Terminally Ill Man Throws His Own Funeral

Before he died July 3, 2014, nine days before his 65th birthday, Louis Misko did something few get the opportunity to do: he threw himself a wake.

For the great majority of us, things break down like this: We die, and then our family and friends gather for a send-off. If we're lucky, a few people remember us with kindness. There are tears, of course, and almost always laughter. Good food and drink are optional.

Louis Misko didn't want to miss his own party. After all, what's a so-called "celebration of life" without a living person there to celebrate it?

That's why the 64-year-old California man with Stage 4 lung cancer decided to throw himself two pre-passing parties. The first, at his San Diego home, took place March 15. The second was held at a New Orleans restaurant April 28 after Misko had a final chance to attend the city's Jazz and Heritage Festival.

"The parties? It's kind of like, 'Why not?'" Misko said. "This is how everyone should do it. Why do it the other way?"

In 2011, a lung biopsy revealed Misko, who had never smoked, had terminal cancer. Still, he felt relatively well, even while undergoing chemotherapy. "I had gotten used to it. 'I have cancer, but I'm doing OK,'" he said.

A steadier decline began in 2013. His doctor at Moores Cancer Center at the University of California San Diego told him he would most likely be dead by June 2014. When he protested that he had a lot of thing he wanted to do and arrangements to make before then, she said, "You'd better get started."

The idea for a pre-passing celebration had come to Misko, a U.S. Navy veteran and civil engineer, after he attended the funeral of a close friend. "He was such a great guy and people there were saying great things about him, but he wasn't there," said Misko, getting emotional as he recalled the event.

Misko's proud to say that he and his wife of 12 years, Amy Dal Nagro, are consummate entertainers, known for holiday parties that draw upward of 100 guests. They're also not afraid to embrace the unusual celebration: When their cat Quigley, age 10, died of cancer, they invited friends over for a New Orleans-style jazz funeral. Quigley's goodbye featured traditional food and music as well as a backyard interment of the cat's ashes led by an actual minister. Guests dropped bits of cat nip into the grave.

The pre-passing party was a natural extension of that spirit. The first, in March, drew guests from as far away as New York. Dennis Goerner, Misko's freshman year roommate and fellow member of Tulane University's class of '72, flew in from Texas and marveled at the turn-out.

"About 150 people came and I said, 'I don't even know 150 to invite to a party like this, much less getting 150 who would come,'" Goerner, of Longview, Texas, said.

Goerner initially thought the idea for a pre-passing party was odd, but something Misko would do.

"I assumed that if anyone would be this strong at this point in their life, it would be him," he said. "He didn't want to go into a dark room and pull the shades. He kept living."

At the party, guests wore tags with their names and details about their connection to Misko. There were no formal speeches or presentations. Friends mingled and talked while enjoying food and drink. Misko played a YouTube video sent by a friend and former co-worker who lives in Kentucky. In the two-minute clip, the woman named Fran shares that she was upset when she learned she would be working with Misko, whom she considered an arrogant misogynist.

She soon found she was wrong. She lists the many things she learned from Misko, including how to read a topographical map to how to write certain type of contract.

"Most of all, I learned you … you are one of the kindest, most intelligent, giving people I've ever known," she says. "I'm going to miss you so much, but I'm going to see you again. And I know you don't believe that, but it's so. And I cannot wait until I see you and you tell me, 'Fran, you were right and I was wrong. I love you, Louis."

The idea to hold a second party in New Orleans was easy. Misko and Dal Nagro love the city, where Misko went to college. They've attended Jazz Fest before, too, and always said they'd try to get in one more if Misko was healthy enough to travel. And Misko still has many friends and family in Biloxi, Miss., about 70 miles away.

"This was a last opportunity to see people while he was still alive and they could enjoy him and he could enjoy them," Dal Nagro said.

Her husband's health has sharply declined since the March event, she said, and she was unsure he'd be able to make this final journey. She has watched him carefully, wondering first if he'd live until her April 12 birthday, and then hoping he'd survive long enough for the flight to Louisiana April 23.

"I've taken care of four family members, and Louis is my third cancer patient," she said. "I know the signs when you're getting close."

On April 28, about 40 of Misko's friends and family gathered at Pascal Manale's, a popular New Orleans restaurant. His three sisters were there, as were a seemingly endless line of cousins and second cousins. (The one close family member not in attendance was Misko's father, who is 100 years old. He does not know his son is dying. The plan is to only tell him if it becomes necessary, and then to say that Misko died suddenly of a heart attack.)

During the event, Misko learned for the first time how he had inspired one relative to follow in his footsteps and become an engineer. The choice, the relative said, has helped him live a wonderful life.

Since the first party, Misko has also learned how his marriage to Dal Nagro inspired one friend to believe in relationships again. An acquaintance let him know she was "on the ropes" and desperate until a recommendation from Misko helped her get a job.

"He had no idea how he'd impacted people's lives," Dal Nagro said. "These are the things you don't find out until after someone's gone. It's nice that he can know it now."

Dal Nagro knows it will soon be time to part with her husband. The two parties have helped her prepare.

"It's made it a little easier," she said. "It's broken things down into stages."

Goerner said he would host a prefuneral party himself if he had any advance warning of his death. He joked that at his own party, he could see himself "chasing guests around, shouting, 'Tell me you love me!'"

Not so Misko, he said, noting his longtime friend has remained solid, strong and calm.

"It's strange to see someone with such strength in his darkest hours," Goerner said. "That's his legacy to his friends and family: 'I'm leaving, but everything will be all right.' It's better than anything else you can do.”

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."