A Passing Observed

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Details

Sorry for not updating quicker, but though the issues in this blog may be closest to my heart they pretty much have to take a back seat for now to everything else I do. I promise I will continue to post here, but it will be slow for a while.

I mentioned in the first post about details and how they can be a mixed blessing of sorts. On one hand they seem like a never-ending stream of trivia at a time when all you want to do is either contemplate deeper philosophical life issues or just throw up your hands and have it all go away. But in an odd way they also keep you going. One of the big, scary questions at a time like this is, "What now?" What do you do now that you can't just pick up the phone and call your mom (or your dad or your spouse/sibling/friend/whoever)? How can your brain and heart swallow and process that information, let alone try to make sense of this new, strange world and its even stranger, yet inescapable, feelings? It's all so darn...BIG. The tiny, annoying details supply daily, sometimes minute-by-minute, answers to those questions. They don't resolve anything, mind you, but each one is like a bridge from one moment to the next...something to focus on and keep you going.

Have you ever photocopied 100 multi-paged documents and then had to put them together and staple them by hand? You know how you get through 20 or 50 or 70 of them but it seems like your stack isn't getting any smaller? All you can do is have faith. You say, "I know I'm doing something and this is bringing me closer to that final point when I can call this project 'completed' and start a new one, even if right now it doesn't look like that point will ever get here." That's what dealing with these details is like.

I should say, though, that I am not alone in doing this, nor have I even had to bear the brunt of it. My sister is actually the executor of mom's estate, which means that she has flown down to Arizona and spent a week there frantically trying to get things in some kind of order. I have been helping by proxy with advice over the phone and trying to deal with what I can in order to make it easier for her. In case you're curious, here are some of the things you have to think about:

--How do you get to where your loved one was?
--Which airline do you fly?
--How long do you need to arrange to be away?
--Who will cover for you in the meantime? (Or if you're at an hourly job like my sister, how are you going to make up the rent?)
--Who has to talk to the coroner?
--How long will the coroner keep your loved one?
--What caused the death anyway?
--Which funeral home do you use? (Especially if you're not familiar with them?)
--How is your loved one going to rest? (Coffin, cremation, what?)
--Where is your loved one going to rest? Is there a plot somewhere already purchased?
--How do you get them there?
--What kind of coffin/urn do you want? Is it that important?
--How about all those extras the funeral home offers?
--Is there going to be a service?
--What kind? Relgious? Not? Public? Private? Hymns? Readings?
--Who will do it?
--Will there be food after?
--What kind?
--Who is going to prepare and serve it?
--Who do you need to call to notify about the death?
--Who calls them?
--Who do you invite to the service?
--Do you want flowers as memorials? What if people want to give money? Where does it go?
--How many death certificates will you need? (To prove to credit card companies, the IRS, etc. that your loved one is gone.)
--How long will it take to get them?
--Just how many creditors/business relationships did your loved one have and who are they?
--Who picks up and responds to the mail?
--Are there any outstanding bills?
--What about assets? Where are the titles, stock certificates, bank accounts, secret safety deposit boxes, and all that?
--Was there any life insurance?
--Did your loved one have last requests? Who knows/has them?
--Was there a will?
--How long is it going to take to pack up all their stuff?
--What goes to whom?
--How do you get it to those people?
--Do you have an estate sale to get rid of the other stuff? If so, who's responsible for that? And what happens if Aunt Zelda is mad that you're selling the knick-knack that she gave to your loved one special (and that you found in the back corner of the attic)?
--Can you even bear to lose one piece of your loved one's estate? If not, where do you keep all that stuff???
--How and with whom do you list the house?
--How long will it take to sell?
--If there are payments to be made in the meantime, who makes them?
--What about taxes? Lawyers?
--How much is all of this going to cost?
--Where does that money come from?
--How many people should be involved in all these decisions? Just the executor? The family? Friends?
--How much friction will it cause to involve people? How about to not involve them? How do you make those decisions?

And that's just the tip of the iceberg one week into the process. I'm sure I could come up with more.

Fortunately there are usually people to aid you with these things. A good funeral home will be able to walk you through some of them without pressure, but then not all funeral homes are ethical or good. Same with clergy, lawyers, family, and friends. Being surrounded by good people can sure help though. You never know what a blessing it is to have someone come in and offer to do something simple, yet so difficult, like folding and sorting a closet full of clothes. Imagine how long it would take you to sort out your own closet if you had to move every piece. Now imagine doing all of that with the weight of grief on your shoulders and every blouse a memory.

I should also say that my mom did us all a HUGE favor by having herself together when it came to these things. She talked to us all about what she wanted when her time came. We knew to cremate her. We knew she didn't care where she was kept as long as it wasn't underground. She made out a pre-determined living trust for her financial matters and at least marginal plans for her possessions. (Though, alas, not complete with the latter. The work that's left in that vein is going to be a major headache to try and get right. I'll post more about that another time.) She kept everything in a single location and told us all where she could find it. If you haven't attended to these things, PLEASE...what are you waiting for? I know nobody likes to think about their last days, but it's such a gift to your children (or whoever) to have these things done. It's the only thing that makes an impossible task at least semi-possible. The crushing weight of having to make these decisions having no clue what your loved one intended or wished is too much to bear. It's like putting on someone else's life, but you can't get information from them, you can't answer to them, and you're grieving that at the same time you're bumping up against it. You doing a little work now, even if it's uncomfortable, will save others a world of trial later.

So far I think we're doing pretty well with all this. We've divided it into stages. Stage one was getting her physical remains taken care of. Stage two is the memorial service. Stage three will be arranging the house and possessions. Stage four will be selling the former and distributing the latter. That last part may not happen until next spring, to give you an idea of how long things can take.

We've had a couple frustrations. One is that the medical examiner took his own sweet time getting through with my mom's body. She died somewhere before 11:59 p.m. on the 27th of September. We know that because she was found at 12:30 a.m. on the 28th and she wasn't just half an hour dead. The coroner came an pronounced her dead, but then insisted that there had to be an autopsy. This took a week, during which time all I could think of was my mom, whose only real insistance was not to lay her in the ground somewhere, lying in cold storage with a tag around her toe. I know it didn't make a bit of difference to her, but for the rest of us that's kind of hard...especially for that length of time. Then apparently, from what I can figure out, the examiner simply declared the time of death at 12:30 on the 28th, which was when the coroner pronounced her dead. Obviously that's incorrect, so all that time and waiting was for nothing. And of course nobody could progress to Stage Two until the body was taken care of, so a lot of things were on hold. (Hint: Think friends and family clamoring, "When's the service? We need to have a service!" when we can't even get the body yet.) Plus apparently death certificates are written by hand in that county, and they say it's going to take weeks before we can get them. Those are weeks where we won't be able to stop bills or arrange other financial matters. Plus since none of us live near Arizona, this means another trip down and/or trying to do a ton of stuff long-distance.

This, by the way, brings up a second caution: choose your executors very intentionally, for the right reasons, and with consideration for everyone involved. If my mom sort of messed up in one area, this was it. She had two marriages...three kids from the first, two from the second. (I'm in the latter group.) When she chose her executors she chose my older half brother (her firstborn) and my younger sister (her last). Part of it I think was because those two had stayed closest in touch, which is a fine and valid reason. But she also stated to all of us that she wanted to balance it...one child from each marriage, one male and one female, so nobody would have cause to fuss or think she played favorites between older and younger, boys and girls. (This had been an issue at times with one of my older sisters.) This too was fine as far as it went. But for various reasons my brother was the only possible candidate from the older generation, which left my sister as the default choice from the younger. My sister is doing, and will continue to do, a good job...she is very capable. But my sister also goes to school, which she is paying for herself from loans and a shoestring budget which she maintains by working an hourly-rate job. Between the initial arrangements and the memorial services (we've decided to have one in Arizona for friends down there and one in Oregon for friends and family in the Northwest), my sister will have missed two weeks of her semester which she'll have to make up and two plus weeks of her job and paycheck which she cannot make up. (In fact people who take time off at her job usually see their subsequent schedule slashed as there are plenty of people begging to fill the gaps.) And there's more on the horizon because she has to be there to sign everything. Meanwhile I work at a salaried job with paid vacation and people who are very understanding and will let me do whatever I need to. I do not want to be the executor. I do not claim to have better skills at being an executor. (Mom herself said there was no real difference between us other than her desire for balance with my older brother and that's basically true...we're both very capable people and nobody would have complaints about either of our work.) But mom should have really thought the consequences through a little better. It would have been somewhat of an inconvenience for me to fulfill that role. It very well might submarine my sister, her school, and especially her rent. I'm sure mom didn't expect to go so soon. She probably thought my sister would be well out of school when the time came. But we don't always get to make that choice. I will try to help out all I can financially, but it's still going to be much harder than it needed to be.

OK...enough details for now. There's tons more stuff to write about another day.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Initial Thoughts

It may seem odd to write about my mother’s death. It certainly seems odd to me in some ways. Call it a symptom of the age. Either that, or in these times of grief you’re never quite sure who to talk to and how much. You have plenty of friends and they are very sympathetic. Those who have been through similar things are empathetic as well. But there’s a finite nature to such conversation. Any more than a few sentences, an affirmation of sadness, and a polite “thank you” seems indulgent on your part. It’s not so much that people wouldn’t listen, but the unspoken relief when the conversation moves from “that” to more normal things is palpable. It almost seems like your conversation partners are getting a tooth pulled. There’s mingled anticipation/dread alongside the conviction that this is something that needs to be done for the good of all. Sometimes they jump in with both feet, coming right out with an, “I’m sorry about your mom.” Other times it sits for a while, like the elephant in the closet. You can see the eyes move and hear the wheels turn during the conversation, and the longer it goes the harder they have to think about the “right moment” to bring it up. “Now? No…we can’t just jump from talking about sports and spaghetti into that. What kind of segueway can we find?” In any case, when it’s done…when the tooth is pulled…when it doesn’t drag out any longer than strictly necessary…you can sense the relief. “Oh, is that all it was? That wasn’t so bad. Thank goodness we’re safely beyond it.” I think mostly people just want permission to feel OK and want to know that you’re OK. I don’t hold that against them or anything. I’ve been the same way on the other side of similar situations, I’m sure. (In fact I’m aghast that my thoughts in such situations may have been more transparent than I realized.) So even though they’re good friends doing a good thing and are more than willing to listen, I feel reticent to presume. Here that’s not the case. You’re free to stop reading any time you wish and I’ll never know. Anonymity grants a certain liberty that can be refreshing in times like this.

Having never experienced a loss in my family like this before, I have no way of knowing if any of it is “normal”. What I’m about to share is just me.

The bare bones of the story are simple. I was up past midnight on Thursday, having just finished typing at this very computer, when the phone rang. In my line of work it’s not unusual to get calls in the middle of the night. Usually it means something is wrong for someone, somewhere. This time it was for me. The first hint that something was amiss was that the person on the other end used my whole first name, David. I always went by that as a kid but everybody I’ve known for the last eighteen years calls me Dave. My initial thought was that it was a scam artist who got my number out of a phone book somewhere. The voice sounded nervous, which confirmed that impression. But then she said that I didn’t know her, but she was my mom’s friend, J. I recognized the name at once, since mom had spoken of her often. I also knew in that instant exactly what it meant. The tone of voice and time of night said it all. It didn’t surprise me when she said she had noticed lights on at my mom’s house and had gone in to find she had died. Ironically enough, she had my number because it was on the answering machine. Earlier that day I got this strange urge to call my mother. That was unusual because, alas, I was not the best person for communicating and most often let her call me. I got the urge and I did call though, only to get the machine. They don’t know exactly when my mother passed, but I think I know to the minute.

In the first flurry of getting the news you don’t have time to feel much. There are people to call and to receive calls from—brothers and sisters, friends and such. Everybody’s making sure everybody else heard. Nobody is sharing much besides shock. The list of people to check with is the first of many, many details that will come in the days ahead. It’s funny…at a moment in your journey which is among the most profound, the most life-changing, and the most beyond control, you are plagued with a million little tasks that swarm around you like gnats, needing desperately to be swatted. Who’s going to take care of what? Who signs this? Who notifies these people? Where is the this and does anybody know about the that? Going to the mailbox to pick up your loved one’s letters and bills is like walking into a hail of skillfully-thrown softballs…each one a new headache in the waiting. Don’t even talk about visiting the funeral home or lawyers. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

That first night I didn’t sleep much. I was mostly in shock. To say my mom and I were close would be stretching it. There had been good times and bad times. But we loved each other and you only get one mom. Losing that is a break in your life that even now I’m still processing. (The finally summation of that is another post for much later, if ever.) She was in her 70’s, so her passing wasn’t totally out of the realm of possibility, but she had been in good health as far as I knew, so it was a major surprise. She lived in Arizona while I live in Idaho, so we saw each other infrequently. She had just been up for a visit a couple months before. I’m glad we had that time. Over the years we had worked our relationship to a point where it was comfortable and familiar. I came to the realization quickly that one of the blessings of all this was that although I missed getting to talk to her with that last phone call, it would not have been any different than the dozens of other conversations we’d had. There was nothing left unsaid between us…no greater healing or depth or profundity for the relationship to grow into. We were what we were, and it was good. There could have been more time…I wish there was more time…but it would have been time for more of the same. I miss her terribly, but I have few regrets. This also meant I could play that conversation we would have had in my mind, which was somewhat of a comfort. It would have ended as it always did, with an “I love you mom” followed by her “I love you too, honey”. That makes my eyes tear up just thinking about it, because as I type I get a carbon copy her voice in my mind. It’s a good thing to have in there.

Obviously there are a million things more to talk about, but lest this post run out of control for now I’ll limit myself to just sharing how I’ve been feeling the last few days, which is something it’s harder to share in person. As I said, I always knew this was a possibility. Many times as she or I left to get on a plane the thought crossed my mind, “I wonder if this is the last time?” (Ironically enough that didn’t even occur to me the real last time.) When you think that, you feel a certain amount of what they call “anticipatory grief”. It’s this bittersweet welling of emotion that rises from your heart as you anticipate your eventual reaction to such news. The real reaction, for me at least, was nothing like that.

The pain of death isn’t a sharp, cutting pain, like someone sliced into you and clean blood is flowing. It's not even like you lost part of you like a limb that’s been separated now. It’s a dull, flat pain, like someone just swung at you with a wheelbarrow. You’re all there and you can’t identify a specific place where you hurt, but you’re kind of disoriented and there’s a near-subliminal ache emanating from places you didn’t know you had. You notice everything—walls, floor tiles, pictures, drapes—but it feels like everything has been moved an inch in some odd direction, like things are a little bit out of step in space and time. You look out the window and notice sunlight on the trees and the vivid colors of the leaves, but it looks somehow artificial, like wax fruit. Its definitiveness makes it all the more displaced. But the funny thing is that you know it hasn’t changed…you have. Or more precisely, one of your relationships has. Something connected to you has washed over you and turned your world inside out, like a river flooding down a gorge. And you know this has happened before in this relationship—that’s why it was so dear to you—but it was slowly, over months and years, and by degrees. As you grew into the relationship (and it into you) you couldn’t consciously identify all the ways it changed you, as they were so subtle. Now that is all thrown into stark relief all at once, like someone shined a bright spotlight on all those changes and how profoundly this relationship affected you, while at the same time you realize that something in the relationship is severed and won’t be put back the way it was this side of heaven. That sense of revelation and loss at the same time can be overwhelming…even a bit scary. It’s like you almost don’t want to notice what you’re seeing, but not to acknowledge it would deny the very things you’re trying to remember and hold onto. That’s the conundrum death leaves you. So you watch and think and remember and try to assimilate something that’s too big to assimilate all at once. Mostly you lose yourself in the details. (Wait…are they curse or blessing?) And it’s all too much to explain when someone asks how you’re doing, so you say, “I’m sad, but I’m doing OK.”

Truthfully all in all I’m not doing badly. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve remembered. In some ways I wish I could feel happier, in other ways sadder. It’s too early for either, though. I’m sure I will feel more of both as things progress.

I anticipate there will be more posts, as there are a hundred more things to write/think about concerning my mom, death, grieving, and the like. When something seems interesting or odd or meaningful I’ll probably write more. If you’d like to share your own thoughts and experiences in the comment section you’re more than welcome.


P.S. I chose this template because my mom would like the color.