Sari Botton | Longreads | December 2018 | 23 minutes (5,667 words)
When I graduate from college in May of 1987, I receive a call from the Sephardic Brotherhood, an organization of which my father is a lifelong member. After congratulating me on this milestone, the man on the phone suggests I begin planning for another bigger one down the road: Would I like to be buried in their section of a Jewish cemetery in New Jersey? If I sign up now, I can lock into their special rate of just $90 per year.
I’m only 22 at the time, but I’ve just put myself through four years of college by working and scrimping and saving and worrying, and damn if I don’t recognize a bargain when I hear it — not to mention an opportunity to gain a sense of control over something. I mail off a check and then go about the business of hunting for my first real job in journalism; beginning my adult life while responsibly covering my bases for the end of it.
Two years later I marry for the first time, and the Sephardic Brotherhood calls again. Would I like to have my husband — he’s 25 — buried beside me?
“Hang on,” I say to the man on the other end. “Honey?? Do you want to be buried with me in the Sephardic part of a Jewish cemetery in New Jersey? It’s $90 a year.”
“I don’t know,” my husband shouts from another room in our small apartment. “Can we think about it?”
“I’ll get back to you,” I tell the man.
That weekend, at dinner with my in-laws, we inform them of the wonderful opportunity before us. “What?!” my mother-in-law shrieks. “But we’re already paying for plots for you — and your children — with the Shpitzernitzer* Society!”
(*In America from the late 19th to the early 20th Century, European Jewish immigrants formed hundreds of groups like the Shpitzernitzer Society and the Sephardic Brotherhood. Originally these societies served multiple purposes — helping members find jobs, learn English, and navigate immigration issues and assorted other legal matters. Many also became discount burial plot brokers.)
It’s news to us that our corpses and those of our theoretical future children are already spoken for, but we aren’t about to argue over it. On Monday I call the Brotherhood and cancel my burial plan. They issue a full refund.
My first husband is a traveling salesman and I live in constant fear he’ll die in a plane crash. It’s an anxiety exacerbated by my mother’s habit of phoning every single time she’s about to board a flight and reciting the same litany of worst-case information: her bank account numbers, who to call to cash out her life insurance policy, which jewelry I can expect to find in her safety deposit box.
The instinct to ward off death with OCD-like rituals is not a new one. I’d first resorted to this type of irrational behavior when I was 6 and learned my beloved maternal grandmother was dying of breast cancer.
Around the time of our wedding there’s a news story about a flight attendant on Aloha Air getting sucked out of a plane when the roof was randomly blown off. From then on, every time my husband flies, I obsess about this happening to him. Each time he exits the apartment with his suitcase, I compulsively half-joke: “Don’t get sucked out of the plane!” and then nervously laugh. Sometimes I say it twice, or three times.
The instinct to ward off death with OCD-like rituals is not a new one. I’d first resorted to this type of irrational behavior when I was 6 and learned my beloved maternal grandmother, “Nanny Clarisse,” was dying of breast cancer.
“Nanny is very sick,” my mother explained. “She has been sick for a long time. She will probably die very soon.”
Six months earlier we’d had nearly the same conversation about our miniature poodle, Figaro, after he’d had an epileptic seizure and my parents rushed him to the vet. The dog never came back home — he died that night. At 5-and-a-half, that had been my first and only exposure to death. It had scared me and made me feel helpless, and also somehow responsible, as if despite having been warned Figaro’s life was in jeopardy, I’d failed to save him.
Now, less than a year later, death was back, and it was gunning for my favorite person, my grandmother, with whom I had a unique and special bond. On my treasured weekend sleepovers with her and my grandfather, Nanny and I would play together — finger painting, dancing along with the Wonderama gogo, starring in Ivory soap commercials in the bathroom mirror. We were kindred creative spirits and I could not imagine life without her. I felt charged to take some kind of action — to act out in some way.
“No!” I protested when my mother was done explaining. “No! No! No! No! No!…” I kept going, imagining that if I said No enough times, I could reverse the likelihood of Nanny dying.
When my voice got tired (and I got tired of hearing my voice), I was struck with a new compulsion: to clench my fists hard and hold them indefinitely. In that moment I convinced myself that if I didn’t let go I could vanquish whatever evil force threatened to remove my grandmother from my life. I squeezed and squeezed, hard, until I had cramps in my hands, and couldn’t hold my grip any longer. When I finally let go, I saw that my fingernails had dug half-moons into the flesh of my palms. The next morning I was back at it, squeezing my hands into fists for as long as I could before it hurt too much and I had to stop. Later that day my mom broke the news that Nanny had died. I was wrecked. I cried and cried — tears of sadness, but also of bewilderment and frustration. How could I have failed to save her, too?
Three years after the wedding, it’s my marriage to the traveling salesman that dies. (We hadn’t considered the possibility that we might both outlive our union.)
You-know-who gives me a jingle and offers me the chance to reclaim my solitary grave for the same $90 per year, plus the $180 they’d returned to me. But I’m struggling financially — working full time while also starting an MFA program I’ll soon have to drop out of, and spending too much on New York City rent and takeout. “No, thank you,” I say.
Each year the Sephardic Brotherhood reaches out again. When Caller I.D. is invented, I screen their calls, all the while promising myself that some day I’ll do the adult thing and start investing in my burial.
It turns out I needn’t have worried; my father had been paying the Brotherhood for a plot for me all along — through my 20s, 30s and mid-40s. There’s a catch, though.
I learn about this in February of 2010, when I’m 45 and celebrating my fifth wedding anniversary to my second husband, Brian, a lapsed Catholic. We’re spending a romantic weekend at a lovely beachfront hotel when I see my father’s number come across my phone. I assume he’s Doing the Right Thing — wishing us a happy anniversary despite his objection to my marrying out of the faith — so I pick up. But no, he’s calling, he regrets to inform me, because, “I thought you should know that since Brian isn’t Jewish, he can’t be buried with you in the cemetery.”
It’s not that my father doesn’t like Brian. Shortly after we were married, he conceded, “He’s smart, he’s kind, he likes to read good books, and he appreciates good music — it’s almost as if he were Jewish!”
“That’s not called ‘Jewish,’ Dad,” I tried to correct him, “it’s called ‘smart,’ and ‘kind’ and ‘cultured.’”
“Well,” he insisted, “I like to call it ‘Jewish.’”
Since then, my dad has come not only to accept Brian, but to adore him. (I know this because every time he calls, he says, “Is Brian eating healthy? It’s important that he eats good proteins and fats and complex carbohydrates! I want him to live long!” In the winters he adds, “I hope you’re not letting him shovel snow. Men his age can have heart attacks that way!”) But back at the five-year mark, as far as my father was concerned, “almost Jewish” still didn’t count. The anniversary of our elopement to City Hall (another sore point for a father who is in the wedding business) seemed to him a good opportunity to remind me.
“Don’t worry about our graves,” I shot back. “We’re going to be cremated. Get your money back.”
Are Brian and I going to be cremated? I have no idea. As of this writing, Brian is 56, I’m 53, and we have exactly zero end-of-life plans. We possess nothing even vaguely resembling living wills. We don’t know each other’s bank account numbers or passwords. Back in 2005, around the time of our elopement, I did sign up for cheap life insurance from the Freelancer’s Union — for about $75 a month, when the first one of us dies, the other gets $25,000. But that won’t go far.
What happened to the super-responsible young woman who made the first payment on her burial plot at 22? When I got divorced at 26, I retired the role of Prematurely Adult Sari (invented when I was 10 and my parents split up), a girl so eager to seem grownup that she married before her frontal lobe had finished developing. When I moved out, I swung the other way and started living a bit more on the edge, giving up my full-time job for less stable freelancing, leaving the staid Upper West Side for the rough and tumble East Village of the early 90s, traipsing around it with a string of Peter Pans — a grunge era Tinker Bell in Never Never Land. It would be another 13 years before I’d settle down again, with Brian.
Brian is 56, I’m 53, and we have exactly zero end-of-life plans. We possess nothing even vaguely resembling living wills.
Until recently the matter of our deaths hadn’t seemed too pressing, probably because we have no children to leave anything to (which of course also means that in our old age there will be no one to care for us, or bury or cremate us), and also because we’re both generally healthy, and have each always seemed kind of young for our age.
But a year ago I stopped coloring my hair, and boy is there a lot of gray. And the other day a 30-ish woman from the local power company came to my house and I overheard her describe me on the phone to her boss as “an older woman.” It’s getting harder for me to deny that I’m middle aged, which is in turn making it harder for me to ignore the encroachment of death.
Actually, though, who knows? Maybe “middle aged” is generous. Maybe I’m way past the middle, and closer to the end. Both of my grandmothers died around my age — Clarisse at 54; Sally at 51, a few years before I was born. A writer I admired essentially dropped dead in the middle of a conversation when she was 51, despite being a vegan with a dewy complexion who did yoga every day. Last weekend I attended a memorial for a camp friend two years younger than me who just died of breast cancer.
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How do I know where I currently stand along the timeline of my life? How does anyone? We’re all living stories whose twists and turns — and conclusions — we know nothing of until we reach them. The science of genetics allows us to predict only so much about which illnesses we might contract when, and whether they might kill us. We live in more advanced times than our ancestors, so maybe the cancers and other diseases that took their lives are curable now. Maybe you’ll survive them, but then hang on indefinitely with lifelong debilitating side effects from the treatments. Or maybe you’ll get hit by a car before the cancer ever has a chance to establish itself. (That said, I have already survived being hit by a massive S.U.V.)
What determines when and how you die, anyway? Is it a simple function of genetics and chance? Is it predestined the day you’re born? Is it a constant negotiation with some fickle, all-powerful being (whose sense of irony I am possibly testing by daring to write this)?
These questions and a million others have been consuming me lately, keeping me awake at night while Brian sleeps soundly beside me. He and I have reached a phase of life where death is naturally occurring more often among our family, friends and acquaintances. Social media keeps us instantly informed every time someone in our circle has passed on, or is about to. With each new posting, I find myself more unsettled, and troubled by our lack of plans.
Recently so many friends (and “friends”) have died, or announced they are about to: The husband of a friend, who one day couldn’t pee, and a year later was dead from prostate cancer, leaving her a widow. The friend with stage IV breast cancer who is blithely live-blogging her demise, posting frequently about how she’s got one foot in living and the other in dying. She introduces me to concepts like death doulas, and green burials, and “living funerals,” where those with terminal illnesses get to hear their loved ones eulogize them before they die. There’s the 15-year-old who loses her four-year battle with a rare pediatric blood disease. The 50-something guy who went to bed one night and didn’t wake up the next day…the family friend in his 40s who did the same thing…the 49-year-old guy we only knew a little (and, quite honestly, didn’t like), who did that, too. So many wives have woken up in the morning to find their husbands’ dead bodies beside them.
The quickening stream of obituaries in my Facebook feed — along with crowdfunding campaigns to pay for burials and chemo treatments — makes me hyper aware that someday Brian or I might suddenly drop dead, or fall ill and die slowly, painfully, and expensively. That unless we’re killed together in a car accident, or in some major catastrophe like a plane crash, a nuclear attack, or, ever more likely in these dark times, a mass shooting, Brian and I will likely not die simultaneously. One of us will be left alone, bereaved, heartbroken, forced to go on without the other. And unless we make some decisions soon, the one left standing will have a lot of heavy bills and difficult shit to figure out while also grieving.
Somehow Brian is not worrying like I am. He’s not walking around like a sleep-deprived zombie after hours-long bouts of death-related anxiety overnight — not even after suddenly losing a childhood friend last year, who had a heart attack behind the wheel of his car while driving home from a gig with his band. I bring up the idea of living wills and Brian seems to think I’m being alarmist, as if death is an unfortunate thing that only happens to unfortunate people, not a regular feature of life that occurs for everyone. I’ve tried framing the topic neutrally and speaking calmly, but repressing my emotions in this way has backfired, leading me to become somewhat hysterical, developing a kind of Tourette’s, whereby I periodically blurt out our doom. Last winter, for instance, after he says he’s found a dead mouse at his office, I hear myself saying, “One day, one of us is going to wake up and find the other lifeless and rotten-smelling, like a dead rodent, and won’t know what to do.” On another occasion, when I notice he is procrastinating on finishing the collection of songs he’s been working on for at least as long as I’ve known him, I say, “Life is short, and if you don’t do it soon, you may die without ever having finished.”
People turn to rituals as a source of comfort, but mine don’t seem to work that way. They definitely don’t stop me from frequently trying to predict which one of us will die first.
Don’t worry — he can take it. In fact, when I say these things, it barely makes a dent. Brian maintains a certain sangfroid about death. He waxes TED Talk about what a privilege it was to be at his father’s hospice bedside when he died at 85, to witness the look of awe that came over his dad’s face as he took his last breath. “It’s as if he saw something assuring, and thought, this is what I have been afraid of?” Brian is able to focus on why not to be scared of death, and I can’t stop thinking of reasons to be terrified.
I resort once again to my own weird rituals. Many nights, as we’re about to turn out the lights, I’ll find myself compulsively issuing the same desperate plea: “Just don’t ever die, okay?” I say it, half-jokingly, again and again, like a mantra, as if those words alone could make him immortal.
“You know I can’t promise that,” Brian will say, then pull me in for a hug meant to suggest the assurances his words, and reality, can’t.
“Well, maybe don’t always eat only corn chips for every meal when I’m not around,” I’ll blurt.
When I travel without Brian, I make sure the refrigerator is stocked with ample alternatives to his default staple, Tostitos. I’ll buy an organic rotisserie chicken, broccoli, salad, fresh, local corn on the cob. I leave him post-it notes reminding him to eat it all, and every time I call I remind him to read the notes. As I’m putting myself to bed wherever I’ve traveled to, I worry about whether he’ll drop dead before I return home. I try to soothe myself and ward off death with the ritual of imagining the healthy food traveling around his body, depositing in his flesh and bones just the right amount of protein, good fat, and fiber.
People turn to rituals as a source of comfort, but mine don’t seem to work that way. They definitely don’t stop me from frequently trying to predict which one of us will die first. If I die first, I wonder, will Brian remarry? Will it be to someone younger? If he dies first, will I remarry? Or will I learn to be single and content with it — not see it as a condition that needs to be remedied as the culture does, as I once did, before we met?
If I remain single, who will find the body when it’s my turn to die?
Sometimes my fears are most pronounced when Brian and I are just hanging out, having a sweet old time together. I’ll think, What if this all suddenly ends? I know coupledom is hardly the only way to live, and that happy coupledom is a rare privilege I enjoy. But it’s the life setup I have, and love, and would be devastated to lose. What if the rug is pulled out from under me as it was when I was 6 and Nanny Clarisse died? Or when my parents divorced. More than once I’ve interrupted our good time to say, “If we have to die, I hope we can go together, at the exact same minute, so neither of us ever has to grieve or bury the other,” and I mean it. We know a couple who have stockpiled Halcyon, enough to end both of them, in case of a nuclear war, or other apocalyptic conditions. Occasionally I’ve suggested we devise a similar pact. “Sure, why not,” Brian says with a laugh, humoring me.
Recently death has crept in way closer than just our social media circle, ratcheting up my anxiety even higher.
A couple of years ago, Brian’s mother died at 94. She’d been spry and impish until 92, but a few weeks after that birthday, she fell and broke her hip. She spent the next two years miserable, eager for her life to end. She was aged and infirm, but not unwell enough to just fucking die. She asked over and over, “How much longer? When will it be over? I want it to be over,” giving me something new to worry about: how hard it can be, how long it can take, to actually exit this plane when you no longer have the will to live.
Next came Stanley, my stepfather of 33 years, this past May, at 89, leaving my mother a widow at 77.
Stanley was the youngest, most boyish 89 you ever met. He still played golf three times a week, made food choices like a toddler, and enjoyed life more than anyone I know. He was strong and hearty, and seemed indestructible.
The night before I travel to a journalism conference in Chicago, Stanley is taken to the hospital in Florida, where he and my mother live half the year. He’s had a bad reaction to a medication prescribed by his cardiologist to lower his triglycerides, because he won’t help that process along by sticking to a heart-healthy diet. Stanley likes his Nathan’s hot dogs, his Haagen Dazs Vanilla, his Johnny Walker Black. He tells me on the phone from his hospital bed that he thinks he’s actually okay, but at a deep level of my consciousness, I’m not convinced.
Brian is able to focus on why not to be scared of death, and I can’t stop thinking of reasons to be terrified.
The next morning I get in my car in Kingston at 4:30am to head toward the airport. Beck is on the radio singing something about “Lord only knows it’s getting late,” and strangely it confirms what I know in my bones but don’t want to. “No!” I protest to the dashboard. “No! No! No! No!…”
My plane has landed and is taxiing toward the gate in Chicago when I get a call from my mom — Stanley is in the ICU, his liver and kidneys failing. In the middle of the night, another call: Stanley’s hallucinating, raving and ranting, trying to throw his bed over. When can I come to Florida to help out? I catch a flight.
A few hours later, in the ICU, I find Stanley glowing a neon yellow and delusional from the combination of ICU psychosis and hepatic encephalopathy. He isn’t sure whether I’m visiting him in Florida or he’s visiting me in Kingston, but either way, he’s happy to see me. While I’m glad I’m there, I’m not feeling hopeful.
All day I witness him laughing to himself and having imaginary conversations, in some cases with friends long dead. One afternoon he smiles and starts singing, “Heaven, I’m in heaven…” It’s familiar shtick, his standard jokey way of emphasizing how much he likes something. But now the words are too on the nose. “No, pal,” I say, using one of his favorite terms of endearment. “Not yet. Please. I’m begging you.”
Every now and then he becomes belligerent again and tries to escape his bed, and it’s terrifying. Eventually, though, a few days later he regains lucidity, and there’s enough of an improvement in his liver and kidney functions for him to be moved to the ICU step-down unit.
As he’s waiting in a wheelchair for his room to be ready, Stanley looks up at me with big, blue, jaundice-rimmed eyes full of fear and sorrow. “Sar,” he quietly asks, “do people come back from this?”
He wants me to tell him he’s not dying. My brain grasps at whatever shreds of hope it can find, for both our sakes — as if I haven’t googled every angle of this 100 times in the past 48 hours and learned it’s not looking good. “Yes,” I lie, thinking of stories I’ve heard about people postponing death significantly because they’re oblivious to the fact that they’re dying. “People do come back from this. You can, too.”
We learn that he can improve his chances of recovery by doing laps around the halls using a special walker, with his IV meds dragged along on a rolling cart. Three times a day, we get him up and walking. Ever the social creature, he peeks into rooms along the way and waves to the new friends he’s come to recognize. The staff and other patients cheer him on, and he brightens. Toward the end of each day, though, his spirits fall.
In the gift shop I buy a box of crayons and make a sign reminding Stanley of all he’s overcome so far since arriving at the hospital, and the times he’s cheated death before — the hemolytic anemia in Israel in 2001 when he was 71, the emergency gall-bladder removal and subsequent heart attack on the table in 2007 when he was 77. I tack the sign up with Scotch Tape on the window next to the recliner he sits in, and each night, when an overnight visiting nurse arrives and my mom and I get ready to return to their apartment, I compulsively remind him to read it, encouraging him to keep fighting for his life. This does nothing, though, to alleviate my sense that after a good long streak, Stanley’s luck is running out.
In this hospital, every time a baby is born, a few bars of Brahms’s “Lullaby” are piped in over the loudspeaker system, throughout the building. It’s particularly surreal to have this hit your ears every few hours when you’re sitting at the bedside of an old person who is becoming ever more baby-like, not to mention, on one afternoon, outfitted in an adult diaper. It makes me wonder whether Boca General isn’t running some kind of soul-exchange operation.
The day Stanley’s calves begin weeping a cloudy yellow fluid I scour the internet for signs that this is not an indication his body is breaking down. Couldn’t it instead be a positive sign? Maybe his digestive system has devised a helpful work-around for releasing the toxins his liver isn’t processing.
Back in their apartment that night when my mother says, “He’s not going to make it, is he?” I don’t answer her, but we both break down in tears. Neither of us can sleep. We stay awake eulogizing him.
Which is why it’s quite shocking when we get back to the hospital the next morning and find Stanley not only in slightly better shape, but with high hopes. “I think I’m gonna make it,” he announces, smiling ear to ear. We push through our emotional whiplash to encourage him.
For the next few days, Stanley’s numbers are up and down. It’s hard to have any sense of which overall direction things are moving, although I’m hyper-aware that ultimately they’re pointing toward death — not just for Stanley, but for all of us. Everything points toward death. We’re all dying as we’re living, hurtling ultimately toward some kind of shitty exit. No one gets out alive.
After 10 days at his bedside, I’m encouraged that Stanley’s still around, and I fly back to New York. There’s talk the next day of sending him home and hiring a visiting nurse. Maybe being in familiar surroundings will help. I feel confident he’ll live at least a little longer. But how much?
Back in Kingston the next night, Brian and I FaceTime with Stanley. “I can’t wait to see your new house,” he says brightly. (We’re mid-move.) “It might take me a little longer to get up there than I’d hoped, but I’ll be there.” I actually believe him.
But the next morning, everything goes haywire. By 11 he’s back in the ICU. At 1 he’s having an emergency endoscopy. At 5 he’s receiving CPR. Then he’s gone.
My mother calls with the news and I’m shocked. I’m wrecked. And once again I’m overcome with the feeling that somehow I’ve failed to save someone.
At 89, Stanley’s passing shouldn’t be surprising, but somehow it is. More surprising are the loose ends he’s left. He’d taken out a couple of small life insurance policies for his grandchildren, but he’d insisted on managing the finances and bills, and never told my mother anything about his systems. He did everything analog, using a manila folder as a makeshift ledger, tallying each month’s expenses in pencil. My mother had to spend the first weeks she was grieving deciphering his system, making sure she didn’t miss any payments. Just before he died, he told my mother about a bank account she’d never known about, which had some money he wanted her to use for his funeral “some day.”
Most baffling was his choice, in his late 80s, to decline the Credit Life Disability Insurance policy on the two cars he’d leased in his name, which would have paid off the cars after his death and let my mother keep them, rather than leaving her stuck with two expensive leases until they ran out. This was a man who’d been in the car leasing business!
I wonder whether Stanley had thought he couldn’t die. Who can grasp the idea of their own finality? (Or anyone’s? Seven months after Stanley’s passing, even after having visited with his body in its coffin, I still can’t fully grasp that he’s gone.)
In this hospital, every time a baby is born, a few bars of Brahms’s ‘Lullaby’ are piped in over the loudspeaker system. It makes me wonder whether Boca General isn’t running some kind of soul-exchange operation.
Over the years he often joked that he’d lived longer than he’d expected, and couldn’t afford to keep going — that he’d only saved enough to live until 72, but here he was at 79, 85, 89… Those times he’d cheated death seemed to have emboldened Stanley, giving him the impression that he was invincible. After each of his earlier hospitalizations for life-threatening illnesses, he resumed eating and drinking as he wished, occasionally triggering a gout attack. When he indulged too much, he’d kid, “Call Guttermans!” — the local funeral home, which in the end, was the site of his. For much of their 30-year marriage, every time my mother noodged him about his eating and drinking, he’d say, “I’d rather live shorter and enjoy my life,” a variation on the Abraham Lincoln quote: “And in the end it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.”
When I stop to think about it, I realize it’s pretty amazing he lived as long as he did, given that bargain he made. How much longer might he have lived if he’d adhered to the diet his cardiologist had prescribed? Or is that even how it works?
It’s too bad that instead of a “living funeral,” Stanley of all people had to have the regular kind, where the guest of honor misses everything. Over 500 people attended. Many of his friends and family expressed how shocked they were, how hard it was to imagine that a man so full of life could be gone. Everyone said the kindest things, about the kindest man.
After the ceremony at Gutterman’s, a police escort led a long procession of mourners to the cemetery. We arrived as the Blue Angels were rehearsing their flight demonstrations overhead for their coming Memorial Day show. It was a coincidence, but it felt as if they’d come just for my stepfather.
Stanley got the burial he wanted, a send-off fit for him, for which he’d saved thousands of dollars. In that way, I suppose it was money well spent. But it’s certainly not the kind of thing Brian and I can afford for ourselves, nor would we want to.
In the days after we bury Stanley, I begin to think about how I might leave this realm as inexpensively as possible, taking up the least space, with little impact to the earth. In death, how can I be the least burden possible to Brian, and to my family? I don’t want anyone to have to start a gofundme so they can afford to dispose of my corpse.
“Can you donate your whole body to science?” I ask Brian at breakfast recently. “Like, not just your organs on your driver’s license. The whole thing?”
This, of all things, catches his attention. He looks up from his iPad and tells me he’s heard of these farms where they study how bodies decompose. “It’s kind of cool,” he says.
We agree to look into it. But then weeks go by, and nothing. I realize we’re both avoiding this. Maybe we’re afraid that addressing our mortality will make it real. In my moments of greatest terror, I remind myself of something my friend with terminal breast cancer posted on her blog, about how planning for her burial was one of the most empowering things she’d ever done in her life. I could take this on myself, I think. But I don’t want to do it all alone. Besides, I’m already in charge of handling too many of our practical decisions, about things like health insurance. I want Brian to get on board with planning for death with me, but this is where we come upon another fundamental difference between us: I am a planner, and he is not. I find it freeing to take out a calendar and schedule my busy time so that I can see where my free time is, and make the most of it. He thinks just the act of scheduling things impinges on his free time.
But I don’t know how much longer I can obsess about this and not take action, because it’s taking a toll on my quality of life — and Brian’s too.
The morning after we learn the owner of a restaurant we like has died suddenly in his 40s, as Brian leaves for work I blurt, “Drive safely…so you don’t DIE…” and burst into tears. He consoles me, but then an hour later texts, “Lovey, I love you so, but your anxiety about my health and potential demise are stressing the hell out of me.” We talk later and he suggests grief counseling. I agree it’s not a bad idea, but also hold my ground on our need to awaken from our Gen X protracted adolescence and get living wills.
The Buddhists say you should think about death every day, but I’m pretty sure I’m not thinking about it in any kind of healthy way. In my most rational moments I realize you can’t ward off death, but you can perhaps quell your anxiety about it with a little forethought. I want to plan for death so I can free myself up to stop thinking about it so damn much. So I can enjoy the life in my years — how ever many I have left.
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Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, New York; Essays Editor for Longreads; editor of the anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NY and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY; operator of Kingston Writers’ Studio; and an editorial advisor to the non-profit TMI Project.
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