How often people are told to get their affairs in order when facing the likelihood of their death. One wonders why people have to wait to be told they are going to die before putting their affairs in order. We all know we are going to die sooner or later, so why wait? Would life not be smoother and less stressful if our affairs were always in order? That’s easier said than done, of course.
But that’s another subject. What I want to discuss in this article is the relationship between a couple’s putting their affairs in order and their coping with the reality of being separated by death. When death comes suddenly and unexpectedly, all of the survivors are confronted with the devastating, sometimes even frightening, reality that their loved one is no longer there to respond to their questions or to share their joys, their sorrows, their worries, their dreams. They have been deprived forever of their accustomed access to a precious source of information they may have taken for granted all their lives. That’s what makes losing a beloved parent so difficult for the children, not to mention the sheer grief of their loss.
Even when we have been forewarned of our own or a loved one’s imminent demise, as Margie and I were of hers, the task of getting our affairs in order is daunting indeed. There is so much to think about, so much to do. In addition to the painful anticipation of life without her companionship, the thought of my not having access to Margie’s memory, her knowledge, her contributions to our daily routines, to all the things she did that I never had to think about or worry about, was terribly disheartening. Coming on top of all of the immediate medical needs that now dominated our daily schedules and the health issues that had to be dealt with, the multi-faceted task of “getting our affairs in order” stirred within me a feeling close to desperation.
Fortunately for me Margie was a remarkably well organized person. She had always kept lists of where things were, and what and when things needed to be done. Every year I attached a to the back of our kitchen closet door a large 12-month calendar which she used to record appointments, birthdays, anniversaries, visits and other special events, deadlines, family phone calls, everything of importance. Her calendars were almost like a diary, and they served as a useful historical record, to which we often referred.
Thinking ahead, Margie wrote out instructions for me, so I would know how to do the things she had always done, like when, why, and how to use the various settings on the washing machine and dryer, and what kinds of detergents, bleaches, softeners to use, and where she kept various bills and records of household expenses, and when or how often certain household chores needed to be done. I was already doing many of these things before she died, but I felt more secure having her lists to fall back on, when she would no longer be around to refresh my memory or to answer my questions.
Margie had made a practice of labeling and dating all of our photographs before placing them in albums. That was immensely helpful, given the number of pictures we accumulated over the years. She had also kept notebooks indicating where and when we had acquired most of our knickknacks, and from whom we had received many of our gifts, and to which of our children or grandchildren she wanted to leave certain keepsakes and personal items after we were gone. I had made lists of the contents of our three safe deposit boxes, where our most precious items are stored. After having been burglarized twice (a third attempt was foiled), and having lost almost all of our most valuable possessions, including wedding presents and items we had acquired over the years, we were less concerned about material possessions.
For most people getting one’s affairs in order immediately evokes thoughts of the legal implications of death. It is amazing how many Americans die intestate (without a will). If you don’t decide how you want to distribute your estate, the government will decide for you! It goes without saying that everyone should have a will and keep it up to date. If you don’t have or can’t afford a lawyer, there are plenty of on-line resources to help you. Depending upon the size and nature of your estate, it does not have to be complicated or expensive.
Since Margie and I had made each other the primary beneficiaries of our respective wills, and since our home, our car, and most of our major tangible possessions were jointly owned, there was no problem in that regard. In addition to a modest joint stock account we each had our own small accounts, from which we had been withdrawing funds for years to help pay for our children’s education and other needs. We had disposed of all of Margie’s remaining stocks before she died, so there was no estate tax to pay.
In all the above ways Margie’s affairs were in order. Still, there is no way that anyone can possibly write down or record all the information, the numberless facts and figures stored in one’s fertile brain. Despite all of our preparations, despite all of our anticipatory conversations, despite all of her lists and notes, there were countless questions to which I had no answers following Margie’s death, things about which I now wish I could ask her, practical things, personal and family feelings, intimate things, spiritual things. I had no idea there would be so many things I would wish we had talked about when we were getting our affairs in order.
I don’t know how I could have anticipated this gap in the preparatory process. Maybe the realization can come only after the fact, after your loved one has died. I think Margie believed her own affairs were in order, that she had done everything she needed to do, and she had every reason to think so. There were, of course, things that she worried about. Her children’s problems and worries were her worries as well. That could have accounted for her sometimes slightly furrowed brow . Or perhaps it was a sign of her own continuous physical pain.
But her overall expression was peaceful and calm. There was no one with whom she needed to make amends; she had no unfinished business. She was at peace with God, had bid farewell to her loved ones, and had accepted her death. She knew I would be terribly sad, but she was confident that I could carry on without her, with the support of our wonderful children. I would be lonely but not alone.
Near the end, as our children separately and softly told her what she meant to them and would continue to mean to them for the rest of their lives, Margie had the most beautiful expression on her face. She was partially conscious until just before she died, and her eyes told us she was aware of our presence.
As her breathing became more irregular and weaker, we were timing the intervals between her breaths, until finally they ceased entirely. Her eyes were fixed in an expressionless, unseeing stare. My sweet Margie, the love of my life, was dead.
Despite all our preparations, I would soon discover how unprepared I really was, as I faced the task of putting my own affairs in order.