"Sometimes when you're doin' simple things around the house
Maybe you'll think of me and smile
You know I'm tied to you like the buttons on your blouse
Keep me in your heart for a while … "
While she assumes that it's a someday far in the future, Cathy Wurzer has selected the song she wants playing as her life winds down: "Keep Me in Your Heart" by the late Warren Zevon.
"I picked that song for my dad's funeral. I was with him when he took his last breath and it was such a life-changing event for me," she said. "The song shreds my soul; I cry every time I hear it."
The veteran Minnesota broadcaster is on a mission to encourage everyone to make what she calls a deathbed playlist.
"People make their end-of-life wishes known in advance care directives and living wills. Some leave instructions on what they want at their funerals, including music," said Wurzer. "Think of the [deathbed] playlist as the soundtrack to the days before you leave."
Making peace with death is breathing new life into Wurzer's career and outlook. At 59, she recently added a line to her long, impressive resume: nonprofit founder.
She still co-anchors "Almanac," the weekly public affairs show on TPT, and hosts Minnesota Public Radio's "Morning Edition" from 6-9 a.m. and the new, looser "Minnesota Now" over the noon hour.
But somehow she's found time and energy for her passion project, End in Mind.
Wurzer conceived the nonprofit to help others "achieve a level of comfort and mastery with uncomfortable conversations about grief and loss, death and dying."
The tagline for End in Mind is "Live More. Fear Less." It's a motto that Wurzer first embraced through a series of poignant and unflinching radio conversations with Bruce Kramer, former dean of the College of Education at St. Thomas University, after he was diagnosed with ALS at age 55.
Wurzer followed Kramer as his disease progressed, sharing his vulnerability and determination to not shrink from the reality of his diagnosis. They co-authored the book "We Know How This Ends," based on their storytelling collaboration, and she was present at his death in 2015.
"Right before he died. Bruce told me, 'Find ripples in our work and carry it on.' I didn't know what that meant but he said, 'You'll know it when you see it.' "
Asking deep questions
Wurzer sees End in Mind as the next step in what she started with Kramer. It's become a resource-chocked website with information about creating legal directives, connecting caregivers to support and offering ideas to spark frank conversations about end-of-life plans. It's also the landing page for Wurzer's "Living With ... " podcasts, interviews with people "living fully amid loss," as she puts it.
Wurzer has big dreams for End in Mind beyond breaking taboos. Through partnerships, grants and foundation funding, she wants to add more interactive tools and a user-friendly app. She also plans to create video modules that use the arts as a doorway to contemplate impermanence and uncertainty.
"Cathy is the right person to carry these messages," said Mary Messina, a funeral celebrant, strategic consultant for Thrivent and board member of End in Mind.
"She has the ability to network and reach influencers but she also has a voice and a presence. She's not a preacher or a lecturer, she's a journalist and can ask the questions to make you ponder deep things," she said. "She shows the value in talking about tough stuff before you face a predicament."
'Catalyst for cultural change'
The pandemic stepped up End in Mind's digital offerings but halted Wurzer's ability to stage public gatherings. She hopes to resume hosting community events with a live audience to share "life lessons about accepting mortality."
"We're not taught what to say and how to feel when someone is dying, but we can develop skills, confidence and mastery in these areas," Wurzer said. "We also help people think about what kind of care they want at the end and then how to share that with their loved ones."
She's planning one such program with Richard Leider, a Twin Cities-based coach, speaker and author of 11 bestsellers that address the human need for living with purpose at every age. He featured Wurzer in his most recent book "Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful Aging."
"I think of Cathy as a catalyst for cultural change," Leider said. "She's finding her purpose, to help others live fully with meaning and joy no matter their adversity."
Leider suspects that the upheaval and losses of the past two years have made End in Mind's mission more urgent.
"The pandemic highlighted the necessity of these conversations; death is daily before our eyes," he said. "Look at the demographics; we're in the midst of a longevity revolution and a mega-shift in the mind-set about aging. An increasing population finds talking about death and dying relevant and necessary. Cathy provides a safe environment for that."
Despite her attraction to profound questions about mortality, Wurzer is curious about a varied and surprising range of activities that she pursues just for pleasure.
A graduate of Minneapolis South High School and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Wurzer is a longtime equestrian and fly fisherwoman. She started online flamenco dancing lessons during the pandemic, augmenting her 20 years of belly-dancing classes where she "shakes it and lets it go" as a stress reliever. She collects vintage radios and creates mosaics from broken glass; it's her dream to have one of her mosaics accepted for display at the State Fair.
Divorced from but still "best of friends" with her "Almanac" co-host Eric Eskola, Wurzer is devoted to her mother and spends a significant chunk of her time at her mother's home in Knife River, Minn. Wurzer often hosts her radio shows from MPR's nearby Duluth studios while in the midst of "Mom duty."
"Caregiving is hard but satisfying," she said. "It's expanded my heart in a way I didn't think possible."
Wurzer's father died in 2014 following diagnoses of dementia and lymphoma. In his honor, she recently established the Richard "Fritz" Wurzer Memorial Scholarship, expressly designed for adults who go to college in midlife.
"In his early 50s, Dad quit his job at Munsingwear because he wanted to do something different. He went to St. Thomas and got his master's in education and had a really satisfying career as a teacher," she said. "He would like it if we could help other people take a leap of faith in their midlife years."
Wurzer has her own end in mind. She's purchased a niche in the Columbarium Wall at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis where her ashes will someday be placed. It's not far from the Wurzer family plot where her immigrant grandparents and father are buried; it will be the final resting place for her mother, as well.
"I like walking through cemeteries," she said. "I find it calming."
Despite her media omnipresence, Wurzer considers herself a private person. "Almanac" producer Brendan Henehan, who selected Wurzer to co-host the program in 1994, thinks she is both accessible and a little mysterious.
"Her listeners and viewers feel like they know her. She has a brightness, an energy. They've seen her stretch, grow, renew herself by trying things she hadn't done before," he said. "But she has a natural reserve and I think putting a line between her personal and professional lives has helped her survive."
At an age when many of her peers have begun strategizing their workplace exit, Wurzer has no plans to retire. She said her new ventures have reinvigorated her.
"I'm still climbing the mountain. I see so many possibilities ahead," she said.
"What I'm doing with End in Mind has made me ask, how do you want to live until you can't? People think it's depressing, but it's not. It's the most joy-filled work I've ever done."
On MPR: "Morning Edition, 5-9 a.m. weekdays; "Minnesota Now," noon-1 p.m. weekdays; mprnews.org.
On TPT: "Almanac," 7 p.m. Fridays on TPT, Ch. 2; 10 p.m. Fridays on TPT MN; www.tpt.org/almanac.
Podcasts: "Living With ... the End in Mind," "How We Heal" and more; endinmindproject.org/podcasts.
End in Mind Project: endinmindproject.org.
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis writer and broadcaster.