough energy to participate in favored hobbies? I know you don't like the idea of video, but I think video of him doing what he loves would be meaningful to a kid, especially if he ends up having similar hobbies. Like, does your husband like to bike? Or to make models? Or draw or paint? Does he play an instrument? Fix cars? If he has the energy to do any of his favorite things, maybe you can make a video of him talking about what he's doing and how he feels doing it.
posted by greta simone at 9:20 AM on August 13, 2012

I second Nickel Pickle on recordings of singing. If he does not like to sing, him reading a story, or even just saying everyday things like "hope you had a good day at school" might be really nice.
Also, maybe audio record a conversation or a very peaceful time between the three of you. And quasi-diaries/journals that documents how he thinks, important moments in his life, etc.

So so sorry for what you are going through.
posted by atetrachordofthree at 9:22 AM on August 13, 2012

Audio recordings are a great idea, particularly ones connected with events (birthdays, anniversaries, graduation, wedding) so your son can discover them as he moves through life.

I also want to add that no matter what you do, make sure you get two or three copies of everything -- CDs of audio recordings, digital files on a dedicated hard drive, hard copies and scans of letters and photos -- in case something gets lost or damaged. Maybe even rent a safety deposit box or something for them.
posted by fight or flight at 9:22 AM on August 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I like all of the above ideas. In addition to some or all of those, I'd also suggest asking friends and family to write something about your husband and compiling those remembrances in an album. I was lucky enough to know my dad well so my situation is not the same as your son's will be, but when my father passed away it meant a lot to me to read about him from other people's perspectives. I still go back and re-read those thoughts often.
posted by Latifolia at 9:23 AM on August 13, 2012

First of all, this is indescribably sad and I'm so sorry to hear this.

How about some life lessons from dad, organised by theme, or question? I mean almost like a databank of as many issues or themes that your husband could record - dealing with the big ethical questions, life, death, but also down to practical things like DIY tips, how to invest, and more day to day things like how to deal with your first day at school, how to make the perfect sandwich, how to choose a good beer.

This would give your husband a chance to hand over his own experiences and knowledge, but in covering so much it would also give your son a chance to really know his dad and not wonder as much what his dad would have thought, or whether your son's experience was unique. When one loses a parent so young the pervading sense of loss is one of never having got to know them and hearing who they were through third parties.

The act of covering off these gaps fills in so much other little bits of information - the forgotten stories that slip out, the cadence of his speech, the things he was passionate about and above all the underlying themes and narrative of your husband's life, as told in, say, 100 parts, while actually talking about something else.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:24 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

'Nother suggestion on the video front, if you decide to go that route: play a simple game of rolling a baseball or ball back and forth, record the video and then save that ball to give to your son. This could work for anything they do together, be cars or trucks, a teddy bear, books read to your son, pretty much anything. Having those things as physical mementos, which your son can see that his dad held and used to bond with him could turn out to be priceless.

Even if you don't do video, then simple audio of the two of them playing could also work.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:25 AM on August 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am so very sorry to hear about the health problems your husband is experiencing and the loss your family is undergoing. I love the idea of recordings and letters. I also wanted to say that sometimes, tangible things really help to form a connection. My father passed away extremely suddenly a few years ago before anyone had the chance to say any kind of goodbye. I have a few things--like a small stack of his old business cards, the last book he gave me for Christmas, and an old silver dish that sat on his desk to hold paper clips--and those things make me feel closer when I miss him. It's good to have them around. Can you save a Dad Box for your son? Maybe some things he loves, things that were important to him? Does he have a Special Thing you can later give your son for a special occasion like a graduation or wedding, so Dad's still there? I know these seem like trivial matters, but really, to a child left behind, they mean the world.

I wish your family comfort, love, and strength during this time.
posted by anonnymoose at 9:32 AM on August 13, 2012

A friend of the family died a few years back, but not before writing out every birthday/christmas card for who knows how long. Her husband still mails them out, diligently. Unexpected ones for weddings and such are signed with his name and a + next to it. If your husband did the same and put stories of his memories from when he was that age, it would be a very precious gift.

My dad's first wife saw me when I was 18 or so, which was six years after he died. She told my mom I was a spitting image of him, right down to the same mannerisms and table habits. My mom agreed. She completely freaked me out because I don't remember him much. Little things like that provide a connection though. Video can help in that regard.

Oh, and make sure to save some of his tools, and any sports related things like a favorite baseball glove. I don't have much from my dad, but that glove is freaking awesome!
posted by jwells at 9:35 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am so very sorry.

I was going to suggest having him record birthday messages for your son like, "Well, you're 13 now, big teenager" or "Now that you're 16 and learning to drive, here's some advice." But I thought twice about it and was thinking that might not be a good way to celebrate your son's birthday with messages from his dead father each year. It would be nice to do milestone advice though - driving, dating, graduation, engagement, wedding, first child kind of things. Those are usually the moments in a person's life when they are most glad to have family around them. You and your son will find comfort sharing these letters/audio/videos together as these milestones pass.

I'm also nthing everyone's suggestion to do video. Your son isn't going to care what his father looked like, but he'll notice mannerisms and other things that seeing a video will provide, especially because your son is so young and won't have any of his own memories as to how daddy acted.
posted by NoraCharles at 9:38 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

My father has leukemia and has been undergoing chemo and a bone marrow transplant. Every time I go to visit, my mother sends extensive warnings about how he looks, how such-and-such is a side effect or a symptom or whatever.

They're completely unnecessary. Yeah, he looks rough -- but no less like himself. The way he sees himself, the way my mother apparently sees him...that's not how he looks to me.

Ack. I thought I was going to be all coherent and now I'm crying. Please don't be camera-shy, is all. This is what is happening, this is what is real. He can talk to your son, to the boy and the man he will become. He can tell stories about his own life, childhood, ideas. Describe his favorite things, and you, and your son as a baby.

I'm so sorry for all of you.
posted by teremala at 9:42 AM on August 13, 2012 [14 favorites]

Fare well during these hard times, it will be tough.

The most important thing he can do is make sure that all business and documents are in order. The worst legacy is debt and hidden finances.

If he can go through all his old family photo albums and try to identify everyone possible. Pictures of unknown people can be a mystery that never gets solved. The same goes for all contacts. A first name and a phone number in a phone book could be a whole story but if its never told it is lost.
posted by JJ86 at 9:43 AM on August 13, 2012

Best answer: Interview your husband. Find out what his life has been like. Document his experiences. Give your child a fuller picture of who he was.

Storycorps does a great job with this. You can get information on how to do your own interview and questions that may elicit great responses on their website.
posted by inturnaround at 9:48 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am so sorry. My God. My heart goes out to your family.

When my kid was born, nobody took videos of us because it seemed like we were going to kick the bucket. At first I was happy about that, because I looked like death (obviously), but then my mom found a single short clip she had taken on her phone, of me holding him in the ICU. It is the most precious thing to me. To see us struggling to hang on together. Sometimes I think about, you know, if either of us hadn't made it, how sad it would be to have so little footage of us together. Whether we looked like we were dying or not, we were sitting there and getting to know each other. To me, those plain boring moments of family love are what's worth documenting, more so than big momentous perfectly lit things where everybody looks great.

So I think that what will be really great for your baby is having footage of his dad holding him and reading to him and talking to him. It doesn't have to be a formal, staged, edited thing. I can imagine, in your situation, feeling like everything is so overwhelming, and you have to hire a videographer and an editor and your husband has to write these deeply meaningful event letters to the future, and everything has to be perfect.... it doesn't. Footage of your husband loving his baby, whether or not he looks sick, will (I think) be the most precious thing for your son. Specifically, I would ask your husband to tell the story of how you guys met, and decided to have a baby, and what it was like when your son was born and he first held him, how you guys decided on a name, etc. Have him read your kid's favorite books to him. Can you take a video or a picture of the three of you together, reading Goodnight Moon or tickling the kid, or just hanging out?

Basically, I think what's most important is that your child, when he's older, have some clear visuals of "Oh, this is what we were like as a family. My dad cuddled me and loved me, and even though he looked sick and didn't feel great at this point, he made this video for me so I would remember that." much more than having life advice for when he's 18. (Although that would also be cool, but that would be my second tier of things to tackle.)

I am so sorry. This is so terribly unfair. Peace be with you in this process.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:53 AM on August 13, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: My sister's husband died when my nephew was three. Here are my suggestions based on what's worked for my nephew and the things I wish that we had more of:

1. Physical objects to pass on have meant a great deal to my nephew. At different ages, he's been given his dad's football jersey, old sweatshirt, etc. These objects don't help him know his dad, but do mean a lot to him and help him feel connected. If there is any sort of family heirloom, particularly something he got from his father, grandfather, or uncle, that would be great (even if the family doesn't really think of it as an heirloom).

2. Knowing about his dad's hobbies and interests has been very important to my nephew. For example, it is very important to him to be a fan of the same football team as his dad. Maybe your husband could write about those sorts of things, particularly the sorts of hobbies, interests, and fandoms that are often passed from father to son. If there are videos or photos of dad engaging in his interests, that would be great.

3. We initially didn't plan on doing a video for some of the same reasons as you. However, my brother-in-law changed his mind during the last week of his life. He looks much worse in that video than he would have a few months earlier and didn't have as much time to plan out what he was going to say. Just something to think about.

4. In addition to things directly from your husband, have some of his best friends and close relatives write about him. Stories of growing up together, their favorite memories of him, times he really came through for them, etc. My sister asked people provide some of this on the day of the funeral. People were a little overwhelmed right then, so it might make sense to put some key requests right now. That way, people will have time and your husband could participate in the process. He'll know which old college buddies or high school friends might be good to approach.

5. If he has any journals, blog entries, facebook posts, letters he sent you, books in which he wrote in the margins, or other writings that weren't specifically created for this purpose, keep those and share them with your son as appropriate. Often, you get the clearest sense of someone from that sort of stuff. I wish we had more of these.

6. Not really a ritual, but sometimes I see my nephew doing something that reminds me of his dad. When that happens, I always make a point of telling him. A few months ago, he started to talk about American History in an animated way. I reminded him of his Dad's interest in the topic.

7. If he likes books, keep at least some of his books. Your son may want to rummage through Dad's old books later in life.

8. Make sure you have pictures of your husband holding or playing with your son. These will help him know that his dad loved him and loved spending time with him.
posted by Area Man at 9:57 AM on August 13, 2012

Oh, another idea: take the books that you'll be reading to your son (go out and buy books that are appropriate all the way through till end of 'read to me' age - maybe 6 or 7 years old), and have your husband read them. You can sit with your son, and turn the page with him, and listen to your husband read the story!

I think this could be a really nice way to make sure your husbands voice stays 'familiar sounding' during the years before your son has any interest in sitting down and watching/listening to anything serious.
posted by Kololo at 10:00 AM on August 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you'd like audio memories or diaries to keep for your I would recommend hiring a niche audio documentary company like Storykeep or Audio Heirlooms. I know the founders of both, and they are wonderful companies who do lovely work. These companies are founded by audio documentarians who can make an NPR-style stories, portraits, lessons, memories, or anything you want. They record it professionally, will handle all the editing, and basically take care of all the technical details so you will have perfect recordings that you can keep for a lifetime.
posted by amoeba at 10:01 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lord, have mercy.

I would echo the comments suggesting videos of your son and husband playing, or just general footage of the family enjoying time together. It need not be a monologue facing the camera, although those could be invaluable as well. There is a Michael Keaton movie called "My Life" which has a very similar scenario, and it may serve to suggest dos and do-nots.

I think audible recordings of letters are also a good idea. They could be for special occasions such as birthdays, graduations, marriage, and childbirth.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:03 AM on August 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

For me, what's kept people more present once they're gone is the little things. keep some of his things around - items of clothing, just the stuff of his every day life. I treasure things like a magnifying paperweight my grandma kept by her favorite chair; things that loved ones used and loved that I integrated into my daily life. Write down things like - his favorite foods. his favorite sounds, music, tv, movies, all the little getting to know you details that will fill in the pictures and audio. His favorite books, his favorite jokes, his favorite quotes or stories, hobbies, you name it. His aftershave - being able to engage on a sensory level is good, too.

And I am so very sorry.
posted by lemniskate at 10:04 AM on August 13, 2012

Great ideas above, and I want to particularly endorse especially capturing his voice, eyes, hands doing things, mouth moving.

Those are the things I miss most about the people I've lost. They are the things that fade most unwillingly but horribly quickly.

If you could get a plaster cast of his hand so that your son can put his hand in his Papa's when he most needs it...he might not want to do that, but having the option would be priceless.

List of books, heroes, music, places he loved - these will give your son touchstones in the world where he can feel grounded by his father's take on the world as he learns about it.

Any family memories your husband is the sole repository of would be good to get recorded in some way.

Love, strength, comfort, and peace to your family.
posted by batmonkey at 10:08 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd also suggest doing hand/foot prints or molds. That might sound weird but a sense of scale could be kind of a neat thing. Having hand print of dad hand and baby hand would be a nice thing, I think.
posted by countrymod at 10:10 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I like the idea if having him record bedtime stories. You could pick some for various ages and then get your son the book to read along with.

Also, I remember seeing an Oprah show that was deeply moving, about a woman who recorded video for her daughter. But they weren't just general videos, they were occasion-specific: advice for the first day of kindergarten, for high school graduation and so on. Part of the 'ritualizing' of it was that whenever the daughter encountered a milestone occasion, she knew there would be a video. And at the end (this made me cry!) there was even a video for 'Dad is getting married again' in which she gave her blessing. I know that you don't want to do video, but if you try to pitch your letters for specific occasions and not just in general, that might create some ritual.

Also, maybe buy some birthday presents ahead of time and save them. For space issues, perhaps consider books. Help your husband brainstorm a list of books which meant a lot to him at different ages and then buy them all, wrap them and have your husband hand-make a card. Dole out one a year until your son is 18, at his birthday.
posted by JoannaC at 10:11 AM on August 13, 2012

I'm thinking videos for important events, loss of family members, graduation, first girlfriend/boyfriend etc. Plus maybe his opinions on religion, politics etc. He could help raise your son. Have it put in the will.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:17 AM on August 13, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you all for your suggestions. Some of them sound a bit monumental, so I especially appreciate the referrals to professional companies who can do such things and help guide us. It has reminded me that a lot of my friends are journalists and even TV/film people, so perhaps I could enlist them to do some of this. Just figuring out what the heck to talk about/film/etc is 80% of the issue.

Please keep up the suggestions. It is great to have so many to pick from and I love hearing from people who have somewhat first-hand experience of what is appreciated after-the-fact.
posted by Mozzie at 10:23 AM on August 13, 2012

A photo biography/autobiography is a nice thing to make.

One way to do this is:

- Get a nice, high-quality album
- Each page or pair of facing pages is devoted to one year
- Have a photo (or few) of the person in that year
- Have a few lines about who the person was then, what happened that year, what was important to them, what people they had in their life then

This is also a good way for a person to reflect on their own life and remind themselves of things they've long forgotten. It's quite an experience digging through old photos and choosing the ones to represent the year.

For this and some of the other ideas people gave, also consider making one or two age-appropriate versions, so that as the child grows older they can get to know aspects of their father and his life that might be hard for a young kid to take on board.
posted by philipy at 10:30 AM on August 13, 2012

I still wear my Dad's old fraternity shirt when I am missing him. It's almost like a hug from him.
posted by kamikazegopher at 10:31 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am reminded of this story about Gordan Gee, who is the president of the ohio state university, and his wife and daughter, who went through something similar. At the end there is a link to a this american life episode about her letters to her daughter. It might prove helpful?
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:35 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Consider me one more voice for the photos/video of them together, showing their relationship to each other. One of my favorite photographs, that is framed and on display in my living room, is of me and my mother. She was ill at the time (thankfully not a terminal illness, just a chronic disease that was at a particularly bad point) so she didn't like the way she looked and didn't want to be photographed. But it was Easter, and Dad was insisting, so we took some photos. We ended up with one in particular of us sitting side by side, me with my head on her shoulder, her leaning her head on mine, with almost identical expressions on our faces. Even though she's thankfully still alive (and in better health than when the photo was taken), I cherish that picture because of the way our relationship is visible and almost tangible.

Does your husband's face light up when your son comes in the room? How does your son react when he sees his daddy? That's the sort of thing that you can catch on video without it being An Event, and it can mean so much. It's one thing to know intellectually that someone loves you, or to be told that, or even to remember it. But to be able to go back in time and actually see, shining on their face, how happy they were to see you, how much they delighted in your presence? That's a whole different thing.
posted by katemonster at 10:35 AM on August 13, 2012

Best answer: For more structured video/audio, this list of questions from StoryCorps might give you a good jumping off point. I used it to interview my parents with last year (on video); their stories (especially my mom's because she's like an elephant who never forgets) are so precious to me, particularly in helping me create my sense of identity when I was young and think about where I came from, so I had to preserve them.
posted by catch as catch can at 10:48 AM on August 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, Mozzie, I am so sorry you and your family are facing this. Cancer is taking several people close to me right now, and is fighting several others, and my heart breaks every time I hear something like this. I hope this is as peaceful an experience for you, your husband and your little one as possible.

One of my very closest friends recently learned similarly that her time with us is coming to an end. Far flung friends and family have been asking throughout her illness how we can help, and like the amazing person she is, she thought ahead to what she and her family would need at this stage of her illness. She asked each of us to write down memories of her that they are going to compile into a book for her son, similar to what has been suggested above. What makes this a little different, though, is that she, at least for the time being, is able to hear these memories too, know what she means to all of us and in some cases she's adding her own thoughts about our memories so her son will have those as well.

This might be a simple way to structure some video for your son. Reading the memories together, your husband reminiscing about them, and your son being able to ask him questions about the experiences directly. It might augment some of the interview questions from Story Corps or other sources.

I wish you the very best.
posted by goggie at 11:01 AM on August 13, 2012

I know that everyone has said video and audio, and I'm going to say the same thing. Letters and cards are amazing, but think how incredible it will be for your son to have the video when the time comes for him to show his son what his grandfather was like.

Ok, now I'm tearing up. Goddamn cancer. Fuck you, cancer.

Video isn't hard, at least it doesn't have to be. Turn on the camera, and ask him questions...what was his favorite thing to do as a child? who was his hero when he was 5? 10? 15? One of the things I've tried very hard to do is to capture my grandparents talking about our family, aunts and cousins and such that I don't know or have never met, about their parents and grandparents, and what they were like.

The truth is, anything that you can give your son will be precious beyond gold. I can't even fathom this. The last thing I will say: get someone who is good with video and computers to make sure that whatever you do gets saved and backed up in a million ways.
posted by griffey at 11:03 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have him record audio commentary on movies/TV shows. It would be like making notes in the margins of favorite books (also a good idea!) so it feels more like a shared experience, and your son can get an idea of what his dad was thinking/reacting to/wondering about.

While it's good to have official records of important events, official benedictions of wisdom and advice, it's also important to have an understanding of who your loved ones are when the pressure is off.

Whatever you put together, make sure there are candid records of what kind of husband he is, too. It will give more dimension to the father figure, making him a well-rounded human. Also, if you're a key part of the memories captured, it will make it easier for your son to connect to his dad through you, and see the three of you as a bonded family unit. When your son sees pictures of himself with his father, he won't recognize himself or his dad, except by being told "this is you, this is your dad." But if you're in both places, the connections will be more real.
posted by itesser at 11:13 AM on August 13, 2012

Very sorry to hear this. Some life lessons and some aspirations from a Dad to a son would be good. Also the fact that he is proud of his son.

Do not give up.

I have to write this, please read this book.
posted by pakora1 at 11:24 AM on August 13, 2012

Best answer: My parents got divorced when I was 4 and my father died of cancer when I had just turned 8. Today I am 30 years old. I am going to tell you how I feel.

My father did not leave me any special items, photographs, recordings, or even letters. So I kept only a few things and pictures that accidentally survived the divorce and that I know belonged to him. I adore every little thing I know he has touched in his life. I keep 30 year old bedding and duvet covers because he has slept in them. I have a broken calculator that carries his signature; it must have been for his office or somewhere else where he had to mark it. I love to know how his signature looked like.

Especially when I was growing up and trying to figure out who I am and who I want to be, I used to stare at his pictures and at the few things I own and tried to squeeze as much information out of them as possible. Of course, there is not much. I have a yarning to know who he was, what he loved, what music he listened to, how he smelled, if he loved me. Anything that would make me feel less alone. Knowing how his voice sounded or how he looked when he moved would have been a little more information. I would want so very much to have sound recordings or even videos of him. Even if they were not directed to me but just some normal life situations captured on tape. I think recordings that were actually addressed to me would be invaluable. Even after so many years, I still get so sad at times, especially when it's a special day, such as a graduation, a celebration, or the anniversary of his death. I do believe recordings for special days would be amazing. However, I think I would want to know how many there are and if there are more to come, and I would want to choose if I waited to watch them or listen to them or if I would do it when I feel like it's right. In short, my advice is to give him as much as possible in any form.

I used and use the items I have to be sad. And at times, I was angry with them because they would not let me know him. They told me a little, but obviously not enough. I would ban them to the bottom of a drawer and refuse to look at them. Sometimes I wanted to get rid of them, because they brought me pain. I am very happy that I could always control the impulse to throw them out.

One last thing, my father died of cancer 22 years ago and I had to work through how I can cope knowing that cancer exists, and that it takes peoples life's who are too young to go, and that it can hit anyone anytime. I actually contacted the hospital were he died a few years back to retrieve his files. My appeal was denied. If your son will feel like me, he will want to know what took his father away. He will want to see the enemy and be angry at it and come to whatever conclusion with it. My advice is therefore to not hide his sickness from the recordings. On the contrary, make this part of the information who can give him.
posted by Okapi at 11:29 AM on August 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I'll nth the "take the video." Even if he looks like shit right now, this is all his kid is going to have of what he looks like "live." Don't forgo it due to vanity or not wanting to traumatize the kid more.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:34 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would suggest your husband start a bunch of projects.

If he's a musician, he could get his hands on a digital multi-track recorder and put together a song for his son. But he could also write a song but leave it without vocals, or a guitar solo. Someday, maybe your son could supply those. Or a cello part.

If your husband's an artist, maybe he could start a project and leave space for your son to contribute someday. Even drawing a bunch of stuff that your son could color in. Paint a mural on your son's bedroom wall that he might think is cool when he turns 8.

He could do a lot of things, depending on what he's into. Mostly put together some model airplanes, or put them all together but leave them unpainted. Ship not yet in a bottle. Model rockets that your son one day could fit with engines and launch.

Start a game of Battleship; he could set up the boats and you could take over, trying to find your son's. Set up a couple of scavenger hunts; imagine handing your son his first dad-written clue at age 10 and watching when he finally finds the Beatles figurines or whatever the treasure is. Bury something in the yard, if you're not planning to move.

Have your husband pick out a bowling ball for him. And a baseball glove. A bicycle. Leave him the start of a comic book collection. Or a stamp collection, or baseball cards, or seashells -- whatever interests your husband most.
posted by troywestfield at 1:36 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just figuring out what the heck to talk about/film/etc is 80% of the issue.

"How your mother and I met"
"How I felt when you were born"
"When I was a kid I..."
"The thing I like most about summer"
"My favorite place in nature is...
"My favourite movies/books/bands are... because..."

Best wishes to you.
posted by Kerasia at 3:35 PM on August 13, 2012

One of the things I've realized about photography is that the first time anyone starts taking pictures it's super awkward, everyone is sort of posing like they have to be In The Picture. But if you keep taking pictures, it sort of fades into the background. Video is the same way, just start taking some and you will become video people. That part doesn't have to be a Legacy Project, just goofing around with a camera. It doesn't have to be good. You can do it with a smartphone, just taking 30 seconds or so of your husband reading or singing or horsing around or snuggling. You will end up with a lot of video of the back of people's heads and people will be backlit and maybe there are toys everywhere on the carpet. That's OK. Just keep filming. Keep everything for now, don't delete anything, and sort it out later.

It's good to do the really well-considered projects, and you have gotten some great ideas for that. But it's also good to just whip out your iPhone and start taking some shots, no pressure.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 5:17 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

If his parents or siblings are around, then you can totally skip this, but ask him maybe to write a little history of his side of the family - his parents and grandparents, his childhood. My dad died a few years ago, and I often find myself wondering about family stories I half-remember hearing but now can't find out any more about. I find myself wanting to tell those stories to my own kids now, to be able to say "your grandfather never learned to swim as a kid because his teacher threw him into the pool and he sank to the bottom and had to be rescued, and after that his mum refused to let him take any lessons, so that was the only class he failed in school" is somehow precious.

I hope the next months and years are full of love and joy among the grief for you and your family.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:28 PM on August 13, 2012

I cried for you, and for your husband and your child. And I called my father to tell him that I love him - thank you for reminding me how important it is to treasure our loved ones while they are here with us.

I love the idea of letters for specific occasions - throughout childhood (losing his first teeth?), but also entering high school, heading off to college, first job, engagement, wedding. Mid-life crisis. First child.

Have your husband tell him some stories (on video or in letters) that he would have saved for when he was an adult - stories about him getting drunk, or silly antics or pranks that he pulled with friends, or his favorite dirty jokes. His favorite music/films/books. A favorite recipe. I'm in my early twenties, and one of the things I've most loved about my relationship with my parents over the last 5 years or so is that I am finally getting to know them as equals, as an adult relating to other adults. Any taste of that sort of relationship that you can capture will be so appreciated in 20 years.

Perhaps your father could also reach out to some of his best male friends and ask them to step up over the course of the next few decades. To take your son out once a year, to teach him the rules of baseball, to talk to him about girls when the time comes. To give him an engraved watch for a wedding gift. Some people will do those things no matter what, of course - but a formal request lends a sense of commitment that the right people will take seriously.

May you find moments of light in these dark times.
posted by amaire at 12:10 AM on August 15, 2012

Response by poster: I wanted to come and report back. I realized from your answers that doing video was very important. From the suggestions I hit upon asking a friend of ours to interview him using storycorps as a resource. This was the perfect solution, my husband didn't have to think about what to talk about. Our friend came over and did the first interview on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. They talked for 2 hours and afterwards my husband wanted to lie down for a rest. He changed out of the shirt he'd been wearing, and I noticed his abdomen was turning purple. His liver failure was progressing and by that night everything was so wonky that he couldn't maintain a conversation or write a letter or even understand what was happening. He died a week later. That video was the last thing he did as himself, and I don't think I would have it if it wasn't for all of you. Our 18-month old son will one day have some chance of knowing his dad.

My intention is not to make you sad. I've just been struck so much by how even the dying think they have more time. That goes double for those of us who aren't aware that they are dying. I spent so much of that last week trying to get my husband to write me a letter. I was going through boxes of ephemera for the memorial, and I laughed at how silly I was to obsess over a letter. My husband always gave me cards for every occasion, and he always wrote something from the heart in the card. I have 15 years of letters from him, what was one more? Anyway, do a better job of being ready to die. Get life insurance, organize your passwords, make a video of yourself once in a while, and write something from the heart in the cards you send.
posted by Mozzie at 4:29 PM on October 3, 2012 [9 favorites]

Oh, Mozzie. I'm so sorry for your loss. Peace to you and your family. Thank you for checking in and for the reminders to take care of all that stuff you leave for "someday."
posted by goggie at 4:35 PM on October 3, 2012

Mozzie, I'm so sorry. I've been wondering about your family quite a bit ever since you posted this.

I heard a bit of Error Morris on Radiolab today, talking about how his dad died when he was 2, and he has no memories of him, and it's this big mystery in his life - who was this guy? I'm so glad your little boy will have this video when he's older. I think it will make such a huge difference.

My thoughts are with you and your son tonight. I will meditate for your peace and happiness.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:52 PM on October 3, 2012

I am so sorry for your loss.
posted by amaire at 12:02 PM on October 4, 2012

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